Once We Were Brothers

Once we were brothers, and then we ended up on opposite sides in World War 2, one Jewish, one Nazi. If that doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will. Ronald H. Balson’s early novel, Once We Were Brothers is story of a Jewish family who takes in an Aryan German boy in a foster situation. The two boys come to think of themselves as brothers. The novel has a dual timeline. A contemporary time in which as elderly men in Chicago they confront each other, and a timeline which traces the relationship before and during the war. The latter timeline is told by Ben to his attorney as he tries to convince her to take his lawsuit against Elliott/Otto. Ben knows there isn’t a statue of limitation on theft by Elliott/Otto of his family money and jewelry during the war. Problem is that Elliott is now a very wealthy philanthropist who always claimed to have been held in Auschwitz himself. How will Ben and his lawyer prove Elliott is Otto and is guilty of theft, deception and war crimes?

Too many possibilities for spoilers to really review the book. I can say the legalities of such a case are represented here because Balson is a trial attorney and law professor in Chicago. Balson develops the character of lawyer Catherine and her struggle in her large corporate firm about taking Ben’s case pro bono. Also the politics of taking a case against such a respected member of Chicago society causes headaches all around. Catherine believes law should be about justice, but she knows it comes with a price.

The war years of Ben’s life as the Nazi noose tightens are well written. The fear, the hunger, the disbelief, the grief, the confusion- Balson makes it feel real. Ben, Hannah, Beka struggle to protect their parents and younger siblings as they are forced into the Warsaw ghetto, while their parents beg them to escape. There are parts that are pretty heart-wrenching.

The ending is incredible. I didn’t see it coming, but I’m glad Balson did. He wrote a well researched novel of historical fiction. He has since written several other books about Catherine and her sidekick Liam which I intend on reading as well. The legal wranglings in the other novels will be different, but if you like aspects about the field of law, you will enjoy his books.

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