Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin

Review: Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson

Posted December 24, 2013 by Heather in Book Reviews / 5 Comments

I received this book for free from the publisher / TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. BalsonOnce We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on October 8, 2013
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 400
Source: the publisher / TLC Book Tours

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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 Zamość. Although the charges are denounced as preposterous, his accuser is convinced he is right and engages attorney Catherine Lockhart to bring Rosenzweig to justice. Solomon persuades attorney Catherine Lockhart to take his case, revealing that the true Piatek was abandoned as a child and raised by Solomon's own family only to betray them during the Nazi occupation. But has Solomon accused the right man?

(from Goodreads)

Ben Solomon is watching a TV program one night when he recognizes the big-name Chicago philanthropist, Elliot Rosenzweig, for who he really is: Otto Piatek, a German man who grew up in Solomon’s childhood home in Poland, then went on to become a ruthless Nazi during World War II. Solomon confronts Rosenzweig in public, then enlists the help of attorney Catherine Lockhart to sue Rosenzweig for return of some family property that Rosenzweig (as Piatek) stole from Solomon’s family during the war. But first, Solomon has to prove his claim of Rosenzweig’s real identity and convince Catherine that he’s not just some crazy old man trying to smear Rosenzweig’s good name.

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.

A few reviews of this book on Goodreads commented on the fact that this subject matter has been written about over and over again, and that readers of Once We Were Brothers aren’t really learning anything new. And if readers have learned something new, then they must have been living under a rock (I’m paraphrasing). I took some offense to that, honestly, because there was a lot of specific information about what the people of Zamość went through during the war that I’d never read about before, and I’ve read a lot of books about World War II. Did I know the major events of the war that were referenced in this novel? Sure. But there were new-to-me things in the book, and I did learn quite a few things.

Interestingly, there were two topics I recently read about in other books which I found myself excited to know about when I came to them in Once We Were Brothers. The first was a Nazi leader named Reinhard Heydrich whom I’m sure I’d never heard of until I read HHhH by Laurent Binet, and the second was the huge lawsuits started in order to allow Jewish people or their heirs to reclaim property that was stolen from them by the Nazis during World War II (which I first read about in The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes). It was exciting in an odd way to read about these in Once We Were Brothers and to think, ‘Oh! I just read about him/that!’

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.

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