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B'nai Spotlight - Wolpert Family

Alan C. Milstein is a nationally recognized litigator in the areas of Products Liability, Bioethics and Sports Law. Originally from Baltimore, he has served as the Chairman of the Litigation Department of the Moorestown, New Jersey law firm Sherman Silverstein for more than twenty years. In addition to his private practice, Mr. Milstein is an adjunct Professor of Law at Temple University, Roger Williams University and the New Hampshire School of Law. Alan is an unofficial historian of the Wolpert family, and the following article is his work.



The Wolpert Family

by Alan C. Milstein

Before Jews commonly had last names, an extended family lived in what is now Southern Italy and Northern Spain. In about the 13th Century, as Jews were being oppressed by the Rulers, they travelled to the Kingdom of Lithuania whose King was welcoming Jews. The family settled in the town of Wolpa, which today is in Belarus, and took the name of the town. The suffix “ert” was added to some of the members reflecting a certain status.

In the first half of the 19th Century, the Jews in Wolpa built the famous Wolpa Synagogue, considered an architectural masterpiece, pictured below.

The Synagogue ultimately was destroyed by the Nazis during the occupation. Interestingly, the synagogue has been recreated in Amherst, Massachusetts on the campus of Hampshire College to house the Yiddish Book Museum, the largest repository of Yiddish books in the world. By a simple twist of fate, my son chose to attend Hampshire before we learned our family’s ancestral home had been rebuilt on the campus.

At some point, members of the family moved to a number of neighboring cities in what is now Lithuania, such as Kelme, Kuliai, Triskiai, Kedainai and others. Kelme was a town composed of observant Jews who started a number of early Yeshivas. They even employed a Shabbos Knocker whose job it was to go from home to home and knock on each home’s shingles to announce the coming of Shabbos. Moishe Yehuda Labe Wolpert, my great grandfather was the Shamus of the largest Shul in Kelme, whose Rabbi was Israel Salanter, famed scholar of Kelme.

In the first two decades of the Twentieth Century, as Jews were finding it harder and harder to prosper in Lithuania, many of the Wolperts began to make their way out of Lithuania, primarily to the United States and South Africa. On August 23, 1912, Moishe Yehuda Labe Wolpert landed in Baltimore aboard the S. S. Rein, which had sailed from Bremen, Germany. The ship and the passenger list are below:












He arrived with his wife Frieda nee Greenberg and his three daughters. The oldest was Chaja (Ida), who died in 1988 at 105, and had one daughter Lillian, who is still alive at 98 and living in Florida and is pictured below with Lillian on the streets of Baltimore not too far from the Shul in about 1928.

The middle daughter was Fagela Matela (Fanny), my grandmother pictured below, who died in 1933 at the age of 46 when my father was 5.


The youngest was Jenny who died in 1982 at the age of 78. She was the mother of two daughters and two sons, Syd and Joe Mandell, who each owned an eponymous delicatessen in Pikesville.

Moishe’s and Frieda’s sons Matthew, Harry, Jonas and Isadore had arrived in Baltimore a couple of years before to prepare for their parent’s emigration. Moishe anglicized the name to Moses and joined B’Nai Israel. He died in 1922 at the age of 67 and was buried in the B’Nai Israel Cemetery on Southern Avenue. Frieda died in 1943 at the age of 93. Their gravestone is below:

Isadore also joined the Shul. He married Sarah Miller and they had a son and two daughters. They are pictured below:

Sarah was first cousin to Avigdor Miller, the famous Rabbi from Brooklyn, whose mother was Hattie Milstein, cousin to Sam Milstein, my other grandfather. Sam actually met Fanny at Isadore and Sarah’s wedding. Isadore owned a grocery and died in 1958 at the age of 70.

Matthew died in 1960 at age 70 and had a son and a daughter. Jonas died in 1976 at 83 and had three sons, the third of whom was born when Jonas and his wife were in their fifties and was reportedly conceived the night of the funeral for Jonas’s mother Frieda, honoring a Litvak tradition of what to do the night of the day when a parent is buried.

Harry married Fannie Max, daughter of a prominent Baltimore Jewish family who can trace their roots back to Rashi. Harry died in 1991 at the age of 101, having fathered two daughters and a son. Harry was Shomer Shabbos, but eschewed the traditional dress of the ultra-religious. He was a founder of the Rabbinical College Ner Israel and of the Talmudical Academy. He is pictured below in a classic photo:

After my grandmother died, Sam Milstein was mostly an absent father. Harry assumed the role of ensuring the Jewish education of my father and his siblings and arranged for my father to be Bar Mitzvahed I believe at B’Nai Israel in 1939. My father Herbert Milstein is pictured to the left with his Aunt Ida Wolpert Schlisselberg the night of my Bar Mitzvah at Beth Tfiloh.

Eight and one half years later, I married Audrey Rosenberg, a girl from Linden, New Jersey, whose grandparents, Joe and Gussie Shur were first cousins and children of sisters Edith and Yetta Wolpert from Kuliai. I had had a modest interest in genealogy and had already worked on a rudimentary family tree. My dear mother-in-law Ruth, the daughter of Joe and Gussie, asked if I could find the connection between her Wolperts and my Wolperts and thus began my quest.

Fortunately, because the Wolpert family was a prominent Jewish family with historical roots that went back to the famous Vilna Gaon, a number of amazing genealogists had done the hard work of preparing a disconnected tree of various Wolpert branches dating back to Yankel Wolpert born in 1719 in Kelme. Yankel was Great(x7) Grandfather. My genealogy skills were average at best but I was good at using social media to find living Wolperts and had the chutzpah to contact total Wolpert strangers and asked them about their family history. After several years, I had added considerably to the Wolpert tree but several branches remained unconnected including those that connected Ruth’s Wolperts to my father’s.

One day in 2014, I contacted a young Wolpert from South Africa through Facebook who said I should contact his father Sydney Wolpert in Cape Town. Sydney and I met on FaceTime and had an instant connection. His family was from Kuliai and, when we compared notes, I found the missing link to connect all the branches of the tree. The joy in his face equaled my own. Sadly, the very next time we spoke, Sydney told me he was diagnosed with stage four cancer and he died shortly thereafter. Knowing him was a pleasure of my life.

The Kuliai-South African Wolperts are particularly interesting. They had a photograph of a Wolpert wedding in 1919, pictured below, between Sheite Libe Wolpert and her cousin Solomon Kahaneman, whose mother was a Wolpert. Solomon’s brother, who travelled to South Africa from Kuliai for the wedding, was Rabbi Joseph Shlomo Kahaneman, known as the Ponevezher Rav, a renown Talmudic scholar who founded three Yeshivas in Lithuania and later in Israel took care of many orphans of the Holocaust, using what he said were his 21 fingers, “ten from his hands and feet and the finger of God.” The wedding picture is below and the Rav is just over the bride’s left shoulder.

Not all the Wolperts made it out of Kuliai and Kelme. All of the remaining Jews were murdered by the Nazis in a single day in July 1941 including more than a dozen Wolperts. One Jew from Kuliai was a soldier in the Soviet army. After the war, he provided Yad Vashem with the names of all the Jews who perished. He also had several photographs from his youth in Kuliai. Here is one of a Jewish School’s Purim festival, Ben Wolpert is top left:

And here is a photograph of the town. Behind the tree is a building known as the the Wolpert Tavern, or “Schenke Wolpert”
( טרפלוו קנעש):

We knew that Gussie and Joe’s grandfather Manish Wolpert was a tavern keeper in Kuliai so the thought is this was his tavern.

The tree now has about 5,000 names. Those descended continuously from males have a variety of surnames: Wolpert, Wolpe, Volpe, Volpert, Wolpa, Wolpaw, and Wolper. A number of cousins are quite notable. Gitel Wolpert, for instance, married Rabbi Nosson Finkel, known as the Alter of Slabodka and later founded the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He and his wife are pictured below in photo take in Hebron in about 1920.

Others include Harold Wolpert, a South African prominent in the anti-apartheid movement who worked beside Mandela, Lewis Wolpert, an eminent embryologist, and numerous other wellknown scientists, mathematicians, physicians, psychiatrists, attorneys, rabbis, biblical scholars, composers, patriarchs, matriarchs, and even a fictional character, Nigel Wolpert, one of Harry Potter’s classmates, written into the screenplay by a Wolpert cousin.

We created a Wolpert Family page on Facebook with 285 members from all over the world where members talk, post photos and recite their family history. It has been a fulfilling journey.

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Tue, July 16 2024 10 Tammuz 5784