Historical novel melds Holocaust story, present-day legal thriller

Author Ronald Balson

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Noted author Ronald Balson is set to be the speaker at an upcoming event at the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library as part of a series the institution is doing focusing on the Holocaust.

Balson will talk about his originally self-published novel, “Once We Were Brothers,” which was later picked up by a major publisher. Set in the author’s hometown of Chicago, the storyline revolves around a Holocaust survivor who thinks that he recognizes a former Nazi commandant who now happens to be among the most respected and powerful men in the city. He and a young attorney set out to prove the man’s true identity. The title derives from an interesting twist to the plotline in which the future commandant had been adopted into and raised by the protagonist’s family before the fascist takeover.

“It is a legal thriller in the present day but also historical fiction because in great detail, it tells the story of what happened in a small town in Poland,” Balson said. “It is a real small town and the events are authentic.”

That small town is Zamosc, a city in southeastern Poland, which, like the rest of the nation, fell under Nazi domination during the war.

Balson, himself an attorney, became inspired to create the story after a business trip to Poland years ago in which he saw historical evidence of the nation’s experiences during the Holocaust.

“It’s overwhelming. You can’t go there and not be struck by the fact that it still bears the scars of the war,” he said. “There are monuments to soldiers, to fighters, the underground, the Polish army everywhere you look.”

He said the Nazis did much to destroy or remake the infrastructure, government and culture of the country which had to reinvent itself after the conflict.

Though Jewish, Balson said he had no personal family connection to the Holocaust. His family came from Russia. However, he has always been interested in history.

“It is hard to come away from Poland, visiting there, working there, without being moved by what you see, especially for a Jewish writer,” he said. “That motivated me.”

Interestingly, while Balson found Zamosc was an “ideal town” for his story, he never saw it during his trip to the country. Instead, its history simply appealed to him. The Renaissance-era town is considered architecturally beautiful and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Balson wasn’t the only one taken by charms of Zamosc. It is said that Heinrich Himmler, head of the infamous SS, hoped it would be made the capital of the new Poland – and actually wanted it renamed after him.

“Even more important than that, there is so much information about that town available from letters, diaries, pictures, memoirs and survivors telling their stories,” Balson said. “I could be confident when I was writing the story that I could be authentic and would be telling it just as it was.”

While populated with fictional characters, Balson’s book is grounded in real history and tries to cover a number of aspects of the Shoah from the heroism of a Catholic priest who tries to shield Jews to the infiltration of the United States by former Nazis after the war via South America.

“There are a lot of messages,” he said. “The lawyer who takes the case on is told by her firm to drop the client. It is very unpolitical because this man is so powerful in Chicago, he can ruin their business if they were to take this on and accuse him.”

She is ultimately forced to leave the firm.

“She turns from a very timid person, a very skeptical person in the book to somebody who is really courageous and really stands up for what’s right,” he said.

These days Balson’s book is making waves, even garnering attention from Hollywood for what could potentially become a movie. It is even a nominee for the prestigious Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

Brodsky Library Director Barb Raznick said the popularity of the work was striking.

“It was constantly off the shelf,” she said.