"'And I am not a Christian,' said my father. 'And now that we know what we're not, why don't you come in and have a cup of tea.'
"So they sat in the parlor and talked. Stanislaw cried. He had no way to care for his son. He had lost his job as a woodcutter in the forest outside Zamosc and he'd been evicted from the workers' compound at the lumber company. He had no place to live and no money. Otto's mother had abandoned them and run back to her family in Leipzig, Germany. 'My son is freezing,' Stanislaw said. 'I cannot keep him warm.'
"There were newspapers stuffed in the soles of Otto's shoes to keep out the snow. Stanislaw cursed his German wife who had run off. Even if he could find a job, what was he supposed to do with Otto? He'd been told that my father had helped some people get back on their feet.
"It took my mother but a second to see that Otto needed dinner and a bath. She took him by the hand and walked him straight into the bathroom where she filled the tub with hot water. Afterward she asked me to sit with him at the kitchen table where she fed him roast and potatoes.
"Otto and I were about the same size, so we gave him clean clothes. I remember that night like it was yesterday. He sat at the table, staring straight ahead, eating two helpings of everything. And never said a word.
"My mother returned to the kitchen with the news that Otto would be staying with us for a while...Otto was to live with us and share my bedroom. I was less than thrilled, but my mother had laid down the law."
"How long did Otto live with you?" Catherine said.
"For the better part of six years... At our home, Otto received equal portions and was given equal responsibilities. Beka and I had chores, so Otto was given chores, too. My mother knew that taking on responsibilities would give him pride and self-worth.
"She did everything to treat him fairly. When I got new clothes, so did Otto. When we took our winter vacation at Uncle Joseph's and I got new boots, Otto did too. I think my parents became resigned to the fact that Otto would grow to manhood in our home.
"Beka and I attended school at the Jewish academy, but Stanislaw, in one of his few erly, said he thought it best that Otto go to the public school. I don't kow whether Stanislaw ever went to church, but Otto was baptized a Catholic...
"And you shared your room with Otto?"
"I did, and eventually Otto and I became fast friends. We were the same age, we have similar interests and enjoyed the same activities, although Otto was much stronger than I--he was the athletic type. I was more of a bookworm. My Grandpa Yaakov had horses on his farm and we would ride on Sundays. We would pretend to be American cowboys. Tom Mix, Gene Autry," he said with a slight grin..."
Once We Were Brothers
Ronald H. Balson
Readers of this novel will become involved with finding, proving, and prosecuting a possible war criminal, now living in Chicago. That part of the novel is dramatic, action-oriented and full of suspense as to whether the man, now going under a different name, with great wealth and societal acceptance, is really Otto Piacek, a man once known as...
But the real story that you will fall into...and be controlled by...is the story told by Ben, who once lived as brother with that same man when he had been hungry and needed food, when he had been cold and needed clothing... Otto became a part of and treated equally in Ben's family during the Depression in Poland...
His becoming part of the Nazi Germany occupation changed that little boy.
Ben now sought...
"Ben Solomon stood before his bathroom mirror fumbling with his bow tie. He was eight-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...
"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 PO8 Lugar, 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 forty-five. Time to walk to the corner, flag a southbound taxi, and join up with the glitterati at the 'undisputed jewel of the social season."
"...The city owes you a great deal, Elliott. 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 Lugar in his belt.
"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 have a whole chest full. Don't you remember?"
..."I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about, sir."
"In a flash, Solomon drew the polished Lugar and pressed the barrel hard against Rosenzweig's forehead...
"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, Hauptscharfuhrer Piatek?"
I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to receive an ARC of this novel, Once We Were Brothers, which is due out early this month. As you can see, it became one of my favorite books read this year. In fact, I also have the opportunity for a Giveaway, so be sure to express your interest as a comment here or on my interview with the author... Actually, you may have already heard of the book--it was first self-published and sold, word-of-mouth over 120,000 copies. It has been picked up by St. Martins, one of my favorite publishers, so be sure to look for the latest version in case there were any small changes...
Ben Solomon. What can I say but that you will be enthralled with his memorable story. In fact, another character in the book, Catherine Lockhart, was so affected by he and his story that she wound up losing her job over him. Her law firm had refused to allow her to represent him, after being coerced by the opposition! She quit! I loved it! Two other devoted friends, Adele and Liam also totally supported Ben, knowing that he was telling the truth, believing him even when they had not yet found proof...
But, as usual, I get ahead of myself with books I'm excited about! So, back to how the book begins... Ben is now in his 80s and out for blood...I'll let you find out whether that's figurately or literally. In any event, he had seen a picture of a man now calling himself Elliott, who was a prominent resident in the Chicago society. He knew immediately that he was actually Otto Piatek, a man who had been a Nazi officer and involved with the activities related to prisoners of war in Poland...
He had also once lived with Ben's family, sharing Ben's bedroom as a brother...
Ben did do a foolish thing--he'd taken a gun to confront Elliott during a major opera performance! And, of course, had been arrested... Adele and Liam had already met Ben. It was Liam, who also served as an investigator for her, that recommended Ben meet with Catherine for representation.
Almost immediately she was stressing that her calendar did not allow for her taking any clients! And readers will immensely enjoy how Ben starts telling his story, with Catherine continually interrupting, asking for specifics, evidence, etc. Ben calmly continues to let her know that his story is, indeed, part of the evidence. What he knows is that if he can develop passion in Catherine--that she will become committed to helping him. And, of course, Catherine does exactly that, spending hours and hours listening to Ben tell what happened all those years ago...
And Readers will have total access! Can't wait until you tell me he pulled you in too! By the way, Ben is Jewish, so tells much about the Holocaust. But the story is much more about Poland and one location in particular there in that country...
"In the early 1930s, I was a child growing up in southern Poland, in a town called Zamosc. I had a warm and loving family.
My father's name was Abraham. My mother's name was Leah. God rest their souls. We lived in a three-story home in the Jewish quarter of the city."
"...Zamosc was the jewel of prewar Poland, a gingerbread city built by an Italian architect in the sixteenth century and modeled after the Italian city of Padua. So colorful, so magical it was, you would swear you wode up in Renaissance Italy," Ben said.
..."There were linen doilies on polished tables, Miss Lockhart. Each piece of furniture in our home was special. It had significance. Not like today, when women buy groups of mass-produced generic furniture from warehouse sales on credit terms. Each of my mother's pieces was a treasure to her. Some were heirlooms, passed to her from her parents and their parents, to be passed on to her children and their children. Do you understand what I'm saying? Her home was a reflection of who she was..."
"Before the war, Zamosc was a multicultural city--Greeks, Armenians, Scots, Hungarians, Russians, Italians. And so there were Greek neighborhoods, Russian neighborhoods, Jewish neighborhoods. But we all got along. The mystery of other cultures was something we were taught to respect. In those days, Zamosc was about forty percent Jewish...
"Zamosc was also blessed geographically. The surrounding countryside was like an impressionist's canvas, with thick forests, clear rivers, and rolling hills. Farmlands lay to the north and east. And in the middle our little pastel village. All in all, Zamosc was an idyllic place to live. That was before the Germans decided we were a subspecies to be exterminated like a colony of ants..."
I'll let Ben share his story as you read...
While Catherine and Liam put together a civil suit, seeking an equivalent value for money and jewelry that Otto had stolen during the war, Ben keeps ensuring them that everything will work out--in the meantime, stopping to talk to his dead wife, or to pause in memory of a specific incident. Would he be able to handle a court case and be accepted as rational and a good witness?
This research activity is exciting to watch as identification, false papers, government records are all sought out and compared. They thought they had a good enough case and proceeded to plan for trial...
I am going to wholeheartedly recommend this novel to you, if you want not only a great legal novel, but care about how people treat each other--and applaud when the bad guy faces judgment!
Ronald H. Balson is an attorney practicing with the firm of Stone, Pogrund and Korey in Chicago. The demands of his trial practice have taken him into courts across the United States and into international venues. An adjunct professor of business law at the University of Chicago for twenty-five years, he now lectures on trial advocacy in federal trial bar courses. Travels to Warsaw and southern Poland in connection with a complex telecommunications case inspired this novel.