The gripping tale about two boys, once as close as brothers, who find themselves on opposite sides of the Holocaust.
"A novel of survival, justice and redemption...riveting." Chicago Tribune, on Once We Were Brothers
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 is convinced he is right and engages attorney Catherine Lockhart to bring Rosenzweig to justice. Solomon persuades attorney Catherine Lockhart to take his case, revealing that the true Piatek was abandoned as a child and raised by Solomon's own family only to betray them during the Nazi occupation. But has Solomon accused the right man?
Once We Were Brothers is Ronald H. Balson's compelling tale of two boys and a family who struggle to survive in war-torn Poland, and a young love that struggles to endure the unspeakable cruelty of the Holocaust. Two lives, two worlds, and sixty years converge in an explosive race to redemption that makes for a moving and powerful tale of love, survival, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit.
About the Author
RONALD H. BALSON is a Chicago trial attorney, an educator and a writer. His practice has taken him to several international venues, including villages in Poland that inspired his first novel, Once We Were Brothers.
Read an Excerpt
Once We Were Brothers
By Ronald H. Balson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Ronald H. Balson
All rights reserved.
Chicago, Illinois, September 2004
Ben solomon stood before his bathroom mirror fumbling with his bow tie. He was eighty-three years old and getting dressed for Judgment Day. Years had come and gone since he had last worn his tuxedo, but then, Judgment Day was a black tie affair.
He uttered a Polish phrase to the man in the mirror and reached into his pocket to reexamine his pricey ticket.
Lyric Opera of Chicago. Opening Night Gala, September 26, 2004. La Forza del Destino. Main Floor, Aisle 2, Row kk, Seat 103 — a seat he did not intend to occupy. Truth be told, he didn't care much for opera. The ticket had set him back five hundred dollars, a goodly sum for a pensioner.
He pulled back the cuff of his shirtsleeve to check the time on his watch, a silver-band Citizen given to him when he retired from the Chicago Park District eight years ago. Four thirty — still two hours until the doors would open. He walked into his living room.
The windows of his modest one-bedroom apartment faced east, toward Lake Michigan and the row of condominium towers that stretched north in a line from the Loop to Thorndale Avenue like a stand of Midwest corn. The late-afternoon sun laid a track of shadows across Lake Shore Drive and onto the lush grass of the Waveland Golf Course, where he'd worked as a starter for almost fifty years. To his right, in the mirrored calm of Belmont Harbor, the luxury cruisers rested comfortably in their slips. He lingered. How he loved that view. He conceded that he might be looking at it for the last time.
Once more he checked his appearance in the mirror. He asked Hannah if he looked all right. Was he dapper? He wished she were there to answer.
Underneath his sweaters, in the bottom drawer of his bureau, lay a cardboard cigar box. Setting the box on the bureau top, he lifted the lid and removed a German P08 Luger, World War II vintage, in mint condition, purchased at an antique gun show for $1,250. Another hit to his savings account. He stuffed the pistol in his belt beneath his cummerbund.
Five o'clock. Time to walk to the corner, flag a southbound taxi, and join up with the glitterati at the "undisputed jewel of the social season."CHAPTER 2
In his dressing room on the second story of his Winnetka mansion, a generous four-acre estate set high on a bluff overlooking the lake, Elliot Rosenzweig stood fumbling with his cuff links. "Jennifer," he called out, "would you come help me, please?"
The young medical student, sparkling in her formal evening gown, breezed into the master suite and to the side of her grandfather, who was grappling with his French cuffs.
"Popi, we're going to be late if we don't hurry."
He watched her hands easily fasten the gold links. So supple, so young. Soon to be a surgeon's hands, he thought.
"There," she said.
Beaming with profound adoration, he kissed her on the forehead. "I'm so proud of you," he said.
"For fastening your cuffs?"
"For being my angel."
"I love you, too, Popi." She twirled and headed for the closet door.
"That's a beautiful dress," he called after her. "I like it."
"You should," she said over her shoulder, "it cost you a fortune. Nonna bought it for me at Giselle's. It's an original. Is Nonna going tonight?"
"No, I'm afraid not. She has another one of her headaches." He winked. "She hates these public events."
Jennifer lifted his Armani jacket from the hanger and held it for him as he slipped his arms through the sleeves. Smiling, she gave a short tug on his lapels and took a step back.
"You look very handsome tonight." She kissed him on his cheek. "Now we need to go. All our friends are waiting."
Together, hand in hand, they joined the rest of their entourage under the pink stone portico where the group filed into two limousines that would carry them downtown to the Civic Opera House. The iron security gates parted and the white limousines glided forward onto Sheridan Road and toward Chicago's Loop.CHAPTER 3
Festival banners hung from the art deco columns of the Civic Opera House's mezzanine and multicolored buntings looped from the balustrades, all gaily surrounding the opera celebrants gathered in the foyer below. Costumed servers carried champagne and hors d'oeuvres on silver platters. In the corner, a subgroup of the Lyric Orchestra played selections from Rossini overtures.
Raising her voice to be heard above the din of conversations, Jennifer asked, "How many years have you been coming to opening night, Popi?" She smiled as she accepted a canapé from an Elizabethan palace guard.
"Since 1958, angel. Although in those days they didn't pay so much attention to me."
"You mean you weren't a Platinum Grand Benefactor?"
"I always gave what I could to support the arts, but ..." His answer was interrupted by the approach of Chicago's mayor and first lady, who were being shuttled about by Lyric's artistic director.
"It's nice to see you again, Elliot. You're looking well."
"Thank you, Mr. Mayor. I think you know my granddaughter, Jennifer," he answered in the noisy hall. "It always brightens my day to see you and Edith." Rosenzweig flashed a congenial smile as he warmly took the hand of Chicago's first lady.
"Quite an event, the Lyric opening, thanks to you and the board," said Mayor Burton. "The city owes you a great deal, Elliot. You're a priceless resource."
"Maybe not so priceless, John." And the two of them laughed.
While they continued to exchange flatteries, Ben Solomon quietly wound his way through the crowd toward the Grand Benefactor. He was oblivious to the music. He heard no conversations. He saw only his target. Making his way across the floor, he declined a flute of champagne from a seventeenth-century Italian peasant girl and felt for the Luger in his belt. The Lyric quartet pizzicatoed through the delightful strains of La Gazza Ladra.
He paused until the mayor and his wife had moved on to the next grouping and walked directly to Rosenzweig, his heart pounding like a pile driver.
"What did you do with all that jewelry?" he said inches from Rosenzweig's face.
"Excuse me, sir?" said the esteemed donor with a smile, unsure if this was part of a staged repertoire. Perhaps an opera joke?
But there was no sign of frivolity. "Just curious," Solomon said. "I asked you what you did with the jewelry — you know, the watches, diamond bracelets, wedding bands. You had a whole chest full. Don't you remember?"
Rosenzweig looked to his granddaughter and shrugged.
"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about, sir."
In a flash, Solomon drew the polished Luger and pressed the barrel hard against Rosenzweig's forehead. A woman screamed. The crowd immediately backpedaled into a large ring.
"Popi!" screamed Jennifer.
"Recognize this gun, Otto? Should be real familiar to a Nazi officer," Solomon said, waving the crowd away with his left arm. "Look at me, Otto. It's Ben Solomon. Here we are, together again, just like when we were kids. Never thought you'd see me again, did you, Hauptscharführer Piatek?"
Rosenzweig held up his hands in conciliation. The room was silent except for the words he delivered, slowly and evenly.
"You've made a mistake, sir. My name is Elliot Rosenzweig. It's not Otto. Or Piatek. I've never been a Nazi. In fact, sir, I am a camp survivor."
Very slowly, he held out his left arm. "Jennifer, undo my cuff link and roll up my sleeve."
As she did, his forearm displayed the blackened tattoo: A93554.
The gunman considered the offering, and then sneered. "You're a lying Nazi murderer and I can see the fear in your eyes, Hauptscharführer. Scream and cry and beg, Otto, like the innocent women and children who cowered before you. Mothers and fathers and grandparents. People who never hurt a soul. And the babies. All the children." He gestured wildly to the stunned crowd. "Tell them who you really are. Look at them all. They're listening. The masquerade is finished."
From out of nowhere, Solomon was blindsided and knocked to the marble floor. The gun slid along the tiles and came to rest against the staircase. Tackled by a Chicago Bears linebacker in formal attire, Solomon lay curled on the floor, weeping, his head shuttered in his forearms.
As he was pulled to his feet by security guards, Solomon screamed, "He's a Nazi. He's a murderer. He's Otto Piatek. He's Otto Piatek." The screams melted into sobs as they led the old man away. "He's Otto Piatek."CHAPTER 4
Elliot rosenzweig agreed to appear live on Monday morning's local news program. Three television cameras were positioned in his paneled library where Elliot sat confidently on his leather couch beside the fireplace. Though into his eighties and a little fuller than in younger days, he showed no signs of wear. His shoulders were square and his posture erect. Frequent sojourns kept his complexion bronzed.
Over his shoulder, the leaded bay windows framed a riparian vista: a velvet lawn leading to the bluffs and the Lake Michigan shore fifty feet below. Guests often remarked that the overlook was magnificent.
He had given television interviews in his library many times over the years and as recently as six weeks earlier, when he announced plans for one of his foundations to support an exchange of young musicians from Beijing.
Behind the philanthropist sat a wall of books and mementos, pictures with the high and mighty, gifts from foreign dignitaries, and in the center, a framed key to the city of Chicago, presented to him in 2001 by the mayor and the City Council. There were no religious symbols in his home. He once commented that he abandoned God after God abandoned him in the concentration camps. He no longer practiced his faith.
"Elliot, thank you for agreeing to come on with us this morning," the newswoman said. "What a frightening experience that must have been for you last Saturday night. I know it was for me. I was standing just across the hall."
"Yes, it was, Carol." He smiled warmly. The cameras panned to capture the choppy lake through the library windows. Sailboats tilted in the late September winds. "I was scared to death for my granddaughter, who was standing right beside me."
"Do you have any explanation for why this man assaulted you or shouted such a wild accusation?"
"None whatsoever. The poor, disturbed fellow obviously has me confused with someone else. A man named Otto, who apparently was, or is, a Nazi."
"We've learned that Mr. Solomon was a prisoner in a concentration camp. We know that you were as well, but I think it was quite a surprise for most people when your granddaughter exposed your arm. I don't think that part of your life is something you've chosen to share with the public."
"It's not. Once liberated, I never really wanted to discuss it again. It's behind me. I've been in Chicago now for fifty-six years. I've made my life here, I have my businesses here and my family is here. I've been very blessed in many ways."
"Otto Piatek. Does that name mean anything to you?"
"Nothing at all. I've never known anyone in my life named Piatek."
"You've been a prominent Chicagoan for so many years, on the boards of many civic organizations, yet you came here as a refugee after the war. Have you ever thought about writing a book? I think it would be inspirational."
"I'm too old for that. I'll be eighty-three next month." He chuckled and took a sip of coffee. "I was fortunate. I made acquaintances and invested money wisely. Business is a boring subject to most people, especially the insurance business. Would that fascinate you, Carol, to read a book on mergers of insurance underwriters? I don't think such a book would sell too many copies."
"What's going to happen to Mr. Solomon now? Have they told you?"
He shook his head. "I really don't know. It's quite obvious he needs help. He's very troubled."
"He's been charged with attempted murder."
"Yes, well, that's up to the prosecutors and the police. I pity the poor fellow. I hope he gets help."
Carol leaned forward and extended her hand. "Thank you, Elliot Rosenzweig, for joining us this morning. We're all glad that you weren't hurt."
"You're welcome, Carol," he said and unclipped the microphone from the panel of his silk shirt.
* * *
When the tv crew had left, Elliot remained in his study, awaiting his secretary of twenty years. Soon a tall man, graying at the temples, conservative in his dark pinstripe suit and polished wingtips, entered the room and closed the door.
"You sent for me, sir?"
"Brian, do you know anything about this Otto Piatek? Do you know who he is?" said Elliot quietly.
"No, sir, I do not."
"Nor do I, but I have been publicly accused of being him."
Brian took a seat, crossed his legs, and set his writing pad on his lap. "Nobody believes him. Everyone thinks he's a crazy old man. That's what the papers say."
Elliot nodded and hesitated. "Still ... it's an accusation delivered by a man who passionately believes it to be true, and it's hanging out there. It's a cloud on my reputation. Do you suppose there are people, maybe even friends of mine, who are now wondering, even if just a little, whether or not I could be a Nazi?"
"No, sir. Not at all."
"Hmm. I'm not so sure. Makes for great party talk. People love scuttlebutt." Elliot leaned forward and hit his palm with his fist. "I want to squelch it. Quickly. Permanently. I want you to find out who Otto Piatek is — or was."
Brian jotted a couple of notes.
"Contact that fellow over at Regency, the investigation firm we used last year on the DuPage industrial park. He's got a lot of local contacts."
"Why do you want a local guy, if I may ask?"
"I think it's very possible that Mr. Solomon has been tracking this Nazi and has determined that he resides in Chicago. Maybe he does."
"Anything else, sir?"
Elliot pondered for a moment. "Yes. I also want you to find out whatever you can about Solomon. Use Wuld if he can help you. I want to know why this man would focus on me, of all people."
"Maybe he has ulterior motives."
"You think he wants money?"
"No," Elliot said. "He stood inches from me. I saw the look in his eyes. They were filled with fire." He shook his head. "It's not for money."
Brian stood to leave and Elliot added, "Brian, let's keep this whole thing under wraps. Whatever information is uncovered, I want it to come directly to me. This has to be tightly managed. No leaks. If there's news, I want to be the one to break it to the media. If we should be lucky enough to find this Piatek and flush him out into the open, I want to personally release it. That will certainly remove any doubts about who I am."
Brian gave a sharp nod and left to do his work.CHAPTER 5
A telephone buzzed on a desk in the Chicago law offices of Jenkins & Fairchild. Catherine Lockhart, her elbow resting on a stack of 7th Circuit appellate decisions, her desktop cluttered with graphs and financial statements, lifted the handset.
"Miss Lockhart, it's Mr. Taggart on line three."
"Hi, Liam. Did you locate George Crosby?" she said.
"Not yet. He's not at the bank anymore. But that's not why I'm calling."
"Do we have something else going on?"
"Only in my dreams, Cat."
"Ah, Liam. You wouldn't want to be anywhere near me today. Let's just stick to business. What are we doing besides Crosby?"
"Nothing. That's the only assignment I have from you, but I called to ask whether you have any free time for me this afternoon."
"Not today, not this week. I'm literally buried in work. So why don't we talk ..."
"It's personal," he interrupted. "Can you spare a little time?"
"Can I come by about two thirty? I'll tell you about it when I get there."
"Of course," she said and set down the phone, concerned that her old friend might have stumbled into some trouble.
Two hours later, Liam appeared at her office door carrying a paper bag and two Starbucks cups. He paused at the doorway and shook his head at the sight. The credenza, side table, and desk were covered with file jackets, groups of papers, yellow pads, open casebooks, and empty water bottles. Banker's boxes, filled with sheaves of documents separated by color-coded tabs, lined the walls.
"You weren't kidding," he said.
Excerpted from Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson. Copyright © 2013 Ronald H. Balson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I. The Confrontation,
II. Ben Solomon's Story,
III. The Lawsuit,
About the Author,