Once We Were Brothers
Elliot Rosenzweig is supposedly a survivor of Nazi persecution in Poland. He made it big after coming to America and, now elderly, is a widely admired philanthropist. His world is shaken when he is publicly confronted by Ben Solomon, also a Polish immigrant of advanced years, who accuses him of actually being a former SS officer. Rosenzweig says Solomon is lying or insane. The novel moves back and forth from contemporary events to scenes set in World War II Poland. In America, Solomon sues Rosenzweig for property expropriated during the war. His purpose is to expose the man as the monster he thinks he really is.
Solomon’s Jewish family, we learn, charitably took in an ethnic German youngster, Otto Piatek. Piatek and Solomon grew up as brothers. Then, Germany invaded Poland and everything changed. The author vividly portrays the situation of Solomon and his family, trapped under Nazi rule and fighting for survival. He also shows us young Piatek’s gradual alteration from a decent young man, loyal to his Jewish foster family, to someone who wears an SS uniform with no apparent strain. But is Rosenzweig really Piatek?
The author is an attorney, and the courtroom scenes seem authentic. Among the other strengths of the book is the vivid portrayal of historical circumstances in Poland. The members of the Solomon family are brought to life, and the reader comes to truly care about them. I was gripped by two central mysteries. Were Rosenzweig and Piatek actually the same person? And how could an admirable young man change so much that he turned on people he loved and became a Nazi executioner? The novel fully and convincingly answers the first question. Perhaps fittingly, I was left pondering the second one. All and all, this is a truly absorbing novel.