Review: Once We Were Brothers

Once We Were Brothers by  Ronald H. Balson

St. Martin’s Press, 2013.  Trade Paperback, 400 pages.cover once we were brothers

Once We Were Brothers is a spellbinding historical suspense novel.  First self-published before being picked up by St. Martin’s Press, this book tells the story of one family during the Holocaust and sixty years later.

In the modern era, Holocaust survivor Benjamin Solomon publicly accuses Chicago society bigwig Elliot Rosenzweig of being Otto Pietek, a former Nazi officer and executioner.  This sets off a legal reaction.  While Elliot tries to prove he is not Pietak, Ben tells his story to lawyer Catherine Lockhart and private investigator Liam Taggart.  Meanwhile, Liam also works to find evidence supporting Ben’s claims and Cat prepares Ben’s case for legal proceedings.  Through these efforts, Ben becomes like family to Cat and Liam and helping Ben becomes their passion.

Ben’s story is an amazing one.  Born and raised in Zamosc, Poland, Ben came from a wealthy and influential Jewish family.  During the Depression, his family took in a young boy named Otto and raised him like a second son.  Otto even helped Ben connect with the woman he would later marry, Hannah.  Eventually, Otto’s parents came back and tried to take him back to Germany where they were now living well thanks to their new positions in the Nazi party.  Otto refused to leave behind the family that raised him.  When the Nazi’s were readying to invaded Poland, Otto’s parents returned again and tried to convince him to take a local position in the Party.  After careful deliberation, Otto took the job at Ben’s father’s suggestion.  Abraham Solomon thought having a sympathetic Otto in an influential position may lead to their salvation.  However, what Abraham never expected was that the lure of power was too great and would corrupt Otto.  As the war continued, readers see the amazing ways Ben and his family resisted the Nazi’s and Otto’s acceptance of the Nazi doctrine.  This places the two “brothers” at odds until their last fateful wartime meeting.

Another point of contention throughout the book was that of Ben’s family’s missing valuables.  Given to Otto in better days for safekeeping, Otto hid them for after the war.  However, they disappeared from their hiding place, which Ben knew about, and were never returned after the war.  Ben suspected that the sale of these items helped establish Elliot in his post-war business venture in Chicago.  Liam attempted to trace this missing valuables and discover if indeed they were utilized by Elliot.

The heart of this book goes beyond the story.  It asks ethical questions.  Was the Holocaust justified?  Can power truly corrupt and completely change a person?  How can someone be responsible for the deaths of loved ones? Can someone deny their true self for a lifetime?  How far will one go to hide the truth?  Finding the answers to these questions drives the story as much, if not more so, than Ben’s narrative.  Then add the mystery, “Is Elliot really Otto?”

Looking at the Holocaust conditions covered–from the early fears and thinking the war will not touch them to the increasing restrictions, ghetto life, concentration camps, and resistance efforts–this is the best fiction book I have seen address these issues.  Everything historical we discussed in a semester long undergraduate Holocaust course found its way into this novel.  If not in detail, it was mentioned thus providing an introduction to the subject from the point of view from a survivor.  This makes the parts where Ben recounts his story remind me of the survivor narratives I have read-facts and emotions blend quite well and realistically.  And as mentioned above, it touched on the ethical issues as well, prompting the reader to question his or her beliefs on the subject.  In fact, by the time this is posted, I will have alerted that class’ professor about this book and suggest he read it too.  He’s retired now, but after four classes with him and the fact he sponsored a student organization I was in, I can honestly say he very well may have assigned this novel as assigned reading for class discussion.  It was that factual and thought-provoking.

To note, I randomly received a review copy of this book in the mail back at the tail end of 2013.  I had entered a contest for a bundle of Holocaust-themed fiction books and did not win.  However, since this came directly from the publisher and was a book within the contest, I guess they opted to send me a copy for whatever reason.  My only regret is not having read it sooner.

P.S.  As of 11/2/14, Barnes and Noble had paperback copies for only $5.38!  Not sure how long this price will last.

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