Ronald H. Balson has another Holocaust story to tell, and he tells it well.
Karolina’s Twins chronicles the journey of a young Jewish Polish schoolgirl who becomes a Holocaust survivor wracked with regret, but also with much resolve. Lena Woodward is on a mission she has let lapse for 70 years. She must find her best friend’s abandoned twin daughters and is now determined to return to Poland to keep her sacred promise to her dead friend.
Lena and Karolina grow up innocently in Chrzanow, Poland, but their lives change when Germany invades. The teenagers, their families taken away, must now live by their wits to survive brutal factory labor, the ghetto, and the occupation. Karolina finds love, solace, and food with a German soldier while Lena is watched after by the factory overseer and a sympathetic Nazi officer. Their tenacity, bravery, and skills keep them alive. Lena displays a reservoir of courage as she helps her friend care for her babies, risks her life for the Resistance, and daringly attempts escapes to survive each day. The friendship and faithfulness, suffering, and love Lena and Karolina experience haunt Lena as she lives out her life in Chicago.
Paralleling Lena’s account is the continuing story and return of the team of Attorney Catherine Lockhart and private investigator Liam Taggart, core characters of Balson’s previous novels. Catherine and Liam are now in a new phase of their relationship, living together and expecting a child.
While Lena’s retelling of her story is the main focus of the book, Cat must also deal with Lena’s belligerent son, Arthur. He feels his aged mother is suffering from dementia and is obsessed with finding twins he never heard about, investigating and corroborating Lena’s memories that constantly tug and nag at Catherine as not being complete or entirely open.
So much of the structure of the book is Lena relating her narrative to Cat and plot driven that all the characters are not fleshed out or developed fully, but Lena’s WWII experiences and the present-day Chicago storylines keep the story moving quickly and build suspense and interest: the need to know about the twins, the horrific circumstances, the history, and Lena’s personal torment compel the reader to turn page after page to learn the final outcome.
Balson has loosely based the story of Lena Scheinman Woodward on the life of a Holocaust survivor he met while on tour for Once We Were Brothers. In his Acknowledgements, the author discusses the extensive research involved for this novel. Balson had visited the small towns and larger cities of Poland as well as Auschwitz-Birkenau, museums and libraries, and extensively studied historical documents. He relates an abundance of facts and information through Lena’s narrative; most compelling are the firsthand accounts of how the Nazis took over each town, installed curfews and life-changing restrictions, blacked out news, and separated the Jews from the general populace. The disease, hunger, lack of space, and hopelessness of ghetto life as well as the forced slave labor, liquidation of the ghettos, Judenrats, death marches, and concentration camp existence are rendered and harrowingly absorbed into Lena’s and Karolina’s story.
Central to Karolina’s Twins are the questions of what survivors can share, what they will talk about, how they remember, and coming to terms with their memories and their own survival. Lena must face deeply guarded secrets she had locked away for 70 years and also deal with the reality of today. Balson has created a stately, proud, accomplished, and humane heroine to tell his story.