Imagine looking at the face of the person you once trusted with your life. Then imagine looking at that person and not recognizing who they are. The person you once loved like family betrays you in the worst possible way. Years later you find the strength to go on, but that betrayal still cuts you to the bone. One day you want to see that person pay for their crimes not just against you and your family, but against humanity. But bringing that person to justice could be the hardest fight of your life.
In Ronald H. Balson's thoroughly engrossing novel Once We Were Brothers, Ben Solomon makes it his life's mission to bring Elliot Rosenzweig to justice for his crimes as a Nazi officer.
Now living in Chicago, 83-year-old Ben should be enjoying his retirement. His beloved wife, Hannah, is gone physically, but he still holds onto to the memories of her. He even speaks to her. It might seem strange to some, but Ben often finds strength and inspiration in these conversations. That's how Ben knows the journey he is about to embark on is the right one.
Growing up in the small town of Zamosc, Poland, family was important. Ben has never forgotten Otto Piatek, the man he once considered a brother. The man Ben's father raised as his own after being abandoned by his parents. The man he once shared a room with. The man he once played with. But with the threat of war, that man slowly changed and ultimately became known as "The Butcher of Zamosc." Ben's own father convinced Otto to join Hitler's army, believing that the man he considered to be family could find a way to protect them. Initially he did, but slowly Otto changed. His help waned. A once kind and sympathetic person turned into a cold, ruthless, and brutal killer. Ben could never forget his actions and he could never forget his face.
"...we must remain diligent and relentlessly pursue men like Piatek. Evil is contagious. Much like a pathogen, it must be snuffed out at the source." -- Pg. 139
It's easy to say that the war has ended, but for some the memory will never end.
The war is long over but the memories of the past are never far from Ben's consciousness. When he spots a man who looks exactly like Otto Piatek on television, Ben is determined to bring him to justice. The man he once knew is now known as Elliot Rosenzweig, an influential and wealthy Chicago businessman. Ben wants the world to know the kind of man Elliot really is. But how? His initial attempts to bring attention to his cause are met with resistance and Ben just looks like a crazy old man. A crazy old man that attorney Catherine Lockhart can't ignore. Catherine is rebuilding her career and getting bogged down with a dog of a lawsuit isn't what she needs right now. But there is something about Ben. She wants to believe him. Believing in him gives Catherine more confidence within.
This is a thoroughly engrossing story. I'm such a sucker for World War II fiction. When Ben tells his story, Catherine is transported back to wartime Poland right along with him -- and so was I. There is just the right mix of suspense and heart-breaking emotion. As a character, Ben is the strongest. No matter the obstacle he refused to give up. Living under Nazi rule, he always found a way to protect his family. In the face of brutal torture in a prison camp, he found a way to survive. Faced with endless legal battles and actual physical danger at the hands of Otto/Elliot, Ben still wouldn't give up. He could not be bought. Unlike Otto, there was no price that could be paid for Ben's soul. He has to keep going, until "The Butcher of Zamosc" is brought to justice. Catherine draws her strength from Ben and her friend Liam, a private investigator. Every time Catherine doubts herself and her abilities as a lawyer, Ben and Liam are there to reassure her.
At times this was hard to read. I wanted to look away, but I kept going because I was totally captivated by this moving and emotional story.
Rating: O.M.G. !!!
Note: I received a copy of the book from Wunderkind PR in exchange for an honest review.