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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson – Ben Solomon needs a lawyer. It is 2004 and the 83 year old survivor of the Holocaust has seen Chicago insurance billionaire, Elliot Rosenzweig on television.  Though 60 years have passed Solomon is convinced that Rosenzweig is actually Otto Piatek, an SS officer, who participated in the Holocaust and stole Solomon family assets. Trying to scare Rosenzweig into confessing Solomon confronts him at the Opera with a WW II Luger handgun. The gun is unloaded. When the gambit fails Solomon is left with pursuing Rosenzweig in the legal system.

With no resources to fund a lawsuit Solomon tries to find a lawyer who will take up his cause pro bono. No lawyers are interested. Who wants to take on one of the most prominent citizens of the city for no tangible benefit? While lawyers love causes they need income.

Solomon is further limited in the type of lawsuit he can bring against Rosenzweig. Limitation periods have long expired for a claim that Rosenzweig personally harmed Solomon. What remains is a claim for the return of property or the value of the property Solomon claims was stolen by Rosenzweig.

Private investigator, Liam Taggart, puts Solomon in touch with Catherine Lockhart, better known as “Cat”, a 39 year old woman looking to resurrect her legal career after a disastrous marriage.

Cat carves some time out of her busy schedule at a large Chicago firm to meet with Solomon. She insists she will only consider the merits of his case. If she thinks he has an action she will refer him to the Federal Department of Justice or a lawyer willing to take up the cause.

Then his story grabs her. Solomon grew up in Zamość, Poland where his father ran a successful glass manufacturing business and is an important member of the Jewish community. He tells her that Piatek, he refuses to call him Rosenzweig, was informally adopted by his family during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Piatek, while non-Jewish, fits well into the Solomon family.

During 1939 with war looming Piatek’s parents contact the Solomons. His mother, Ilse Piatek, working as an assistant in the office of Reinhard Heydrich, warns the family of the dangers of the Nazis and urges her son to leave the Solomons.

Solomon’s family story takes up 2/3 of the book. It is a history of the Holocaust through the life of a Jewish family.

The book delves into the decisions to be made by a family threatened by events they can hardly comprehend. Do you abandon home, community and relatives because of a threatened danger? Can the Nazis really be so evil for the Germans are a civilized nation?

Piatek’s transformation once he joins the SS is insidious. It reflects how many Germans are drawn step by step into the Final Solution.

Yet is Rosenzweig actually Piatek? Rosenzweig insists Solomon is wrong. While acknowledging he left Europe after the war he fiercely asserts he is not Piatek.

Our legal system is based on evidence not belief. Unlike the Nazis our legal decisions require proof. Rosenzweig should not be condemned and his hard earned reputation destroyed because of an accusation.

Can the law provide a measure of justice six decades after the wrong? I have seen it done in Canada. We have gradually been addressing wrongs done to Indian nations as far back as the 19th Century.

The book addresses good and evil from personal to national levels. Can the legal system confront evil for an individual?

What should a lawyer do about a worthy case that his/her firm is not prepared to launch in court?  Hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawyers’ time and expenses would be involved. Relationships with clients will be affected. In a firm not just the lawyer commencing the lawsuit is affected by a major court action.

Solomon never waivers. He is going to sue Rosenzweig and prove he is Piatek. He has lived his life by a motto he picked up from Polish partisans during the war – “never surrender”.

Having read a significant amount about WW II much of the information about the development of the Holocaust was already known to me. For a reader unacquainted with details of the Holocaust it will personalize the death of 6 million Jews.

It is excellent historical mystery fiction with a legal element. I wish the law had taken a greater role in the book.

Even before looking I could tell it was the author’s first novel. The dialogue is not as natural as that of authors who have been writing books of fiction for some time.

Once We Were Brothers will challenge a reader. I find reading about the Holocaust depressing. At the same time Balson does not limit the story to the bad in the lives of the Solomons. He shows life as it was in Occupied Poland. Sorrow dominates but there is joy. Ulimately I was reminded that the fabric of civilization is thin and uncomfortably fragile. (July 20/14)


  1. Bill, I like the plot and the characterisation and it is possible that something like this, perhaps not on this dramatic scale, could have actually happened in the post-WWII years. I believe there were instances of Nazi and Nazi sympathisers fleeing the war and assuming new masks and identities in the West. I can see why a "greater role" for the law would make this novel more interesting. I'm assuming that Solomon does not succeed in taking Rosenzweig to court. I hope to read the book and find out for myself.

    1. Prashant: Thanks for the comment. There were a significant number of Nazis who escaped Europe. In an earlier post I wrote a review of a book on the pursuit and capture of Adolph Eichmann in Argentina. At the same time there are great challenges with identification and proof decades after the war. I will be writing a post about the issue of identification of Nazis decades after the war.

  2. Bill - This does certainly sound like one of those books that make you think. And it raises some important legal and ethical questions. Mix that in with the historical aspect of the story and it's no wonder it engaged you.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I spent much of the book wondering what I would have done if I were Ben Solomon. Each decision to be made was wrenching.

  3. I salute Ben Solomon for trying to right a horrific wrong. I hope he was right.
    I don't know if I will read this. I try to stay away from WWII horrors, especially given that my grandparents and their siblings fled czarist pogroms from 1906 to 1913.

    If it were a legal mystery without all that WWII background, I wouldn't hestitate, as I love legal mysteries. But it sounds like too much to deal with.

    In regard to Nazis fleeing and resettling after WWII, all one has to do is read the New York Times obituaries. Every now and then I read one about a former Nazi guard or officer who just died at the age of 90 and had a quiet life in the U.S., occasionally in Canada.

    Also, Gordon Ferris (and other writers) discusses the Nazi's "ratlines" from Germany to
    Canada, the U.S. and South America, and mentions some who helped them. And Nazi scientists who developed bombs, like Werner von Braun were brought over here, wined and dined and brought into developing nuclear weapons and very well treated. An abomination!

    Lots has been written about the scientists. (And by the way, I recommend Ferris' Pilgrim Soul.)

    So, I don't think I'd read this. If I knew someone like Ben Solomon, I'd probably encourage him/ner to seek justice if there's enough evidence to open a case. And if I were a lawyer and earning enough to survive, I'd want to take a principled stand.

    Lots of legal mysteries are about lawyers who take risks to fight for a good cause, like Jake Brigance in A Time to Kill and Sycamore Row by John Grisham.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. As I read the book and wrote my post I thought of you. I expected you would be unlikely to read the book. I expect the story is too painfully real for someone with your heritage and family history.

      It is little surprise that Jake takes on unpopular cases. He essentially practises on his own. It is so much more complicated in a firm. So many lives within the firm can be adversely affected so a lawyer can pursue a cause.