Monday, December 2, 2013
Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson 2013 (fiction)
This engrossing novel, focusing on the intertwined life of a Polish Jew and a Nazi, was privately published in 2010 and sold 120,000 copies. Because of its popularity, St. Martin’s Press has published what is described as “a different version,” probably a reworked version, of the novel.
Set in Chicago in the year 2004, Ben Solomon is convinced that the philanthropist Elliot Rosenzweig, also a resident of Chicago, is really Otto Piatek who grew up with him in Zamosc, Poland and who later became a Nazi officer. The bulk of the novel, though anchored in 2004, takes place in the years 1933 through 1944 where we read about the lives of Ben Solomon and his childhood friend, Otto Piatek. Has Otto Piatek disguised himself as Elliot Rosenzweig? What are the clues? What is the evidence? Are Solomon and his lawyer going to be able to put together a convincing case and expose him?
The chronological history of the Holocaust in Poland is no mere background in this suspenseful, highly readable novel. In order to construct a historically accurate novel, the author, a lawyer who has made a number of trips to Poland, has included a lot of conscientiously researched material about World War II and about what happened in Poland, in particular. It is clear that Balson is attempting to reach out to a broad audience to educate them about the Holocaust that goes beyond a familiarity with Anne Frank and Auschwitz.
One literary strategy Balson uses is to make Ben Solomon’s lawyer, Catherine Lockhart, a non-Jew which creates an opportunity for the author, through his character Solomon, to explain many terms that he assumes she and many readers may not know, like Judenrat, Aktion Rheinhardt, kapo, the Nuremberg Laws, and the Anschluss. Sometimes he has Lockhart ask questions for clarification which prompt informative answers. For example, Solomon explains what ghettos were really like; he differentiates between slave labor camps, transit camps, and exterminations camps; and he creates scenes that involve the theft of property, the means of escape and the geography of escape routes, the existence and strategies of the Polish resistance, the danger in encountering informers, and the presence of helpful Catholic priests and nuns. Balson also introduces readers to the complications inherent in post-war prosecutions of Nazis and the strategies lawyers use to litigate these cases.
Although, as stated above, this is a suspenseful novel and is easy to read, it does feel a little like the plot is contrived to teach a history lesson. Balson deserves credit for having succeeded in presenting a number of aspects of the Holocaust, and in doing so he provides a useful and credible overview of the plight of Jews in Poland. However, Balson is less successful in the area of character development – his characters are not complex. That being said, the novel is a worthy addition to stories about the Holocaust. Interestingly, it joins Michael Lavigne’s Not Me in its shocking premise. In each novel the author imagines a Nazi posing as a well-respected Jew. Whether this is just a literary device or has its roots in reality is not clear.
To read an interview with the author in the Chicago Tribune, click here.
To read an article about Poles who have been honored for helping Jews during World War II, click here.
Ronald Balson - married to Monica; author
David and Matthew Balson- sons of Ronald
Linda Balson - sister of Ronald
Friends and Acquaintances
Rabbi Victor Weissberg