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148 of 153 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars NOT YOUR USUAL LEGAL THRILLER
When I learned that my law school classmate, Ronald Balson, had written a
legal novel entitled, Once We Were Brothers, I knew that I just had to read it. If I
expected to read something along the lines of a Turrow, Grisham or Martini, legal
thriller, I was pleasantly surprised - it wasn't.

The story begins when Ben Solomon, an 83 year old retired...
Published on May 13, 2011 by Charles J. Aron

versus
57 of 67 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Writing Compromises Captivating Premise
A fine and compelling premise is not enough to make a book great. Such is the case with "Once We Were Brothers." I hate to say anything negative about a book that sets its Holocaust tale in Poland, a perspective less explored in fiction than some others. The book's historical accuracy, in fact, makes many scenes heartbreakingly real. The plot structure, however, is very...
Published on July 5, 2012 by Roberta Proctor


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148 of 153 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars NOT YOUR USUAL LEGAL THRILLER, May 13, 2011
By 
Charles J. Aron "chuckruns" (Chicago, IL United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Once We Were Brothers (Paperback)
When I learned that my law school classmate, Ronald Balson, had written a
legal novel entitled, Once We Were Brothers, I knew that I just had to read it. If I
expected to read something along the lines of a Turrow, Grisham or Martini, legal
thriller, I was pleasantly surprised - it wasn't.

The story begins when Ben Solomon, an 83 year old retired city worker,
appears at the opening night gala of Chicago's Lyric Opera and puts a gun to the
head of Elliot Rosenzweig, an insurance magnate and one of Chicago's most
prominent citizens and philanthropists. We learn that the gun was unloaded and
Ben says that his motive was that he wanted to exposed Elliot as being an
impostor - that Elliot really was Otto Piatek, a former SS officer known in Poland
as the "Butcher of Zamosc". It was at this time that Elliot Rosenzweig declared
for the first time that he was himself a Holocaust survivor and definitely not an
SS officer. He then revealed his arm which bore a concentration camp tattoo.
Who would represent Ben? This crime was committed in front of hundreds of
people and Rosenzweig had been declared by the Mayor Chicago to be "Chicago's
treasure."

Attorney Catherine Lockhart, who was working for one of Chicago's major
white collar firms, made the "mistake" that many attorneys do, by answering her
telephone. She was asked if she could do a favor for a friend - words an attorney
hates to hear. What was supposed to be only an hour or two of listening to the tale
of this "delusional" old man, turned into many hours of interviews with Ben, who
tells his tale with astounding and poignant clarity and no matter how hard
Catherine pushes him to "get to the point", he has a tale to tell, and he will tell it
in his own way and in his own time. Even after the original charges were
dropped, because Elliot refused to prosecute a delusional old man, Ben insisted
that he be allowed to persist in HIS charges, and Catherine agrees.
The story shifts, back and forth from Chicago, 2004, to Poland from 1936-
1944, with vivid (and in the case of Chicago - geographically accurate) images
from both eras. As we hear Ben's story - how his family took in a young German
boy and raised him as their own, only for him to leave their house when grown
and return as an SS Officer, known as the "Butcher of Zamosc", we see how the
Jewish community in Poland dealt with the ever growing Nazi threat. Ben tells the
story of his family and his love for Hannah, his wife. It is a story of hope and
despair; of heroism and cowardice; of loyalty and treachery. All of these traits
were found in Poland AND in Chicago. Unlike many Holocaust stories, this story
does not take place in the Camps - it deals with Ben's family and community and
how they dealt (or in some cases - didn't) with the threat to their very being.
Meanwhile, in the scenes taking place in Chicago, we find Catherine
becoming more and more involved with Ben. She does so at the threat of losing
her job with her firm and, at times, in danger of losing more. No matter how clear
Ben is in his description of the atrocities caused at the hands of Otto (Elliot), there
is one continuous problem - he has no proof.

Elliot is now represented by one of the larger law firms in Chicago and they
are attempting to drown Catherine in paper. The Judge appears to have a certain
"sympathy" for Elliot. Elliot is the darling of the media. This is definitely a David
v. Goliath venture. However, a theme developed between Ben and Catherine and
which was the motto of the Polish Freedom Fighters (and the motto of most
criminal defense attorneys) - "Nigdy sie nie Poddamy" Never Surrender."
The novel ends with an exciting and somewhat unexpected finish and don't
be surprised if you find a tear or two running down your cheeks.

If a lawyer spends a great number of years representing indigent clients,
often fighting the system, he or she often becomes more than a little jaded and
their "legal battery" becomes more than a little in need of a recharge. Charles
Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" opens with the immortal line, "It was the best of
times; it was the worst of times." In "Once We We Brothers", Balson writes of the
best in humanity and the worst in humanity; the best in the law and the worst in
the law; and the best in lawyers and the worst in lawyers. If you find your "legal
battery" is in need of a recharge, or your moral compass needs a reset, this novel
is just what you need.
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105 of 111 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good. Entertaining and informative, August 19, 2011
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This review is from: Once We Were Brothers (Paperback)
I bought this on a friend's recommendation and didn't really know what to expect. Historical fiction based in Nazi-occupied Poland, bouncing back and forth to present day America. I ended up loving this book. It is part legal thriller, part action/love story, and part history book. The descriptions of Europe and what was happening from a human perspective in the 1940's were so vivid that I actually feel more informed and knowledgeable after having read it. You can tell that the author really did his research. Enjoyable and informative - I can't ask for much more than that. It's a cliche to say that you "just couldn't put the book down." But last night, I had intended to go to bed at around 10 PM. When did I actually get to bed? 2 AM, after I finished this book.
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46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thrill from start to finish!!!, February 23, 2011
This review is from: Once We Were Brothers (Paperback)
I am infamous for picking up a novel and quickly diverting my attention to something else. This book, however, had me captivated from the moment I opened it. There wasn't a moment I saw myself at a good stopping point. The book flows remarkably. These words quickly transformed into vivid imagery that has resonated since I finished it over a year ago. This gorgeous painting of literature deeply demonstrates a holocaust survivor's profound triumph through unspeakable tragedy, as well as his undying quest for justice. Though the novel recreates world war 2 poland through Ben Solomon's retelling, it picks up, without a hiccup, to near present day Chicago. Loved it and I'm reading it again now. Don't be surprised if it ends up in theaters.
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57 of 67 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Writing Compromises Captivating Premise, July 5, 2012
By 
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A fine and compelling premise is not enough to make a book great. Such is the case with "Once We Were Brothers." I hate to say anything negative about a book that sets its Holocaust tale in Poland, a perspective less explored in fiction than some others. The book's historical accuracy, in fact, makes many scenes heartbreakingly real. The plot structure, however, is very clunky. Circumstances are forced to drive the plot, and these circumstances strain the narrative. Characters at times are drawn almost as types, rather than as round, flesh and blood characters and the accompanying dialogue is often stiff.

The book's premise described thoroughly in many other reviews is extremely compelling, and the shifting events from present-day Chicago to WWII era Poland and back create a tense narrative that makes for a page-turning read. It is not, however, an elegantly written book. I do believe, however, that this author shows great promise. I would read another of his books to see if he lives up to the promise suggested by this one.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At heart, it's a love story., July 23, 2010
This review is from: Once We Were Brothers (Paperback)
Ron Balson's first novel, Once We Were Brothers, combines the best of historical fact, spellbinding fiction and personal drama. Although set in war-torn Europe and the legal world of modern Chicago, it's not your typical courtroom drama with historical flashbacks; it's also a love story that crosses both time and geographical boundaries. As an attorney in Chicago who also has spent time in southern Poland, I know firsthand that this book is accurate in its portrayal of both worlds. Add well-developed fictional characters, suspense and a great ending, and you won't be able to put this book down.Once We Were Brothers
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars will make a great movie!, June 28, 2010
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This review is from: Once We Were Brothers (Paperback)
This book is an excellent fast paced read; a really great summer time read. It moves from start to finish, going from Chicago to Poland and back seamlessly throughout the story. I am not an attorney, but the legal scenes seem real. The deposition of Otto near the end of the book takes on a life of its own with the excitement just building. There is a lot to learn in this book, even for those of us who are Jewish, and have read and studied the Holocaust all of our lives. The interesting part of this was that the novel does not take place in a concentration camp, nor in a death camp; we see how people in a Polish town had to deal with the pressures of Nazi rule. We see Otto change from a sympathetic boy, raised by a Jewish family, into a despicable adult capable of terrible crimes. My only criticism is that Otto's character could be more fully developed by narrating from his perspective. Then we would have the contrast between Otto and Ben truly defined, and the tension would likely be even greater. I think the end was brilliant; as Elliot/Otto is arrested and shouting "do you know who I am..." there are reminders of today's powerful people who have also been humbled. The transition from a civil to a criminal case was beautiful, and again I am not a lawyer. I am told these scenes were realistic, especially for Chicago; they seem universal to me, with Chicago being the city whose politics are known to the author. This is an outstanding first novel; I am looking forward to the movie!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unforgettable from start to finish, March 17, 2010
By 
This review is from: Once We Were Brothers (Paperback)
With his remarkable first novel, Chicago attorney Ron Balson weaves together a legal thriller, historical fiction, and love story that will have you hooked from page one. Once We Were Brothers is an unforgettable tale that spans 60 years and takes you from the horror of Nazi-occupied Poland to a modern day Chicago courtroom.

When 83-year old Ben Solomon appears at the opening night gala of Chicago's Lyric Opera, points a gun at one of the city's most prominent philanthropists, and accuses him of being an architect of torture in Nazi Germany, he sets in motion a story of treachery and loyalty, cowardice and courage, love and betrayal, and ultimately of faith. As Ben is disarmed and dragged away to jail, his intended victim Eliot Rosenzweig reveals for the first time that he is himself a Holocaust survivor. In a seeming act of sympathy and forgiveness Eliot declines to prosecute Ben and dismisses him as a delusional old man. Despite having no evidence to support his accusation, and only his memories of a time 60 years ago, Ben is relentless in his determination to reveal that Eliot Rosenzweig is not the grand benefactor the world knows, but a man capable of unspeakable acts of evil.

Recounting his heartbreaking story to Catherine Lockhart, Ben's reluctant and cynical young attorney, he reveals that the man known as Eliot Rosenzweig was Otto Piatek, an impoverished boy in pre-World War II Poland who Ben's father brought into their home and treated like a son. Raised as brothers in boyhood, Ben and Otto grew into enemies on opposite sides of a brutal conflict when the Nazis invaded Poland. As Ben's tale unfolds, he not only provides a compelling case, he also forces Catherine to revisit the tragedies of her own past.

Once We Were Brothers is a journey of history, geography, and emotion that will leave you questioning who is the villain and who is the victim. Is Ben merely a confused old man or is Eliot, revered for his generosity and integrity, truly Hauptscharfurher Otto Piatek a notorious Nazi SS office driven by greed and power? This question will keep you in suspense until the final pages.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Compelling Story, Mediocre Writing, May 30, 2012
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For a story line that is woven into Holocaust history, the book rates four stars. But, the author falls short in the areas of scene transition, suffusing the secondary characters (Catherine, Liam, et al)with adequate descriptions, and providing enough back story for them (in the earlier pages)to help the reader understand their importance to one another. Dialogue ranges from realistic to amateurish, rating just three stars.

Other negatives include:
* Bolson's research is evident, albeit flawed in places. For example, pogroms plagued Poland long before World War II, although one of his characters claims otherwise.
* The early lack of character description weakens the reader's bonding to the protagonists.
* Scenes with the lawyer are usually set in her office/her home and inevitably begin with a focus on a mug of tea and/or food--unimaginative and boring.

To his credit, Bolson's best work is his secondary story of life in Poland. He was able to engage the reader and maintain momentum, especially in the second half of the book. Even the relationships of the present day characters improved in the latter section of the story. Maybe this book is a warm-up for the author, with better things to come.

For those who lack information about the rise of Hitler and Naziism's spread through Eastern Europe, this book offers a narrowly focused history lesson. It includes the point of view of an elderly Jewish Holocaust survivor but, takes pains to describe gentiles who risked their lives to live according to their moral compasses and not by the dictates of a madman.

At times poignant, this story-within-a-story is compelling but, belabored by its negative features. While I would not decline to read a future book by Bolson, it wouldn't be my first choice.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, September 3, 2013
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This book came highly recommended, and that may be why it was such a letdown. There are so many powerful Holocaust books. In the past year, I read The Invisible Bridge (about the holocaust as it affected Hungary and France), and The Storyteller (which had two intersecting stories, switching from past to present. A couple of years ago I read Sarah's Key, which felt like a punch in the stomach and had me sobbing. I want to like all of them, because it's important that we never forget.

But Once We Were Brothers is, simply, not well written. I didn't love The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult, either. It was similar in many ways. In The Storyteller, a former Nazi officer is living a quiet unassuming life in a small town and befriends a Jewish woman. He wants her forgiveness. The book was well crafted; the only thing I really didn't like was that the author used characters' dialogue to present exposition and I found it unnatural and pedantic.

In Once We Were Brothers, the author used the same device, but that's not the worst of it. A nice Polish boy becomes a Hauptfuhrer, and years later is a well-respected philanthropist under an assumed identity. (I don't mind spoiling the suspense because I don't recommend the book anyway.) The author has another grown Polish man try to bring down this well-respected man, because he knows he is a Nazi and a killer, and the reason he knows this is he grew up with him as if they were brothers. The Holocaust story is of course compelling - it can't help but be. But the story that takes place in 2004 is badly written. The modern characters are undeveloped cardboard characters. When the author wanted to make a point about something historical involving the Nazis, he had the female attorney pose the question, and the old Polish Jew explained. This device was unconvincing, as the attorney was ostensibly well read and intelligent and hadn't been living in a cave, not reading anything about the Holocaust or seeing any movies. I didn't believe it and found it annoying. Really, you shouldn't waste your time. Rather, read The Invisible Bridge, or Sarah's Key, or go back to The Last of the Just. Or see a movie: The Black Book, or Life is Beautiful. Or even Diary of a Young Girl. This book is not worth the read.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Historically accurate, half riveting and half clumsy, October 24, 2013
By 
Karen A. Wyle (Bloomington, IN) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
My mother, who barely escaped prewar Poland, recommended this book for its historical accuracy. I trust her assessment, and the book certainly paints a detailed and vivid picture of a way of life and its destruction. My mother was less concerned with the book's merit as a novel -- which is where, for me, it falls somewhat short.

There are two timelines, and the historical narrative is by far the better of the two, though the device of having it told in the present does not always work well. The characters of Ben Solomon, his family, his girl, and his foster brother turned enemy, Otto Piatek, are well realized and nuanced, and their story is compelling. The present-day story is not nearly as well written. The attorney, Catherine, is largely a cardboard figure, with occasional abrupt injections of backstory and emotion. The plot teeters between suspenseful and predictable. We have hints of characterization for Elliot Rosenzweig, whom Ben accuses of being Otto Piatek, but they are more tantalizing than satisfying. (The resolution takes a rather cavalier approach to minor characters, ignoring, for example, the consequences of certain plot developments for Elliot's daughter.) Some of the legal proceedings are less than convincing, though I'm picky on that subject.

The novel was Balson's first, and I've read worse first efforts, but there's a somewhat amateurish feel to it at times.
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Once We Were Brothers
Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H Balson (Paperback - February 15, 2010)
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