WATERVILLE — When he taught high school in Madison, David O. Solmitz made it his business to discuss current events with his students. He helped arrange forums to educate students about important social trends and community developments.

That was something that didn’t necessarily happen when he was growing up in Brunswick. The son of Jewish immigrants, Solmitz was less aware of his own background, let alone that of his community.

“As we grow older, we begin to wonder a little bit about our family,” said Solmitz, who now lives in Waterville. “When I was growing up in Brunswick, I wasn’t necessarily concerned about my parents’ recent past. I knew they were immigrants and that my father was one of two Jewish professors in town at the time. But it was not something we would talk about.”

Solmitz’ new book, “Piecing Scattered Souls,” explores some of the questions he wished he had asked when he was younger. The personal memoir is about the diverse fabric of a modern American life.

His parents survived the Holocaust. His father was incarcerated at the German concentration camp at Dachau. His wife, Jing Ye, endured Mao Tse-Tung’s cultural revolution in China.

He wrote the book as a tribute to his father, who took his own life when Solmitz was 19, and to his mother, “whose courage and tenacity helped him get out of Dachau and come to the United States. It also is a tribute to my wife, who helped me realize the similarity of totalitarian regimes, and thereby alerting me as to how easy such can occur in the United States.”

We spoke with Solmitz about his life and the book at his home in Waterville. 

Q: Why did you write the book? Why was it important for you to tell your family story?

A: As I became close to my mother toward the end of her life, I was moved to ask her many questions about her life growing up in Germany, her relationship with my father, her successful rescue of him. I wanted to interview other relatives, all who have since died. Being semi-retired, I felt I had the time to go to Germany to research my family’s past. I was also fortunate, not only to be able to speak and read German, but to find a gentleman in my father’s hometown to help me intensely on this project. I also wanted and did interview my father’s students from his years of teaching German and philosophy at Bowdoin (College) to learn about his ability to inspire students and his compassion for them. I believe it is paramount, especially given the deteriorating domestic and world situations, to remember what has happened in history and what lessons we can and should learn from these. I wrote this book with hope that it will shed light onto the past and contribute to efforts that enhance better understanding and harmony among people. 

Q: Talk about your dad and his legacy, and how they have influenced your life.

A: Realizing that he was a scholar, idealist and above all a compassionate, humble and forgiving person, I found that my mission was to become a social activist. As a Bowdoin student, I started Brunswick’s first anti-poverty program, which eventually became part of the national anti-poverty program. … As the Vietnam War was emerging during my college years, I helped start the Brunswick Area Peace Center together with other community members.

Over many years, I have seen that I as a social studies and English teacher have been following in his footsteps to encourage students to question, to motivate them to learn, by creating an environment of trust between my students and myself within the format of a democratic classroom. 

Q: What role did your mother play in your family?

A: Although my mother became a stay-at-home mom during my childhood and early youth, it was she who provided income while my father was studying philosophy at German universities and at Harvard on their 1940 arrival in this country. It was she who stood strongly beside him during bouts of depression even during the first years of their marriage, which occurred during the early years of Nazism. It was she whose courage and tenacity brought about the release of my father from Dachau. It was she, during my father’s severe clinical depression caused in part by survivor’s guilt, who had to go to work to support the three of us. 

Q: How does your relationship with your wife, and her Chinese heritage, influence your perspective of the world?

A: In 1990, I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to spend the summer in China. From 1992 to 1993, I took a sabbatical leave from my teaching position at Madison to teach English at a university in China. There I met my wife. Through our relationship, I quickly realized the similarity between the horrors that took place under totalitarian rule in Nazi Germany and in China during the Great Cultural Revolution. I began to understand how easily such terror can take place in the United States. In our relationship, I also realized that no matter how different we are, how diverse our upbringing was and how different our cultural differences are, there are no barriers for emotional and spiritual connections. 

Q: Tell me about growing up Jewish in Brunswick. What was it like?

A: I came to Brunswick at the age of 3, as my father had accepted a position as instructor of German at Bowdoin College. As there was no synagogue in Brunswick, on Sunday morning my father occasionally read to my mother and myself from the Old Testament. I recall my parents once commented that we were one of about three Jewish families in town, none with whom we had any contact.

We did celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve with a small tree we could place on a table. We illuminated the tree with wax candles as was traditional in Germany. However, from about the age of 9, we did from time to time attend a Jewish Temple in Portland, at which I was bar mitzvahed at age 13. Each time we went to the service there, I was moved by the soulful singing of Cantor Messerschmidt, himself a European, Jewish refugee.

As to anti-Semitism, I do recall as a child of about 4, a family friend came to visit us as she often did. On this occasion, she encouraged my parents to go away for the weekend. We were surprised when they came home a few hours later having been told at an inn in Wiscasset that Jews were forbidden. During my years growing up in Brunswick, I never mentioned my ethnic heritage to anyone. I never experienced discrimination. No one ever commented to me about my father walking back and forth to college wearing his black great coat from Germany and a Basque beret. Only I seemed conscious of this in an admiring manner — we are not like everyone else.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

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