Mon­u­ment to the Ghet­to Heroes, War­saw, Poland; pho­to by Bosyan­tek as seen from the west­ern side

On my desk in Chica­go is a quote from Joan Did­ion that reads, I am a writer. Imag­in­ing what some­one would say or do comes to me as nat­u­ral­ly as breath­ing.” Well, it may for Did­ion, but it doesn’t always come that eas­i­ly for me. Still, the idea remains an aspi­ra­tion for this fic­tion writer.

I have been writ­ing for almost fifty years, but for most of that time my work has been non­fic­tion in the form of legal briefs. Mem­o­ran­da, appeals, and motions are client-cen­tered and by neces­si­ty are focused on dis­put­ed issues, but they are sto­ry­telling nonethe­less. Ask any appel­late judge.

Like many lawyers, I longed to take sto­ry­telling to the next step, cre­at­ing char­ac­ters, devis­ing plots and, as Did­ion says, imag­in­ing what some­one would say or do. It’s a big step. I believe that before you can take that step, some­thing needs to grab you and evoke your pas­sion. For me that hap­pened fif­teen years ago, when my legal work took me to Poland.

The case was a typ­i­cal com­mer­cial dis­pute between two Amer­i­can com­pa­nies and had very lit­tle to do with Poland oth­er than the situs of the prod­uct instal­la­tion. Before going, I viewed Poland as just anoth­er loca­tion to exam­ine doc­u­ments, take depo­si­tions, and inter­view gov­ern­ment offi­cials — albeit halfway around the world. I didn’t go there to write a nov­el. But soon after my arrival, I was struck by the fact that I was in a coun­try that had been crushed and dev­as­tat­ed only eighty years ago. There are war memo­ri­als around every cor­ner. Take a walk and you’ll see a huge memo­r­i­al to the War­saw upris­ing, or the perime­ter of the War­saw Ghet­to, or an artist’s impres­sion of a box­car in white mar­ble with vic­tims’ names chis­eled in per­ma­nent remem­brance. Stroll down a side street, like I did, and stop when you come across bul­let holes in a brick wall and a plaque recall­ing the death of martyrs.

Soon after my arrival, I was struck by the fact that I was in a coun­try that had been crushed and dev­as­tat­ed only eighty years ago.

Vis­it­ing Poland was a mov­ing expe­ri­ence — one that grabbed me, shook me, and said, You can get pas­sion­ate about this. So I decid­ed to write a sto­ry about an ordi­nary fam­i­ly in a typ­i­cal Pol­ish town. What would life have been like dur­ing the Nazi inva­sion and occu­pa­tion? That sto­ry became my first nov­el, Once We Were Broth­ers.

Since then, I have writ­ten sev­en nov­els, all his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. Each of them has a well­spring, a source that tugged on my sleeve. A few years ago, I met an extra­or­di­nary woman, a sur­vivor of sev­er­al con­cen­tra­tion camps, who ulti­mate­ly escaped from the death march from Auschwitz. She gave me per­mis­sion to use her expe­ri­ences as the foun­da­tion for Karolina’s Twins, my third nov­el.

Read­ing and study­ing about the plight of Jew­ish musi­cians and artists in Berlin dur­ing the 1930s — that tran­si­tion from the Weimar Republic’s cul­tur­al explo­sions to the repres­sive hor­rors of Naz­i­fi­ca­tion — was the impe­tus for my fourth nov­el, A Girl From Berlin. The thir­ty-year con­flict between Protes­tants and Catholics in North­ern Ire­land formed the back­drop for a mur­der mys­tery, The Trust. The vio­lent city of Hebron and the con­flict between the Israelis and Pales­tini­ans was the plat­form for Sav­ing Sophie.

In a sense, writ­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion is a lit­tle like cheat­ing; the set­ting has already been writ­ten for me. All I have to do is cre­ate char­ac­ters, sit­u­a­tions, and plots and weave them into the his­tor­i­cal back­drop. Then I invite my read­ers to iden­ti­fy with the char­ac­ters, take a jour­ney back to that time and place, and expe­ri­ence his­to­ry in a per­son­al way.

In my most recent­ly pub­lished work, Eli’s Promise, we meet Eli Rosen. In many ways, Eli is a metaphor; he is sym­bol­ic. His jour­ney from the oppres­sion of Nazi-occu­pied Lublin, to a post­war dis­placed per­sons’ camp in Allied-occu­pied Ger­many, and final­ly to Amer­i­ca rep­re­sents the migra­tion of Cen­tral Euro­pean Jews as a whole. Although the sto­ry spans sev­er­al years, the dif­fer­ent eras are tied togeth­er by a com­mon thread: the life of a good man plagued by a scur­rilous profiteer.

Eli lives in pre­war Lublin, a vibrant city of great impor­tance to Jew­ish cul­ture. Lublin was the seat of Jew­ish learn­ing with the world’s most revered Yeshi­va. As such, it was a tar­get for the Nazis. The nov­el also focus­es on life in the post­war dis­placed per­sons camps. When I lead book dis­cus­sion groups, I am always amazed at how many peo­ple I meet whose par­ents met and mar­ried in DP camps. When immi­gra­tion quo­tas were eased in the late 1940s, Euro­pean refugees found their way from the DP camps to America’s big cities — one of which is where the third por­tion of Eli’s Promise takes place.

Den­mark and its hero­ic res­cue of its Jew­ish cit­i­zens dur­ing World War II is the back­drop of my lat­est work. The courage of non-Jew­ish Dan­ish peo­ple in defy­ing the Gestapo, hid­ing their Jew­ish coun­try­men, and fer­ry­ing them to safe­ty is an inspir­ing sto­ry that must be told and retold. In the gar­dens of Yad Vashem, in the sec­tion for Right­eous Among the Nations, the Dan­ish peo­ple are hon­ored. They are hon­ored as a whole. I will tell that sto­ry in Defend­ing Brit­ta Stein, due to be released on Sep­tem­ber 72021.

Ronald H. Bal­son is an attor­ney, pro­fes­sor, and writer. His nov­el, The Girl From Berlin, won the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award and was the Illi­nois Read­ing Coun­cil’s adult fic­tion selec­tion for the Illi­nois Reads pro­gram. He is also the author of Karoli­na’s Twins, The Trust, Sav­ing Sophie, Eli’s Promise, and the inter­na­tion­al best­seller, Once We Were Broth­ers. He lives in Chicago.