Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson
Once We Were Brothers opens with Ben Solomon, an 83 year old Holocaust survivor, stuffing a Lugar into his tuxedo cummerbund and heading to the Chicago Lyric Opera opening night gala. Once there, Ben seeks out Elliot Rosenzweig, a wealthy scion of Chicago business and philanthropy, points the gun at him and publicly accuses him of being a Nazi named Otto Piatek. Elliot, also a Holocaust survivor, refuses to press criminal charges although he adamantly denies being a Nazi. However Ben, firm in his conviction, retains attorney Catherine Lockhart to sue Rosenzweig for stealing his family's property during the war.
The rest of the novel alternates between Ben's narrative of growing up with Otto Piatek in Poland and Catherine's legal maneuverings to pursue Ben's claim. Ben's story of his family before and during the Nazi occupation is a compelling page turner. Because Catherine seems to have little knowledge of the Holocaust, Ben carefully tells of his family's actions and motivations. He explains why they initially chose not to leave Poland, and sensitively describes the war's increasing horrors in a manner more harrowing than graphic. At the heart of the story is Ben's relationship with Otto, who was raised by Ben's family but ultimately betrays them.
The legal side of this story, in which Catherine must try to prove that Elliot Rosenzweig is in fact the Nazi Otto Piatek, is not as believable as Ben's narrative. Catherine's character seems too insubstantial for a top litigator. For example, she responds to a threat by opposing counsel "meekly, as though she were being addressed by her elementary school teacher." Key evidentiary matters magically occur to Ben out of thin air. The entire description of the lawsuit's progress was over simplified, most likely to propel the story ahead, but consequently did not ring true. However, these objections should take a back seat to the more essential portion of the novel: the telling of Ben Solomon's story.
As Catherine prompts Ben with basic questions to understand his experiences, I found myself wondering how someone so intelligent could know so little about the Holocaust. But as the last generation of Holocaust survivors is now well into their eighties, we need novels like Once We Were Brothers to personify history for future generations when the survivors are no longer here to attest to it themselves. In the character of Ben Solomon, author Ronald Balson has created a significant narrator who can speak to readers of every background and age group, whether or not they have prior knowledge of that period of history. For that reason, it is an important story and one that deserves to be read.
UPDATE: For this review I read the original novel that Balson self-published. It will be reissued this fall in a new edition by St. Martin's Press. In addition, the film rights were recently sold. You can read about that here.