A life of never knowing

Morgan Day

History instructor, Sol Factor, searches for his birth mother

History instructor Sol Factor is surrounded by documents attained from the International Tracing Service archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany. These, along with other documents, have helped Factor bring his 17 year search for his birth parents to a close. Dani

Credit: DKS Editors

Sol Factor was born into the muddy aftermath of World War II. He was left orphaned after his mother abandoned him weeks after his birth and fled from Munich, Germany, to Palestine in 1946.

Sol, now a history instructor at Kent State, arrived in the United States when he was a year and a half old. The late Joseph and Bernice Factor of Belmont, Mass., adopted him in 1950.

Shortly before he went to live with them, they took him out for a hamburger. Sol stuffed the burger into his cheeks for later, as child survivors of the Holocaust often did.

He faced nothing like that diet of starvation in the United States. In fact, Sol complained little about his comfortable life in Belmont.

He was happy with the only parents he knew. He refused to investigate his past or to search for his natural parents, Saija and Rosa Pollack.

He told himself it would hurt his adopted mother too much if he did. He held off.

Starting the search

Sol confronted his past for the first time when he was a sophomore in college in the fall of 1967.

During a study abroad program based in Vienna, Austria, he met two women from Munich who invited him to visit when his studies ended.

Sol took them up on their offer.

Shortly after that he found himself in the city of his birth for the first time since he departed for the United States 20 years earlier.

While he was visiting, the women asked him where else he would like to go.

“Dachau,” he said.

Dachau was a concentration camp about 40 miles northeast of Munich.

The Nazis killed more than 25,000 Jews at the camp during World War II.

Sol thought his mother might have been a prisoner there. He knew he had to experience the camp.

As he arrived on the tour bus, he noticed the tall gates with the German motto “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes you free) inscribed.

He saw the guard towers, the barbed wire, the moat.

It had all been foreign to him until now. Not even the Jewish community discussed the Holocaust back then – yet here he was.

As the bus pulled up to the gates on that cloudy, rainy day, Sol pictured those who had arrived in cattle cars at this exact spot just years earlier.

“Concentration camp Dachau. Everyone off,” a guide shouted the harsh, guttural command to everyone on the bus.

Shaken by the guide’s orders, Sol descended the stairs of the bus.

He made his way through the rooms and the barracks.

He saw the electric fences. He stood in the crematoria where groups of corpses had been incinerated.

An ordinary house frau

After teaching history in Cleveland for 20 years, Sol’s adoptive mother’s health began to decline rapidly.

When she died in 1990, he knew it was OK to look for his birth mother Rosa.

Sol began a search that would last 17 years.

While teaching a yearly Holocaust class at Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district in 2001, he met a German exchange student named Vincent who asked him to share his story with his mother Claudia.

Soon, Claudia, an artist in Germany whose father had been in the German Army, contacted him through e-mail.

Her family’s involvement in the war didn’t matter. Sol shared a great deal of information with her, and she was fascinated.

The two e-mailed back and forth several times a day, and before long, Claudia started a search of her own.

She investigated around Germany, took photos, inquired.

The ordinary “house frau” was able to find birth records from a hospital in Munich that the official tracing center of the International Red Cross in Bad Arolsen, Germany, did not have.

She e-mailed Sol and asked him to write up two paragraphs, one in English and the other in German – she needed his permission to get his birth records from the hospital.

Once she got permission, she picked up copies of Sol’s documents and sent them to him through the mail.

Because of Claudia, Sol now knew for certain that he had been born at the Frauenklinik (women’s hospital) in Munich.

In 2002, Sol got the chance to see the hospital where he had been born when he attended a program in Europe.

He sat in the courtyard of the hospital and took pictures.

He got out his tape recorder and narrated what he saw: the aging building coupled with a church, the beautiful courtyard.

He went inside and walked through the halls of his birthplace. He went up to the exact floor. He went to the exact room.

It was a big step.

A mother in Israel

Sol had watched documentaries and read books about family members reuniting with Holocaust survivors.

He’d heard countless stories with happy endings.

His own story revealed hope, relief and disappointment – reality. Still, he hoped for his own happy ending.

Sol filled out Red Cross forms in 2003 while attending a conference in Toronto, hoping to make a connection with his mother through the organization.

With Claudia’s help he obtained documents from the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany.

Soon he had birth records and “displaced person” documents for himself, his mother and a man who might have been his father.

He also had a hand-written notation that indicated his mother might have been headed to Palestine (now Israel).

But one piece of paper stopped his search in May 2007.

An employee of the Red Cross office in Cleveland called Sol with important news. She could only tell him in person.

Seated across from her, Sol could tell she was nervous for his reaction. She explained that Magen David Adom, the Israeli counterpart to the American Red Cross, had investigated his inquiry into the whereabouts of his mother.

The center had found Rosa.

She was in Israel. She was alive.

Sol had hoped his mother would agree to meet him, and the center had expressed that to Rosa.

But after reading the paper the woman had placed in front of him, he realized that meeting would never take place.

“We regret to inform you that we located the above mentioned person, but she would not like to be contacted by the inquirer.”

A connection nonetheless

“Are you OK?” the woman asked, expecting Sol to break down.

Instead, he thanked her and left.

One mystery down, one to go.

He now knew where his mother was, but he still could not grasp why she gave him up.

“Go to Israel. Start pounding on doors,” his wife suggested.

He couldn’t.

The historian in him tried to imagine why Rosa chose not to meet.

Was she embarrassed of the reason the two had separated?

Was it her decision not to see him, or was it the decision of children she might have in Israel?

Did she, like many survivors, not want the past to confront her after she’d made strides toward forgetting it?

Sol wrote his mother a letter.

He said he understood her thinking and respected her wishes.

He told about the family he started in Ohio.

He sent photos and told her she’s a great grandmother.

Sol sent the letter to Magen David Adom. The center asked Rosa if she wanted to receive the letter.

If she did, Sol never knew.

He never asked.

Contact features correspondent Morgan Day at [email protected].