Rebbetzin Volpe was a young child, barely six, when she found herself alone in the world, wandering through the forests and villages of Lithuania, trying to stay alive. She not only survived, but she later married and became the eishes chaver of Rav Yaakov Yehoshua Volpe, rosh yeshivah and rosh kollel of Yeshivas Ashkelon, and she was a prominent and influential high school principal for many years. She raised a beautiful family, four daughters and one son, all klei kodesh. Rebbetzin Volpe is a much-sought-after speaker and is invited almost weekly to share her wisdom and inspiration with women and girls.
Rebbetzin Volpe is one of the three daughters of the illustrious Reb Aryeh Malkiel Friedman and his wife, Sarah Yehudis, of Memel (Klaipeda), Lithuania. (The other two daughters are Rebbetzin Rochel Sarna and Rebbetzin Rishel Kotler, a”h.) Although her father was a brilliant talmid chacham, Reb Aryeh Malkiel chose not to be a rav; instead, he became a very successful businessman and askan. Her mother, Sarah Yehudis, was a paragon of chesed who was involved in chinuch habanos throughout Lithuania. Recently I had the great zechus to meet Rebbetzin Volpe in her Bnei Brak home. She was gracious enough to share her incredible and mesmerizing story.
Rebbetzin Volpe’s story is a tale of perseverance and triumph, as well as the enduring influence of a mother’s love.
“I was three years old when my mother took me along with her on a trip to Telz,” is how she begins her incredible experience during the Holocaust. “We were supposed to be there for a day or two to help a bachur get released from the Russian army. My mother spoke Russian pretty well, so they thought she could help. But while we were there, the Germans invaded Lithuania and we couldn’t get out.”
Little three-year-old Shulamis and her mother were stuck in Telz and were driven into the ghetto along with the rest of the Jews of Telz.
Although she was very young, the Rebbetzin’s memories of that time are very vivid.
“A person cannot forget the kind of things I witnessed. I saw the Nazis herd the men into the shul, along with the rav, and then burn it down. They went to their deaths singing ‘Ashreinu Mah Tov Chelkeinu.’”
If witnessing something like that wasn’t horrific enough, the Rebbetzin experienced the horror herself.
“We children were then taken to the woods to be murdered and tossed into pits. The Nazis didn’t want to waste bullets on ‘Jewish vermin,’ so they lined us up and tried to shoot a few at a time. Our mothers were forced to stand there and watch as their children were being killed. My mother saw that I had survived, so she pulled me out of the pit after the Nazis left.”
This happened in July. By Chanukah there were rumors that the ghetto was going to be liquidated and all the women and children would be killed. On the last night of Chanukah her mother arranged for the rav’s daughters, along with Shulamis and a cousin, to escape from the ghetto together. But before they left, Shulamis’ mother lit Chanukah licht in potatoes. “We ran to a youth who worked for a local priest, hoping that he would hide us. He brought us to a ruined building on the property of a monastery, but when the priest found out, he threatened to inform the Gestapo. The youth helped us escape again, but this time he took us to a mountaintop that was covered in ice and snow. We hid there for about a month and a half. There were four girls with us. One was my cousin Adina Sher, who later married Rav Dov Landau, and the other girls were sisters.”
Unfortunately, the sisters froze to death. When Shulamis’ mother saw what had happened, she became very frightened. What she did next defies imagination. She cut her hand with a knife and made Shulamis drink her blood to warm her. She also made Shulamis and her cousin drink urine because it was warm. Till today, the memory of her mother’s sacrifice is seared into her consciousness. “Whenever I do something wrong bein adam lachaveiro, I always see my mother’s finger pointing down at me from shamayim with her blood on it, as if to accuse me: ‘Is this why I gave you my blood?’”