June Book Club: "Once We Were Brothers"

Why are there so many great novels written on WWII and why do readers crave them?

As a writer, I know that one of the satisfying bits of the writing process is learning about life in another era through the minds of the characters who were there. As a reader, I know that a book can pull me emotionally into a place and time I've never been, allowing me to see something through new eyes.

Once We Were Brothers is not the first WWII book we've read in book club (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr was a fairly recent favorite) and it won't be the last.

In Once We Were Brothers, author Ronald H. Balson takes us to modern-day Chicago, where a Holocaust survivor accuses a wealthy philanthropist of being a Nazi war criminal. Through modern-day legal sequences and flashbacks to Nazi-era Poland, Balson tells the story of a Jewish family betrayed by a gentile boy they took into their home, but who later became the "Butcher of Zamosc".

Why is this a good book club book?

WWII books in general kind of tend to be good book club books (think, The Nightingale, The Book Thief, and the new Lilac Girls). What the Nazis did is so unimaginable that I think we strive to understand how humans could possibly take the actions that the Nazis took and how others could just stand by. On the flip side, we marvel at the survivors and how those individuals and an entire people could have withstood such atrocities. With relatable characters and a compelling plot, all of this makes for great discussion.

As I was writing this, it occurred to me that no other genocide seems to have captured writers and readers the way the Holocaust has. Is it because no other genocide has reached the scale of what the Nazis perpetrated? That the Nazis were somehow more horrific or evil than those who preceded or succeeded them? That it involved a world war? Or, maybe, is it that we don't want to admit we are allowing the other genocides to happen, even after what happened in Germany?

I don't know the answer to this. But maybe we'll talk about it at book club.

Additional reading, watching, listening . . .

As always, this book got me thinking about other things I've read or seen, and led me to new media discoveries. Here are my suggestions of the month!

Read (children's book)

Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. I believe one of the reasons there are so many WWII books is because we don't want to forget. Part of achieving that is ensuring our children know history. In Number the Stars, Lowry weaves a beautiful story of the Danish Resistance and their efforts to save the Jews of Denmark. Told through the eyes of a 10-year-old, this story is perfect for elementary and middle school students. I read this aloud to my own kids when they were in grade school.

Watch (movie)

"Europa Europa". I was going to suggest "The Boys from Brazil", the award-winning thriller about a Nazi hunter discovering a bizarre plot to clone Hitler and rekindle the Nazi regime (brilliant story). But I have a soft spot in my heart for "Europa Europa", a foreign-language film based on the true story of a Jewish boy who masquerades as a member of the Hitler Youth to survive the Nazis.

Listen (podcast)

I recently listened to the Holocaust by visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Hitler's speeches are mesmerizing, even to a non-German speaker like myself, and I got to listen to him while viewing the images of Kristallnacht and countless other pogroms. If you can't make it to the Museum, you can hear voices of survivors at the Museum's website. I'd start with this riveting story of a girl separated from her mother when fleeing the Horochow ghetto in Poland. It's less than 10 minutes, but you'll wish you could her life story.

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