I really enjoyed the Balson’s books Saving Sophie and The Trust I read prior, so I thought I’d read the first in the series because it is a series. It’s called the Liam Taggart and Catherine Lockhart series and there are four books now.
The frame – In 2004, an old man holds a gun to the head of another old man standing outside an art showing in Chicago and starts yelling something about his being a Nazi. The first old man, holding the gun, turns out to be Ben Soloman, a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to the US in 1949. The second old man is the very rich and famous Eliot Rosenzweig, philanthropist to the arts in Chicago – Ben is accusing him of being Otto Piontec, a Nazi mass murderer.
This book gets a really high rating, because although it starts slowly and doesn’t speed up much until about 1/3 or 1/2 way. The reason is that a main character, Ben Solomon, has to tell what feels like a long meandering story about life and war for Jews in Poland between 1939-1942. Meanwhile, the framing story takes place in 2004-05. The remarkable tension is built in both threads gradually, occasionally broken by a few pages of lighter fare, and then it builds steadily through the legal crime aspects of the second half to a superb ending.
Once We Were Brothers
by Robert Balson
2009 / 400 pages
read by Fred Berman
rating: B+ / literary legal crime (WWII and today)
Liam Taggart is a private detective and Catherine Lockhart, his good friend from school days, is an attorney with a high-profile firm in Chicago. Liam brings the case of Ben Solomon to Catherine’s attention and she’ reluctantly becomes interested – then involved.
As Ben tells his story it becomes apparent that his connection to the horrific past is more than memory – he seems to be reliving it and sometimes actually talking to his beloved Hannah. Also, Ben’s depictions of the Nazis as monsters is visceral, real, literal. He believes they were sent by Satan in a literal sense but then, Ben is a bit of an over-studious, Kabbalah lover. His story is very tiring to listen to because Ben/Berman gets a bit over-emotional – there were places, especially in the first third of the book, where I almost stopped caring because I couldn’t go to thoseo kinds of emotional depths that fast.
The story Ben tells is that his best friend, a Protestant boy named Otto Piontec, lived with the Solomon family in Poland from age 12 or so until he was signed up for the German forces. Otto was apparently loyal to the family for many years and tried to help them, but …
Much of the tension in the story revolves around when did Otto stop helping and being loyal and start to develop Nazi sympathies or attributes. And as Catherine continues to probe his story she becomes convinced there is something deeper, something really ugly. Also, there may be a question of whether Eliot Rosenzweig, the man Ben attacked, is actually Otto – the prosecution absolutely believes it, but will a judge or a jury who has the final say so the question is, is there evidence other than Ben’s recognition and memory to back up the case? Not really …
Ben tells most of the story but he includes a LOT of history. He’s wanting to sue Rosenzweig for his Nazi activities, but the main story is a personal history lesson of war and genocide. I enjoyed the legal wranglings of the second part far more than the first although the fictionalized history was interesting.
Between Catherine listening to Ben’s story and Liam’s research into Otto Piontec the truth is revealed.