Once We Were Brothers

St. Martin's Griffin   2013

Ben Solomon, a Holocaust survivor, publicly accuses Chicago’s well-connected, famous philanthropist, Elliot Rosenzweig, of being the Nazi Otto Piatek, “the butcher of Zamosc.” Solomon has to convince Catherine Lockhart, a young attorney, to help him find a way to sue Rosenzweig and expose him for war crimes. Solomon emotionally narrates the history of his family during World War II Poland which includes his relationship with Otto Piatek. The author describes the atrocities of wartime Poland and the beautiful eternal romance between Solomon and his true love, Hannah. Ben Solomon’s tale is gripping, but the reader gets a respite from the tension by the interspersed snippets about his growing friendship with Catherine and about her relationship with the case’s private investigator, Liam. We read about the politics and pressure in big law firms and about following one’s heart and intuition. Balson’s first novel is hard to put down.

Discussion Questions

Reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press

  1. Does it trouble you to think that remnants of the Nazi era may remain? Of the six hundred thousand SS members remaining at the end of the war, only a few thousand were actually brought to justice. Most escaped. Some to America. Only one hundred or so have been found and deported. Was Ben’s quest after all these years, in spite of Rosenzweig’s civic contributions, justified?

  2. Responding to someone who said, “I can't believe anybody cares about those events of so long ago,” Eli Rosenbaum, former head of the U.S. Office of Special Investigations, stated, “I think there’s particular value in showing would-be perpetrators that if one dares to perpetrate such crimes, there is a chance that he or she will be pursued for the rest of his or her life to locations thousands of miles from the locations of their crimes.” Where do you stand? Do you think we should continue seek out and prosecute now-elderly Nazi war criminals?

  3. It is said that “first impressions are lasting ones.” What were your first impressions of the principal characters? At what point did your opinion change? Why?

  4. Ben’s family had the opportunity to leave Europe at certain times in the story. When cousin Ziggy told them of the persecution in Germany and when Uncle Joseph came from Vienna, they could have all escaped through the mountains into Slovakia. Why didn’t they take advantage of each of those opportunities? Why did Jewish families remain?

  5. From the diaries of survivors, there are many stories of extraordinary heroism, of ordinary people who, in the darkest moments, find unbelievable strength and courage. Have you known such people? Where do you think they find such courage?

  6. If you had the opportunity to speak to any of the characters at any moment in the story, to whom would you choose to talk, what advice would you give, and what would you say?

  7. Ben was a religious man, as was Catherine. If religious doctrine preaches that God is all- knowing and omnipotent, how does a religious person accept the existence of the Holocaust in God’s world?

  8. Ethnic slaughter, the oppression of minorities, did not cease with the end of World War II. Does the world community today do enough to respond to the oppressors? What should be done?

  9. Why did Elisabeth decide to turn against her husband? Did it have anything to do with her fear of facing Ben?

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