Once We Were Brothers

by Ronald H. Balson

Book, 2013



Call number




New York, NY St. Martin's Griffin, 2013


"The gripping tale about two boys, once as close as brothers, who find themselves on opposite sides of the Holocaust. 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 Zamosc." Although the charges are denounced as preposterous, his accuser, Ben Solomon, is convinced he is right. Solomon persuades attorney Catherine Lockhart to take his case, revealing that the true Piatek was abandoned as a child and raised by Solomon's family only to betray them during the Nazi occupation. But has he accused the right man? Once We Were Brothers is the compelling tale of two boys and a family who struggle to survive in war-torn Poland and a young love that incredibly endures through the unspeakable cruelty of the Holocaust. Two lives, two worlds, and sixty years converge in an explosive race to redemption that makes for an enthralling tale of love, survival, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member NickiSlater
My body is exhausted from clinching with anxiety. It is a roller coaster ride through Ben Solomon's retelling of how his closest childhood friend betrayed him and his family during the Holocaust. Each chapter brought us closer to the evidence needed to prove whether or not Elliott Rosenzweig is a
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former Nazi SS officer. A drama filled tale I won't soon forget.
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LibraryThing member BettyTaylor56
Be prepared to sit down and read for hours at a time. This is a gripping story and hard to put it down. There is history, drama, romance, suspense all packed into 389 pages.

I have read so many books on the Holocaust that now I tend to only read those that have a unique slant to them. “Once We
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Were Brothers” certainly has that uniqueness as it is a story of two boys who were once brothers. Ben Solomon is Jewish and lives with his parents in Poland. One day Otto’s father drops him off at the home of the Solomons and asks them to care for him. Times are hard and he can no longer afford to care for his son. Thus, Otto, a non-Jew, joins the Solomon family. Ben and Otto become like brothers. The story revolves around Ben telling about his life in Poland and how Otto’s life eventually went a separate way and they became enemies. The story alternates between the time of WWII and present day 2004. Now Ben is accusing a respected civic leader and wealthy philanthropist of being a Nazi murderer who stole from his family. A young attorney gives up her job in a prestigious law firm to represent Ben Solomon in his attempt to make Otto Piatek pay for his cruelty. All odds are stacked against them.

The story is well-written but does have a couple of points that are a bit unbelievable. One character plays a plot-changing role but there is no explanation of who this guy is. But overall it is an excellent story. Balson writes the characters in such a way that you really care about them. That’s how real they seem to be.

This book was given to me by my rabbi. He had received an Advance Reading Copy but did not have time to read it. As I am the Temple’s book club facilitator, he gave it to me and asked me to read it. I highly recommend this book to Jewish groups and non-Jewish groups.
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LibraryThing member LivelyLady
An old man, Ben, is convinced that another elderly man, Elliott, was his peer in Nazi Germany and was responsible for the death of his parents and the stealing of the family's valuables. In modern day Chicago he retains a young attorney, Catherine, to find out the truth. Well written as well as a
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good story line.
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LibraryThing member Lettypearl
Ben Solomon was born in Zamosc, Poland into a Jewish family and had one younger sister. In 1939, a non-Jewish man prevailed upon the Solomon family to take his son, Otto, as he could no longer care for him, and his wife had left long ago. So Ben and Otto grew up together and shared both family and
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friends. When Hitler came to power and it became clear that Poland would be invaded and the Jews destroyed, Otto's mother and father returned to persuade Otto to leave the Solomon's and work for the Reich. Ben's father finally convinced Otto to do so, believing that Otto would be able to do more to help the Jews in that position. However, once in a position of power, Otto became corrupt and helped destroy those who had helped and befriended him. Sixty years later, Ben believes he's seen Otto - now a rich Chicago businessman, and sets out to expose him for who he is, and for what he did. The story unfolds slowly, tantalizingly, and the characters develop as the story unfolds. At first it is not clear whether Ben is merely a traumatized but demented old man, whether Catherine is a soul-less workaholic lawyer in search of the almighty dollar, or whether Elliott truly is an innocent philanthropist. You must read on to find out. I loved the book, thought the writing exceptional, and the message as haunting as it very well should be.
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LibraryThing member Tea58
After reading this Historical novel, I can't stop thinking of betrayal and friendship. In Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson, there are two men who grew up together as brothers. Elliot Rosenzweig is brought to Ben Solomon's home by his parents. Although Elliot is Christian, he grows up in
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this wonderful Jewish family. He is treated just like another member of the family.

Soon demeaning and horrific times will touch down in Poland. These unimaginable times with Hitler and The Third Reich will change every part of the Jewish man's life. To the Nazis nothing that is owned by a Jewish man is untouchable. To the Nazis a Jewish life is a waste.

The World War II days and years felt like man had fallen down a hole into a bed of nightmares. After the days of the war, people were stunned, dazed, shocked by what they had experienced. There were Nazi criminals walking around using assumed identities while the Jewish people had to deal with their memories of children and siblings who had been gassed or starved etc.

Ben Solomon's story narrative is told from the present, 2004. Then, the story shifts back to the 1940's. The time and setting move back and forth throughout the novel giving a rhythm to these days of uncertainty.

After the war, Ben Solomon came from Poland to the states. He seems, in some miraculous way, to carry all his lost loved ones with him on a daily basis. It seems as though, in some way, they are guiding him in his choices and his decisions. He remembers Otto Piatek, a Nazi. Ben Solomon's memories, his persistence to see and hear the truths he already knows lead him down a long, hard road where it looks like there is no way to bring a rich businessman to justice. . He never gives up. Even when it looks like there is no such person still alive he continues to tell his lawyers, Catherine and Liam , about what he knows is true. Ben Solomon is a powerfully strong man. He still loves his wife, Hannah, deeply along with other members of his family and friends.

I do not wish to reveal the ins and outs of this novel. It is weaved in a magnificent fashion like an expensive Oriental rug. It is a must read. It is beautiful, sad, tragic, momentous. The question is, what am I willing to do in order to keep myself safe and secure? What is the cost of my integrity? Ben Solomon never sold his integrity. For this I will remember him. oncewewerebrothers
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LibraryThing member dennisonjill
Every now and then a writer’s first novel is worthy of a 5-star rating. Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson is such a book. Generally speaking, I do not tend to read first works of new authors. Yes, I realize that every author has a first book and that if nobody read their first, there
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wouldn’t likely be a second, third or fourth and the author would fade into obscurity in a job as a lawyer or taxi-cab driver. Even Charles Dickens had a first book way back when. Still, it generally takes a writer a book or two to find his footing, to be able to write from the heart while, at the same time, pleasing his readers and making them yearn for more.

Set in Chicago in 2004, Once We Were Brothers is the story of Ben Solomon, now an 83 year-old Polish Holocaust survivor. There is, in the city of Chicago in 2004, a well-respected, wealthy man, a generous patron of the arts, named Elliot Rosenzweig. Ben Solomon is convinced that Mr. Rosenzweig is a former Nazi named Otto Piatek and is determined to bring him to justice. He enlists the aid of attorney Catherine Lockhart and her friend, a private investigator, Liam Taggart. Though set in 2004-2005, a large portion of the book is the telling of Ben’s story, set in the years 1933-1945, and this is what makes this book more than just another legal thriller. The details of that period are extremely well-researched (I double-checked several myself) and I was immediately drawn into the story, into the time. Rosenzweig, of course, has a team of highly skilled, highly paid lawyers who will do whatever it takes to protect their client and his reputation, while Ben has only Catherine and Liam. At the outset of the story, Catherine is one of hundreds of attorneys in a large law firm where billable hours rule the day, and she is impatient for Ben to come to the point of his story, doubtful that he has a case at all. But as Ben’s story unravels, we see Catherine change, subtly at first, then ultimately she becomes wholeheartedly determined to give Ben the best she has to give.

What makes this book extraordinary is Ben’s telling of how the Germans took over the Polish town of Zamość where Otto had spent his childhood with Ben and his family, and the metamorphosis of Otto from brother to betrayer. Though I have read many books about World War II and the atrocities of the Nazis, Ben’s story left this reader with the nearly breathless feeling that I was living through that time at this very moment and gave me a nightmare or two in the process.

I do not write reviews with spoilers, as the purpose of my reviews is to entice the reader to pick up the book and read it for him/herself. Suffice it to say that this is undoubtedly one of the best novels I have read in a long time. Most of my other 5-star ratings have been for non-fiction, historical books, but this novel has both entertainment value and social value, historical value. I highly recommend it and hope that if you choose to read it, you will come back here and let me know what you thought of the book. Mr. Balson also has a new novel (his 2nd) out just this week, entitled Saving Sophie: A Novel. I am eager to delve into this one and I hope it will be as excellent as Once We Were Brothers.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
This novel is as exciting and interesting as historical fiction can be. With a very public opening confrontation between a retired Chicago holocaust victim and one of the most powerful philanthropists in the city, Once We Were Brothers provides a level of suspense that continues through to the last
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pages of the novel. The story of why the former Park District employee, Ben Solomon, engages in this confrontation leads back to Poland in 1929 and through Ben's experience of the holocaust during the War. It is his fervent belief that his story is true that leads him to seek out an attorney, Catherine Lockhart, and her story in turn and her own discovery of why she needed to help Ben is as inspirational as Ben's own journey from Poland to Chicago.

The novel narrates Ben's journey through flashbacks to Ben's life in Zamosc Poland that begins when he was growing up in a family that had taken in a young German boy, Otto Piatek, who would become as close to Ben as any real brother could have been. In between episodes of this story are interspersed events in current day Chicago, 2004, where we meet Catherine Lockhart and Liam Taggart, her friend, who assists in finding evidence to support Ben's claim that the wealthy philanthropist, Elliot Rosenzweig, is actually the former Nazi SS officer, Otto Piatek. How these narratives come together and whether Ben is able to prove his claim provide for great reading.

This is not a typical story of the holocaust nor is it just about an old man identified as a former Nazi. It is much more and I would encourage anyone interested in what it means to be human and care about another human to read this novel. It is a fictional portrayal but it has aspects that impressed me as much as the best non-fiction I have read about the holocaust. In the end it was not the history that moved me as much as the character of Catherine and how she changed and grew to know herself in a way that made her a better person.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
It seems like WWII continues to be a rich source for stories even decades later. This book revisits the Nazi invasion of Poland and subsequent atrocities on the Jewish people but it also brings it into the present day in Chicago.

Ben Solomon accuses a wealthy philanthropist, Eliot Rosenzweig, of
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being a Nazi officer who sent many people to the death camps. He recognizes Rosenzweig as being Otto Piontek, a boy that was raised by Ben's father and mother when Otto's parents could not afford to look after him. Ben and Otto were friends and treated each other as brothers, at least until the Nazis entered Poland. Otto, a German by birth, is convinced to join the Nazi army so that he could protect the Solomons. The reality was much different. Ben convinces a female attorney, Catherine Lockhart, to assist him in suing Rosenzweig for return of goods stolen by Piontek. Lockhart has grave misgivings about being able to succeed but Ben's story draws her in against her better judgement.

Initially I was not a fan of Catherine Lockhart because she kept saying she didn't have time to listen to Ben's story and that her firm would question her taking this case. As the story went on though Catherine got more of a backbone and she drove the case to a successful conclusion. Ben's story was the core of the book but the law suit was almost as interesting.
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LibraryThing member MarkMeg
A gripping book that I hated to see end. Ben hires Catherine to sue Elliot Rosenzweig, who he claims was actually named Otto Platek and who was once made a member of Ben's family, but who eventually became a Nazi, called the Butcher of Zamosc. Eventually Catherine proves the case and Otto is sent
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to Israel to be tried. In the meantime, Ben's heart gives out, but he lives to see Otto found guilty and all resolved. The author creates clear pictures of each of the characters, including Rosenzweig's wife, who is ultimately his downfall when she tells the truth about him.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member teeth
A very powerful WW11 novel! This book revisits the Nazi invasion of Poland and atrocities on the jewish peoplebut also brings it into the present day in Chicago.
LibraryThing member JGoto
Once We Were Brothers is a novel about an elderly Jewish Holocaust survivor who sees a wealthy, respected Chicago Jewish philanthropist and accuses him of having been a Nazi war criminal in Poland during the Second World War. He goes on to sue the man in order to tarnish his name and see justice
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served. This book got rave reviews and so I recommended it as our next book club read. I am completely embarrassed to have done so. First of all, Once We Were Brothers is so poorly written that it feels as if it may have been scribed by a college freshman for an even younger (and undiscriminating) audience. The basic structure of the novel is implausible: An old man asks a young corporate lawyer to file the suit (for compensation of stolen goods) pro-bono. She is not particularly interested in the case, but agrees to meet with him. She asks for the pertinent details, but he insists on telling her his life story first, which, by the way, takes weeks of sessions that last four or five hours each. She's annoyed, but gives him the time. Really? As we read, we realize that this educated woman (she is a lawyer, after all) is not familiar with what a ghetto was. Or Typhus. Or the fact that Jews needed food. This is convenient, because it allows the man to explain all. He tells his own story mixed-in with not so accurate history. "Hitler had already rolled into Paris, and he had conquered Denmark, Holland, Sweden and Belgium." Sweden? On top of all this, despite the horrific history of WWII Poland, the characters are so wooden that it's hard to develop much sympathy for any of them.
I admit that for the final quarter of the book I read because I wanted to see what would happen (rather than just for my book club obligation) and it occurred to me that this might make a decent movie, because the prose would be absent. Still, the ending was too tidy for my liking and I must say it's a book I would not recommend.
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LibraryThing member SilversReviews
“We must never allow the world to forget." Page 179

That quote says it all, and Ben Solomon vowed to follow through on this edict, and he definitely was following through.

ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS is a powerful, well-researched first novel that will have you glued to the pages as Ben tells his story
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of hatred, horror, and the annihilation of his and other Jewish families during WWII.

Telling the story of the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Poland was stressful for the 83-year-old main character, Ben, but he had to tell it all, and Catherine, his attorney, wanted to be the one to help arrest Elliott/Otto.

Ben knew he knew Elliott Rosenzweig was not really Elliott Rosenzweig, but Otto Piatek, his brother turned Nazi during the war, and the person who was not accused of his horrific war crimes but living in the United States as a billionaire philanthropist.

ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS moves from present day to WWII in Poland as Ben Solomon tells how his family had to live and survive under Nazi occupation as a Jewish family.

ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS tells how Otto, a German boy, was left with the Solomon family, a Jewish family, because his mother couldn't take care of him. Otto became part of the Jewish home and loved the Solomons like his own family until his mother showed up and insisted he join the Germans.

Mr. Balson did a fantastic job researching for his first book and detailing every scene. ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS is a beautiful way to tell a horrible historical story.

You will feel as though you are inside the pages of the book and connecting with the characters both present and past. This book was amazing.

I am always in awe of the strength of the Europeans during this time period. How did they survive and deal with all that was going on especially the Jewish population?

This compelling WWII book is one you will want to read. It is perfectly relayed, phenomenal, and a part of history that again reveals what WWII was about. I finished this book in ONE day, and that is unusual for me.

Don't miss reading ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS. I definitely needed tissues a number of times and especially at the end and definitely when they told of the freeing of Buchenwald because my father was one of the Americans that freed this concentration camp.

This book is given an unequivocal 5/5.

This book was given to me free of charge and without compensation by the publisher in return for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member jessibud2
A fictional story, but based on true history. This story was gripping from beginning to end.
LibraryThing member repb
Interesting view of the holocaust as seen through the eyes of a survivor who runs into a Nazi-ex-friend 60 years later and takes him to justice, Very well written with only a bare minimum of inappropriate language,
LibraryThing member creighley
Eliot Rosenzweig, a respected civic leader and Welty philanthropist, is attending a fundraiser when is accosted and accused of beings he Nazi SS officer Otto Piatek. Although the charges re considered to be preposterous, his accusers convinc d that he has the right person and hires Catherine
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Lockhart to help him. Ring charges.
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LibraryThing member asyouth
Excellent historical fiction about the Holocaust. The characters and the story build up going back and forth to build the history compels you forward. Great read!
LibraryThing member emkemi23
What an exciting, heart-wrenching book! I have read many books about the Holocaust and enjoyed the perspective of this story that begins with the lives of Jews in Poland before the Nazi invasion. This was a well written book containing lots of interesting history. I would recommend this to anyone
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that is interested in this period of time and those that like legal thrillers.
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LibraryThing member eachurch
This was a complete miss for me. First of all, the writing left a lot to be desired. The dialogue was excruciating, and the didactic nature of the 'testimony' was rather ham-handed. Secondly, there were too many things in the story that didn’t seem plausible or understandable. (Even if they
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really happened, the story needs to be told in such a way that the reader believes they really happened.) Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the characters were pretty well all good or all bad (which makes them much less interesting than they could have been). Overall, the book reminded me of a bad propaganda film from the 1950s.
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LibraryThing member nwieme
Loved it. Compelled you keep reading - Loved the characters (except for the ones I hated - but even they were great characters!). Great work of fiction in one of the time periods that I enjoy.
LibraryThing member lineells
Breathtakingly awesome. From a few of the reviews i saw i think people have to remember that this book is FICTION. NOT a historical document or taken from an encyclopedia. It was created in the authors mind, very well done at that, and not to be taken verbatim.
Yes, it is another WW2 saga but put it
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at the very top of that list.
Two boys raised as brothers ......their paths diverge. Incredibly so. Horribly so. But karma DOES come around years later, which made me cheer (inside my head of course).
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LibraryThing member elsyd
While I wasn't excited about reading another WWII story, I was drawn in to the story of Ben Solomon and Otto Piatek. There is really nothing new in the background story, but I very much enjoyed the handling of the search and bringing Otto to justice.
LibraryThing member froxgirl
This tragic story of betrayal and loss in WW II is well told but not groundbreaking. The Solomons, a Jewish family, trying to wait out the Nazis in Poland, take in an abandoned child from his neglectful mother and father. Life with Ben, his sister, and his kindly parents seem to change young Otto's
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fortunes, but blood and Nazi propaganda will tell. The most striking parts of the novel take place during the struggle to survive in Poland and in the concentration camps, and Otto's slow conversion to evil. Forty years later, a chance viewing of a TV show in Chicago brings Ben and Otto (now Elliot) together, and Catherine, an attorney with a difficult past, takes Ben's case.

Set up as a mystery, the reveal comes too soon and the evil villain too predictably reveals his true nature.
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LibraryThing member sherrysiegal7886
A little long but I loved it!
LibraryThing member tamarack804
Many books have been wrote about the Jews of WWII but Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson puts a different twist on the subject. Historical fiction based in Nazi-occupied Poland goes back and forth between present day and WWII. Also a legal thriller as well, Ronald Balson is up there with
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Grisham and other great writers. The book is very well wrote. I was drawn into the story and became a part of book not wanting it to end, but wanting it to end so I would know all of Ben's story. I am looking forward to Ronald Balson's other books. If they are anything like this first book they will be great reads. A 5 plus star book. You will not put it down!
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Original publication date



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