Sol Goldstein: Generous Advocate, Buchenwald Liberator

Sol Goldstein

Sol Goldstein lived a long, impressive life, finding his passion in helping people in ways both big and small — stopping for coffee with his driver or traveling to Ethiopia numerous times to help free Jewish refugees.

The World War II vet, who was among those to liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp, died March 16, one day shy of his 94th birthday. (Although, family legend has it, he was actually born late on March 16, but his mother wanted a St. Patrick’s Day baby. Either way, he always celebrated on St. Patty’s.)

Family and friends remember Goldstein as “generous of spirit,” as Baltimore Hebrew Congregation cantor and friend Robbie Solomon put it, who was remarkably active and involved in his community and synagogue, where he was a member since 1951.

“He was such a well-respected man, not just in the Jewish community, but in every community because he really liked people,” said Meredith Marx, his granddaughter. “He was interested in getting to know you and your story.”

Goldstein was born and raised in Baltimore, the second of five children of Isaac and Sarah Goldstein. His parents had a small grocery store, but his family lived in poverty. He recalled, in a Goucher College oral interview from 2010, that his was one of only a few Jewish families in the area, and he experienced a lot of bigotry and prejudice growing up.

A big man at 6 feet 2 inches, Goldstein played both football and lacrosse at City College but left shortly before he graduated to join the Army. As a soldier in the 1st Infantry Division, he landed in Normandy on D-Day. He estimated that he lost 40 percent of his platoon in that initial assault.

“You had to keep moving,” he said in that Goucher interview. “People [were] dropping next to you and bodies being blown up around you, and you just kept moving.”

When he and fellow soldiers arrived in April 1945 to a satellite camp of Buchenwald where an extremely emaciated prisoner asked him, in German, why he was there, Goldstein replied in Yiddish, “Yes, we’re American soldiers, and I’m a Jew.” The man grabbed his hands and told him, also in Yiddish, “What took you so long to get here?”

“I completely dissolved,” he recalled. “I began to cry. Tears were coming down my face because I could only think, he’s right. What took us so long to get here? How did we let this happen?”

A few days later, a captured German major called him a Jewish slur, and Goldstein took a knife from his boot and sliced him ear to ear. He wasn’t proud of that, he said, but in that moment he could see himself in those concentration camps and reacted.

Goldstein never would go back to Buchenwald, although he visited other concentration camps over the years.

“He saw a lot of things that a young man shouldn’t ever see — most of them did,” Marx said. “But he gained a lot from that. It made him who he was.”

He didn’t talk much about his time in the war, said his oldest son, Mark Goldstein of Naples, Fla., until he saw “Saving Private Ryan” when it came out in 1998 — at a noon matinee so it would be an empty theater — and he cried through the whole movie.

“When he got home from the theater, he called me up and said, ‘OK, what do you want to know?’” Mark said. “And that’s when he started telling me details.”

In his later years, Goldstein would speak openly about his experiences, especially at schools. Louise Geczy, senior project coordinator for the John Carroll School in Bel Air, where he spoke numerous times, remembers him as a very compelling speaker. The students, she said, gravitated to him.

“Sol was one of those figures who was larger than life and always seemed like he would be going on indefinitely,” she said.

Goldstein married Jean Turk, an activist and travel agent, in 1946 after he had been discharged and bought a bar at Fulton Avenue and Baker Street in Baltimore, The Fulton Café. He later would become a longtime insurance executive with Lincoln Insurance Co. He and Jean would go on to be married for 60 years, until her death in 2006.

Mark said his father often felt a sense of survivor’s guilt about the war — why had he survived when so many others had not? — and dedicated himself, especially, to Jewish causes.

In the 1950s, he joined the Israel Defense Forces to help evacuate Jews from the Soviet Union, and in the 1980s, he helped Ethiopian Jews escape a communist takeover there. Eventually, at the age of 70, his wife told him to let other, younger people take care of these missions.

Stories from these times in Goldstein’s life are coming to light in much greater detail since he’s died, Mark said.

“It’s like finding out your father is James Bond,” he added. “I mean, he had all these missions where all we knew was he’s going to the Soviet Union for two weeks or he’s going to Africa and he’ll be gone for six weeks.”

Goldstein also founded the Black Jewish Forum and was president of the Baltimore Jewish Council, establishing its speakers bureau. He served on numerous other boards and committees, along with indulging in his favorite pastimes — reading (two or three books per week, according to Mark), distance running (through his 50s and 60s) and horseback riding (into his 80s).

The stories about Goldstein told to the JT are too numerous to share. It seemed everyone had a favorite. But one especially seemed to sum up his nature, as told by his son Mark: Whenever Goldstein would go visit his son, Don, in Dallas, Don would send a driver to pick him up at the airport, an Ethiopian Muslim man. Recently, the man asked Don how his father was doing and Don reported that Goldstein had passed away. The driver burst into tears.

It turns out, every time Goldstein visited, he would tell the driver, “Let’s not go to Don’s right away. Let’s go to Starbucks and sit and talk.” And they would. Don would wonder why his father always showed up late, and it was because he was sitting having coffee with his driver, talking about the man’s life.

“My brothers and I have been walking around for the last week — and obviously it’s so raw and recent — kind of lost. Just lost. Like all children, we had our routines with our dad. It wasn’t, ‘Well, I guess I should check in with my father.’ We really wanted to talk to him. We ended every conversation with ‘I love you.’ And that will be missed forever.”

Goldstein is survived by three sons, Mark, Robert and Donald, five grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here