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This is a compelling novel about a true historic tragic event.

Once We Were Brothers - Ronald H. Balson

This is a very powerful story about the quest of Holocaust survivor, Ben Solomon, to expose a Nazi Collaborator. When Ben was a 12-year-old in Poland, a local priest recommended that his down and out parishioner, Stanislaw Piatek, who had been abandoned by his wife, bring his son to the home of the Jews, Abraham and Leah Solomon. He said they were good people and would help him. Sure enough, they took the child, Otto Piatek, into their hearts and home, and they treated him as an equal and as a son. He was almost the same age as Ben and they became like siblings. This took place in 1933, and as more than a half-dozen years passed, Otto, embraced the Solomons. He supported them in their struggles when the National Socialists first came to power, even refusing to join the party or his parents, when they reunited and returned for him for the first time, now financially stable, some two years later; he continued to do so as time went by, although his mother pleaded with him tearfully again and again. He was not Jewish and she was able to help him get a good position within the party hierarchy. She could save him. For him, however, the Solomons were now his guardians and mentors. He rejected his parents completely.
Stanislaw and Ilse Piatek’s fortunes continued to improve within the Nazi party, and although Otto always declared his devotion to Leah and Abe and refused to leave them, eventually there came a day when his parents came to claim him and he acquiesced, convinced to do so by the Solomons who were concerned for his safety. He was able to remain in Zamość, near their home, and he would be in a better position to help them, if need be, if he were not living with them. The Piatecs warned the Solomons to leave Zamość; the situation was deteriorating for them, and they were in great peril. There was no place for them in Poland or anyplace else in the world of Hitler, but Abe Solomon was an important figure in town, and he wanted to be there to aid the rest of the citizens. The Solomons were motivated by altruism, unlike the Nazis who were motivated by hatred, their own inadequacy and madness. The Piateks were smug and completely arrogant. They supported Hitler and his policies completely. They were totally unappreciative of all the Solomons had done for their son. Rising stars within Hitler’s Germany, they were very impressed with their own power and position. Formerly powerless, unworthy nobodies were suddenly able to call the shots and they were corrupted by their egos and blinded by their incessant greed, as well as their own fears. As Hitler grew more and more successful, they knew full well the depths of his depravity, and although they were complicit in his efforts, they too could be faced with his wrath if they slipped up. Absolute obedience was demanded and received.
Actually, in the end, it was the Solomons who convinced Otto to move out, not only for his own safety, but also because he would be better positioned to help them if they should need help. In his safer position, he hid money and jewelry for several Jewish families, promising to return it to them when the war ended. However, as Otto rose through the ranks of the National Socialist Party, gaining favor and benefits, he began to change, and his loyalty to the Solomons diminished as his alliances with the Nazis grew. He became more concerned with preserving his own position than with the welfare and safety of the Solomons and their fellow Jews. He became a true Nazi and was utterly transformed from a caring young man into a monster responsible for great injustice and evil.
When the war finally ended, years later, Ben and Otto were no longer in touch. Ben had lost most of his family and was living in America where he had a relative who helped him to get a job. He began a new life. Decades later, when in his eighties, he saw a television program about a very wealthy, elderly philanthropist. Ben believed the man, Elliot Rosenzweig, was really Otto Piatek, the boy he grew up with, the man who had become a Nazi war criminal; he believed he was a man whose fortune came from that which he stole from the Jews and a man who was responsible for the torture and murder of countless others, including his father. This man, however, insists he is also a tattooed survivor who came to America penniless, a man who had accomplished the American dream. He amassed a vast fortune and gave huge amounts of money to worthy causes. Ben’s somewhat violent confrontation with this man is the beginning of a massive undertaking by his lawyer, Catherine, her friend Liam, and his friends to discover the true background of Rosenzweig and vindicate Ben’s seemingly irrational behavior. Ben is a spiritual man who sometimes talks with and receives inspiration and advice from his deceased wife Hannah. This causes raised eyebrows and questions about his emotional stability and state of mind. Has he made a false accusation and attacked an innocent man in this muddled condition?
The turn of events, the meticulous investigation and the exposure of the truth is so compelling that I could not put the book down. The culture of the Germans and the Poles is exposed as the history of Hitler’s slow and methodical power grab is explored. The characters were so well-developed that I felt I knew them and was drawn to tears in the end, so closely did I identify with Ben Solomon and his plight. The love stories buried within the tale were captivating. However, the corruption that seemed to exist within the legal system and the court system was disheartening. The level to which most people will descend was for lack of a better word, disappointing; perhaps horrifying would be more appropriate. Each character seemed to be driven by prejudice, self-interest and greed, and even when exposed, driven by the need to save themselves and not necessarily to do the right thing.
On another note, I found that the lawyer Catherine and her friend, Liam, were completely naïve as to the health and capabilities of a man in his 80’s. They dismissed his weakness to exhaustion and stress, not dealing with the reality of his age, as well. Also, they both seemed a bit too ignorant about the circumstances of World War II and the tragedy of the Holocaust. However, they seemed to be driven by compassion, above all else, to help Ben and continued to help him even when outclassed by the money and the power of his adversary. Although this story is fiction, it could easily have really happened which is a sad commentary on the world, even today. The book was excellent and the conclusion was very satisfying, but the story, overall, was not very uplifting, rather it was poignant.