An intriguing tale of World War II atrocities unspools in Ronald Balson’s uneven ‘Once We Were Brothers’

August 21, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 21, 2015

Once We Were Brothers, the 2013 novel by Chicago lawyer Ronald Balson, regularly shifts its narrative between the present-day Windy City and World War II Poland. But the heart of this book is clearly in the events of the 1940s, which Holocaust survivor Ben Solomon recreates over a period of several weeks as he tries to provide his attorney with evidence that Chicago’s most prominent philanthropist was in fact his stepbrother, who went on to become a Nazi war criminal.

Solomon’s counsel, corporate lawyer Catherine Lockhart, initially believes her client to be a seriously disturbed crank. But she quickly becomes enraptured by Solomon’s story, and who could blame her? It’s a story of strong-willed men and women whose lives become irreversibly warped as the continent around them succumbs to a tyrant and his anti-semitic obsession. By the time Solomon brings his account to its conclusion, most of the characters — not to mention millions of Jews and their countless communities — have been exterminated by a vicious genocide.

By contrast, all the drama in Once We Were Brothers’ present-day narrative seems entirely trivial. Will Lockhart’s career — already derailed by a personal meltdown triggered by her duplicitous former husband — be permanently impaired as Solomon increasingly distracts her from her obligations to her corporate clients? Will Lockhart and Liam Taggart, the handsome, savvy private investigator who has loved her since they were children, recognize their mutual passion for one another? These are all low-stakes matters in the grand scheme of things.

Oddly, the question at the heart of the modern narrative — is Elliott Rosenzweig, himself a purported Holocaust survivor, in fact Otto Piatek, the reviled butcher of Zamosc? — never struck me as particularly urgent. Still, I was eager for Solomon to get to the end of his story, which he relates in meetings with Lockhart over a period of about four months. I was also curious to learn how the three protagonists might go about proving that Rosenzweig had been Taggart, if in fact that was the case.

Balson is a first-time novelist, and it shows. One issue is that characters frequently deliver extensive lectures that are worthy of a university professor. For instance, Solomon explicates passages from the Bible, the Latin roots of the word inspiration and the geopolitical situation in Germany, Austria and Poland during his childhood and teenage years. An even greater failing is Balson’s glib characterizations of Lockhart, Taggart and the other key characters (Solomon included) in the passages set in 21st-century Chicago.

Still, the story of mid-20th-century Poland have a texture and complexity lacking in the other half of the book. It’s fascinating to watch what happens after Solomon’s prosperous upper-middle-class Jewish family takes in Piatek, a virtual orphan — an act of generosity that will have unimaginable consequences in the years and decades to come.

In this relatively early scene, Solomon tells Lockhart about the first visit by a Gestapo officer to his family’s home in the Polish village of Zamosc:

“He sits in Father’s chair and crosses his legs. The polish on his black boots shines like a mirror. Helmeted soldiers stand on each side, like bookends with stone faces. We wait in silence while he lights a cigarette in an ebony holder.

“‘Do I speak with Abraham Solomon?’ he says at last. He’s extremely well-mannered but as cold as a corpse.

“My father answers in German. ‘I am Abraham.’

“‘Herr Solomon, I have learned that you are a respected leader among the Jews, and so you are to be appointed to the Judenrat, the council of Jews. That is a much honored appointment for you and your family. The Judenrat will report to me, or to my assistant, and will implement the führer’s orders on Jewish affairs.’

“‘I seek no privileges, sir. I am no more or less than any other member of our community.’

“‘You will address me as Dr. Frank, Herr Solomon. My name is Dr. Hans Frank, and you will not forget that, please. And I suggest you reconsider your declination. There will be a Judenrat, of that you may be sure, and it will consist of the most influential of the Jews in Zamosc. You cannot help your people if you are not present.’

“All of us are seated in the room, barely breathing, not daring to say a word. Dr. Frank looks us over, points at Uncle Joseph, and says, ‘Who is the crippled man?’

“‘That is my brother, a well-educated and prominent man. He has had an accident.’

“Dr. Frank pursues his lips and nods. He crushes his cigarette on a dish, slaps his gloves on his leg, and rises to leave. ‘I will see you at the town hall tomorrow morning at ten.’ On his wayout, he stops at the door and points at Beka. ‘Who is the young Jewess?’

“‘My daughter, Rebecca. She is only seventeen.’

“‘Yes. Seventeen.’ He gestures for the soldiers to precede him through the doorway and turns to my father. ‘You will be at the town hall at ten.’ Then he bows slightly and leaves our home.”

“Did your father go to the meeting?” asked Catherine.

Ben nodded. “At ten o’clock. When he came home his face was drained of all color. He kept repeating, ‘We should have listened to Ilse, we should have left Zamosc.’”

Balson has stated that Once We Were Brothers was loosely inspired by a case that he litigated, and his experience as an attorney shows: This is a legal drama with only two brief courtroom scenes but a number of fairly lively passages devoted to meetings in chambers, discussions between lawyers and what turns out to be an extremely tense deposition.

The author manages to bring everything to a satisfying, if slightly too pat, conclusion. I have only two real complaints about the book’s ending. For one thing, the personal biography recited by one of the minor characters comes off as clichéed; more importantly, a different character who proves key to the climax is underdeveloped.

I think Once We Were Brothers is worthwhile reading for any who care about the Holocaust or about the Jewish experience in Europe or America. In fact, I would recommend it to teenage and even sophisticated tween readers with an interest in these areas — the book handles the topics of cruelty and sexuality with a delicacy that makes it appropriate for younger audiences.

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