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Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H Balson
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Once We Were Brothers (2010)

by Ronald H Balson

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It seems like WWII continues to be a rich source for stories even decades later. This book revisits the Nazi invasion of Poland and subsequent atrocities on the Jewish people but it also brings it into the present day in Chicago.

Ben Solomon accuses a wealthy philanthropist, Eliot Rosenzweig, of being a Nazi officer who sent many people to the death camps. He recognizes Rosenzweig as being Otto Piontek, a boy that was raised by Ben's father and mother when Otto's parents could not afford to look after him. Ben and Otto were friends and treated each other as brothers, at least until the Nazis entered Poland. Otto, a German by birth, is convinced to join the Nazi army so that he could protect the Solomons. The reality was much different. Ben convinces a female attorney, Catherine Lockhart, to assist him in suing Rosenzweig for return of goods stolen by Piontek. Lockhart has grave misgivings about being able to succeed but Ben's story draws her in against her better judgement.

Initially I was not a fan of Catherine Lockhart because she kept saying she didn't have time to listen to Ben's story and that her firm would question her taking this case. As the story went on though Catherine got more of a backbone and she drove the case to a successful conclusion. Ben's story was the core of the book but the law suit was almost as interesting. ( )
  gypsysmom | Jul 6, 2014 |
An old man, Ben, is convinced that another elderly man, Elliott, was his peer in Nazi Germany and was responsible for the death of his parents and the stealing of the family's valuables. In modern day Chicago he retains a young attorney, Catherine, to find out the truth. Well written as well as a good story line. ( )
  LivelyLady | Apr 28, 2014 |
This is a very powerful story about the quest of Holocaust survivor, Ben Solomon, to expose a Nazi Collaborator. When Ben was a 12-year-old in Poland, a local priest recommended that his down and out parishioner, Stanislaw Piatek, who had been abandoned by his wife, bring his son to the home of the Jews, Abraham and Leah Solomon. He said they were good people and would help him. Sure enough, they took the child, Otto Piatek, into their hearts and home, and they treated him as an equal and as a son. He was almost the same age as Ben and they became like siblings. This took place in 1933, and as more than a half-dozen years passed, Otto, embraced the Solomons. He supported them in their struggles when the National Socialists first came to power, even refusing to join the party or his parents, when they reunited and returned for him for the first time, now financially stable, some two years later; he continued to do so as time went by, although his mother pleaded with him tearfully again and again. He was not Jewish and she was able to help him get a good position within the party hierarchy. She could save him. For him, however, the Solomons were now his guardians and mentors. He rejected his parents completely.
Stanislaw and Ilse Piatek’s fortunes continued to improve within the Nazi party, and although Otto always declared his devotion to Leah and Abe and refused to leave them, eventually there came a day when his parents came to claim him and he acquiesced, convinced to do so by the Solomons who were concerned for his safety. He was able to remain in Zamość, near their home, and he would be in a better position to help them, if need be, if he were not living with them. The Piatecs warned the Solomons to leave Zamość; the situation was deteriorating for them, and they were in great peril. There was no place for them in Poland or anyplace else in the world of Hitler, but Abe Solomon was an important figure in town, and he wanted to be there to aid the rest of the citizens. The Solomons were motivated by altruism, unlike the Nazis who were motivated by hatred, their own inadequacy and madness. The Piateks were smug and completely arrogant. They supported Hitler and his policies completely. They were totally unappreciative of all the Solomons had done for their son. Rising stars within Hitler’s Germany, they were very impressed with their own power and position. Formerly powerless, unworthy nobodies were suddenly able to call the shots and they were corrupted by their egos and blinded by their incessant greed, as well as their own fears. As Hitler grew more and more successful, they knew full well the depths of his depravity, and although they were complicit in his efforts, they too could be faced with his wrath if they slipped up. Absolute obedience was demanded and received.
Actually, in the end, it was the Solomons who convinced Otto to move out, not only for his own safety, but also because he would be better positioned to help them if they should need help. In his safer position, he hid money and jewelry for several Jewish families, promising to return it to them when the war ended. However, as Otto rose through the ranks of the National Socialist Party, gaining favor and benefits, he began to change, and his loyalty to the Solomons diminished as his alliances with the Nazis grew. He became more concerned with preserving his own position than with the welfare and safety of the Solomons and their fellow Jews. He became a true Nazi and was utterly transformed from a caring young man into a monster responsible for great injustice and evil.
When the war finally ended, years later, Ben and Otto were no longer in touch. Ben had lost most of his family and was living in America where he had a relative who helped him to get a job. He began a new life. Decades later, when in his eighties, he saw a television program about a very wealthy, elderly philanthropist. Ben believed the man, Elliot Rosenzweig, was really Otto Piatek, the boy he grew up with, the man who had become a Nazi war criminal; he believed he was a man whose fortune came from that which he stole from the Jews and a man who was responsible for the torture and murder of countless others, including his father. This man, however, insists he is also a tattooed survivor who came to America penniless, a man who had accomplished the American dream. He amassed a vast fortune and gave huge amounts of money to worthy causes. Ben’s somewhat violent confrontation with this man is the beginning of a massive undertaking by his lawyer, Catherine, her friend Liam, and his friends to discover the true background of Rosenzweig and vindicate Ben’s seemingly irrational behavior. Ben is a spiritual man who sometimes talks with and receives inspiration and advice from his deceased wife Hannah. This causes raised eyebrows and questions about his emotional stability and state of mind. Has he made a false accusation and attacked an innocent man in this muddled condition?
The turn of events, the meticulous investigation and the exposure of the truth is so compelling that I could not put the book down. The culture of the Germans and the Poles is exposed as the history of Hitler’s slow and methodical power grab is explored. The characters were so well-developed that I felt I knew them and was drawn to tears in the end, so closely did I identify with Ben Solomon and his plight. The love stories buried within the tale were captivating. However, the corruption that seemed to exist within the legal system and the court system was disheartening. The level to which most people will descend was for lack of a better word, disappointing; perhaps horrifying would be more appropriate. Each character seemed to be driven by prejudice, self-interest and greed, and even when exposed, driven by the need to save themselves and not necessarily to do the right thing.
On another note, I found that the lawyer Catherine and her friend, Liam, were completely naïve as to the health and capabilities of a man in his 80’s. They dismissed his weakness to exhaustion and stress, not dealing with the reality of his age, as well. Also, they both seemed a bit too ignorant about the circumstances of World War II and the tragedy of the Holocaust. However, they seemed to be driven by compassion, above all else, to help Ben and continued to help him even when outclassed by the money and the power of his adversary. Although this story is fiction, it could easily have really happened which is a sad commentary on the world, even today. The book was excellent and the conclusion was very satisfying, but the story, overall, was not very uplifting, rather it was poignant. ( )
  thewanderingjew | Apr 2, 2014 |
Once We Were Brothers moves back and forth between the present (Catherine’s personal story and the progression of Solomon’s case against Rosenzweig) and Solomon’s story about what happened in his childhood home of Zamość, Poland, during the war. Solomon is adamant about Catherine hearing the whole story from beginning to end in order to make sure she is fully invested in his case. In this way the reader learns about the atrocities that took place in that part of Poland during World War II.

As far as the fictional part of the novel goes, Once We Were Brothers is a pretty good book. There were a few things that I found completely unrealistic, such as well-educated Catherine’s supposed ignorance of most every major thing that happened during World War II (“What exactly is a ghetto?” Really?), but overall it’s an engaging story. There is some unnecessary repetition that should have been edited out of the book, and there is a bit of a love story between Catherine and her best friend that I could have done without, but they aren’t so distracting that they took away from my enjoyment of the book.

The writing is simple, but good, and although I don’t feel like the majority of the characters are as fleshed out as they should have been, Ben’s story of what he and his family went through in Zamość is really the star of the book. It’s suspenseful, infuriating, heartbreaking, and in the end, hopeful. It highlights the bravery of not just the men who fought back against the Nazis, but the women who stood strong and did their part in the resistance, too (which isn’t given enough attention, in my opinion).

I would recommend Once We Were Brothers to readers interested in WWII historical fiction. ( )
  Heather_BTC | Feb 3, 2014 |
A gripping book that I hated to see end. Ben hires Catherine to sue Elliot Rosenzweig, who he claims was actually named Otto Platek and who was once made a member of Ben's family, but who eventually became a Nazi, called the Butcher of Zamosc. Eventually Catherine proves the case and Otto is sent to Israel to be tried. In the meantime, Ben's heart gives out, but he lives to see Otto found guilty and all resolved. The author creates clear pictures of each of the characters, including Rosenzweig's wife, who is ultimately his downfall when she tells the truth about him. ( )
  MarkMeg | Jan 17, 2014 |
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To my wife, Monica, with whom I dance through life.
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Ben Solomon stood before his bathroom mirror fumbling with his bow tie.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0615351913, Paperback)

Elliot Rosenzweig, a wealthy Chicago philanthropist, is attending opening night at the opera.  Ben Solomon, a retired Polish immigrant, makes his way through the crowd and shoves a gun in Rosenzweig's face, denouncing him as former SS officer, Otto Piatek.   Solomon is blind-sided, knocked to the floor and taken away.  Rosenzweig uses his enormous influence to get Solomon released from jail, but Solomon commences a relentless pursuit to bring Rosenzweig before the courts to answer for war crimes.  Solomon finds a young attorney, Catherine Lockhart, to whom he recounts his family's struggles and heroisms during the war, revealing to her that he and Piatek grew up as brothers in the same household.  

Once We Were Brothers is a contemporary legal thriller and a poignant look back into the lives of small town Poland during World War II.  

The author, Ronald H. Balson, is a Chicago trial attorney, an educator and writer.  His practice has taken him to several international venues, including villages in Poland which have inspired this novel.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:01:28 -0400)

"The gripping tale about two boys, once as close as brothers, who find themselves on opposite sides of the Holocaust. Elliot Rosenzweig, a respected civic leader and wealthy philanthropist, is attending a fundraiser when he is suddenly accosted and accused of being a former Nazi SS officer named Otto Piatek, "the butcher of Zamosc." Although the charges are denounced as preposterous, his accuser, Ben Solomon, is convinced he is right. Solomon persuades attorney Catherine Lockhart to take his case, revealing that the true Piatek was abandoned as a child and raised by Solomon's family only to betray them during the Nazi occupation. But has he accused the right man? Once We Were Brothers is the compelling tale of two boys and a family who struggle to survive in war-torn Poland and a young love that incredibly endures through the unspeakable cruelty of the Holocaust. Two lives, two worlds, and sixty years converge in an explosive race to redemption that makes for an enthralling tale of love, survival, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit"--… (more)

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