Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson

17934664Fiction — print. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013. Originally published 2009. 400 pgs. Library copy.

In the middle of the opening night at the opera in Chicago, an eighty-three-year-old Polish immigrant named Ben Solomon walks up to Elliot Rosenzweig, the wealthy and beloved philanthropist, and shoves a gun in his face denouncing him as a former SS officer named Otto Piatek. Ben is promptly arrested for assault and while Rosenzweig denies being Otto Piatek, he does use his enormous influence to get Ben released from jail. Convinced Rosenzweig only did so because he wanted to story to be dropped; Ben hires Catherine Lockhart and starts the process of suing Rosenzweig in order to force him to answer for his alleged war crimes. Catherine is not entirely convinced that Ben has fingered the right person and insists the man provide her with evidence to the contrary, which opens the door for Ben to tell his entire story beginning and ending with how he and Piatek grew up as brothers in the same household until Piatek aligned himself with the Nazis.

Books about hunting elderly Nazis hiding in the United States seem to be increasing in popularity as of late; I believe this is the third or fourth fictional novel I’ve read on the topic. In that regard, Balson’s novel stands apart as it is one of the few where the realities of convincing people to believe that a man is actually a Nazi is so succinctly written. Ben is perceived by nearly everyone in Chicago, including his own lawyer, as a confused old man who cannot separate the past from the present. His instance on talking to his dead wife and telling the whole story rather than just the relevant parts does not help matters, and he has no family to vouch for his lucidity making it easy for Rosenzweig and his team of lawyers to dismiss his claims outright. The mystery as to whether or not Rosenzweig is actually Piatek is certainly engaging in large part because of Ben and the way he tells his story, and for that I think the novel deserves praise.

Where it begins to fall apart, however, is Ben’s story itself not to mention the unnecessary subplot of whether or not Catherine will find happiness with the man who introduced her to Ben. Is it believable that a non-Jewish father would leave his child to be raised by a Jewish family? Certainly, yes, but maybe not when taken into the context of the location of said family – Zamosc, Poland. What is completely unbelievable is Balson’s claim that Auschwitz operated without the knowledge of the local townspeople, that Ben would be able to escape so frequently from the Nazis and escape yet again with the aid of a woman who also aligned herself with Piatek, or that Catherine would make it through the American school system, undergraduate university, and law school and yet still not know what a ghetto is. Ridiculous and, while clearly written to give Ben the opportunity to tell his story, Catherine’s lack of knowledge made her appear as the worst possible choice for Ben’s lawyer.

What would have made this novel truly interesting would be to drop the present narrative and construct the dueling narrative of Ben and Piatek, which would have answered lingering questions as to how Piatek could so easily align himself with the Nazis and turn his back on his adoptive family. But doing so would require a psychological study of human nature and a level of sophistication not evident in this text.


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