Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson
Published by St. Martin’s Griffin on October, 2013
Source: complimentary review copy
“You’re sitting here tonight in the lap of luxury, in a realm of comfort, a prominent lawyer, secure in every facet of her life, in a country where such madness seems inconceivable. Today, we look back at the Nazi scourge and shake our heads in disbelief. How could such a thing happen? Why were the Jews so meek? It’s incomprehensible. Miss Lockhart, don’t ask me, with all your presumptions, to explain why the Viennese Jews didn’t leave their homes, their community, everything they knew and loved and respond rationally to a world bereft of reason.”. . . . .”They chip away and they chip away, taking your rights and your dignity a piece at a time, and you think, ‘God, give me strength and I can endure this until the world is righted, until evil is vanquished, as it always is.’ (p. 71)
A few years back I recall seeing on the news about a harmless-looking elderly gentleman arrested for suspected war crimes during World War II. Come to find out, he had been a prominent decision-maker in Hitler’s army responsible for the annihilation of countless Jews. Once We Were Brothers delves deep into a story quite similar ~ two boys, raised together for 6 formative years ~ one a Viennese Jew, the other German. As close to each other as close could be, until Otto, the 14 year-old German boy, was forced to enter Hitler’s regime and Ben, the Viennese Jew, became the ostracized population sought for termination. Ben survives the war, along with his beloved Hannah, but both of their parents are killed during the war. Fast-forward 60 years to downtown Chicago. A prominent philanthropist is confronted during an event highlighting his contributions to the community. The philanthropist, Elliott Rosenzweig, is accused of being a Nazi ~ the “Butcher of Zanosc.” The accuser? Ben Soloman.
Next follows the re-telling of Ben’s memories from World War II and the ultimate betrayal by Otto Piatek aka Elliott Rosenzweig. At first, the attorney Ben is sharing his story with refuses to believe Elliott could be the Butcher from WWII. As Ben recounts the story and Catherine along with her friend and PI, Liam, begin to delve into Elliott’s past the truth emerges ~ was it a case of mistaken identity or did Ben accuse the correct man, someone he counted as a brother for some years.
A riveting account of how lives were torn apart by the Nazi regime. Once We Were Brothers asks the question of how many good deeds could make up for pure evil? Is it possible to overcome evil? And those men who served in Hitler’s army at what point do we forgive their war crimes and is there any forgiveness for them ~ do they even want forgiveness?
I was amazed to discover this was first a self-published novel that became a runaway bestseller before being picked up by St. Martin’s Griffin. And well it should have been ~ a phenomenal novel that reminds us of the power of love, compassion and hope. Recommended for anyone who enjoyed Sarah’s Key, The Lost Wife, and Defending Jacob. Faith, hope, love. . .and the greatest of these is love.