By Beth Wood
Former prisoner of war and longtime Poway resident Joel Sollender eagerly attended the 2011 book signing of the late Louis Zamperini, another former POW and the subject of the recently released movie “Unbroken.” But he was surprised that Zamperini was just as excited to meet him.
“He was so thrilled he found another POW he could talk to, even though my experience in Europe was very different from his in Japan” recalled Sollender, 90, who is writing a book about his own life. “He never met a POW from another area.”
Zamperini, author of “Devil at My Heels,” asked that Sollender sit next to him while signing books at the 2011 event, held at the Grand Del Mar resort.
“‘Unbroken’ is very much worth seeing,” Sollender said. “Louis had such fortitude. I’m glad he had some years of peace. Interesting thing about freedom: You don’t know what it is until you don’t have it.”
Sollender speaks from firsthand knowledge. He was captured by the Germans on Dec. 11, 1944, right before the Battle of the Bulge, one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. He rode with at least 60 other prisoners jammed into a railway freight car, with a bucket at one end for a latrine. In the horrible stench and frigid cold, they were taken to Limburg, Germany.
“It was a strange place for me, because it was the very town my grandmother came from,” he recalled. “She had made it to America. Most of her relatives there died. I wondered if this was the end of my life. I was apprehensive that they would find out I was Jewish. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. I never wore the prison dog tag. Perhaps it was my way of rejecting being a prisoner.”
Sollender spent some time in a different POW camp divided by nationalities into barbed-wired compounds. Movement was restricted among the compounds.
“Being a New York wise guy, I got a Red Cross armband and said I was visiting friends in the hospital,” he said. “I had tea with the British POWs in the morning and went to the French compound in the afternoon and learned French.”
When he was taken back to the Limburg camp, Sollender was reunited with some of the officers with whom he had been captured. The Soviets liberated the camp on April 23, 1945.
“I was lowest in rank there,” he said, recounting the struggle to get out of Germany. “But I spoke German, so I led the group. We weren’t in great shape. We walked 30 miles in a few days.”
They wended their way to a port where American troops were waiting to return home. It was there that Sollender met Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“He had heard the men were unhappy,” Sollender said. “He walked through the camp and talked to people. He asked me questions and drilled into me; his eyes never left mine. He said the ship Queen Elizabeth would be coming in a few weeks and it was more comfortable. Or the men could take liberty ships (already at port).
“I said: ‘These men could care less about comfort, general, just get us home.’ Two days later, we were on liberty ships.”
Sollender received several military honors: Decorated Combat Infantry Badge, Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster, Prisoner of War and Bronze Star medals.
Despite his nightmarish war experiences, the ever-resourceful veteran has made the most out of life since that time.
He completed his bachelor’s degree, graduating from New York University in 1946, and married his wife, Dotti, in 1958. He worked at various companies as a financial executive.
The couple had two sons, Jeffrey and Jonathan, and moved to San Diego in 1992.
Jonathan, who has four children, is a micro hand surgeon based in Denver. Jeffrey died in a car accident on Torrey Pines Road in 2002. He was 42.
Dotti and Joel Sollender have been active in civic organizations. Joel serves on the board of the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory, based in Balboa Park. The symphony serves more than 600 students — from ages 8 to 25 — annually in 11 ensembles.
Dalouge Smith, president and CEO of the nonprofit, met the couple at the beginning of his tenure in 2005. They had just committed to establishing the Jeffrey N. Sollender Concert Master Chair, an endowment in honor of their late son. Joel joined the board in 2009 after Dotti ended a six-year term.
“Joel is one of the sharpest people I know,” Smith said. “As treasurer, his most substantial contribution is his financial knowledge. As a member of the governance committee, he helps the board remain strong and functioning. He participates in one to two meetings a month and attends concerts and other events.”
Two such concerts are scheduled for today at 1 and 7 p.m. at Jacobs Music Center in Copley Symphony Hall. Smith expects the Sollenders to be in attendance.
Does Joel recount his war experiences while working on the board?
“Joel will draw upon parallel experiences to make a point,” Smith explained. “That’s one of characteristics about Joel — that he applies the past to his contributions today.
“For all the very intense high-level business and war experiences Joel has had, he remains an amazingly sensitive and intuitive person,” Smith said. “His is a wonderfully sharp intellect, coupled with deep compassion and empathy.”