Author Ronald J. Balson’s new novel, “Eli’s Promise,” is a superb piece of historical fiction that features three interlocking and interweaving plot threads, each of which offers fascinating views of epochal eras in world and American history.
Plot number one takes place in the mid-1940s, as Jews are being rescued from the concentration camp called Buchenwald, a camp which had all too clearly demonstrated the unconscionable cruelty of the Nazi policy they called the “Final Solution,” the deaths of all European Jews. Among the victims at Buchenwald is Eli Rosen, a young Polish man who had been the owner of a building and construction company before he was taken. Also a prisoner there is his son Izaak. They survive after being rescued by American troops and are taken to an American-run camp in Germany. The camp is set up for Holocaust survivors who await their visas and transfers to new homes all over the world. It soon becomes apparent to readers that the real villain of the piece (other than the Nazis) is one Maximilian Poleski, a traitor to his people. Poleski is using his connections in America and Germany to illegally procure visas that will allow survivors to enter America. He sells the visas to those few former prisoners who have somehow saved or found the money to buy them, charging obscene prices for his services and moving the buyers to the front of a very long line of seekers of entry to America and other potentially new homes. Eli Rosen swears — promises — to bring Maximilian to justice, and he will not rest until he does so. But the visa issue is just the tip of the Maximilian iceberg, and his many other sins are revealed in plot thread number two.
The scene is Lublin, Poland, 1939. Hitler conquers Poland and orders his military henchmen to take immediate steps to corral all Jews. Eli Rosen, though, is important to the Nazis because of his expertise in construction, which will help the Nazi power structure to erect ghetto camps, build German official headquarters, and prepare to officially organize all Polish Jews into groups which will eventually be transported to concentration camps to be killed when they are no longer useful to the Nazi cause. Maximilian, the slimy eel, manages to ingratiate himself with the Nazis, saving himself and promising his Jewish friends that he will protect them — in return for huge cash protection payments. But when the noose begins to tighten, Maximilian continues to promise safety when he knows he will no longer be able to actually provide it. And he takes his victims’ last meager cash reserves as payments for the protection he knows he can no longer ensure. Eli’s wife is taken. Eli eventually is taken, too, as is his son. Only the oily obeisant Maximilian escapes significant punishment. Wherever he goes, wherever he is moved, he manages to slither away from the fate he so richly deserves.
The third plot thread flashes us forward to 1965 Chicago. America is again at war, this time in Viet Nam. Eli is an important figure in this thread, but he is not the protagonist. Having survived the Holocaust, he now works in some mysterious capacity for the American government. His assignment is to investigate a group of war profiteers who are in the business of collecting, storing, and keeping huge sums of cash through all kinds of scams involving weapons sales and sales of other wartime goods. The main character (though there are several important ones) is a young lady named Mimi Gold, who lives in Albany Park, Chicago, with her mother and grandmother. As the plot unfolds, Eli moves into the apartment below the Golds’. The women suspect that their new neighbor is working for the CIA or FBI. But it’s Mimi who is gradually becoming unwillingly involved with the network of wartime materials criminals. Vicious crimes ensue — murder, theft, intimidation, arson — all the horrors which almost inevitably result from wartime profiteering, the unchecked felonious activities of the rich and powerful, and the hypocrisy of governments and government officials as they excuse and justify their wartime sins. Meanwhile, as we might suspect, Maximilian, though we don’t know his exact role in the 1965 Chicago criminal enterprises, will appear once more in all his disgusting glory. And the stubborn quest and questions persist: will Eli’s promise be kept; will Maximilian finally be brought to justice?
Besides the three engrossing plots, “Eli’s Promise” vividly demonstrates other necessary qualities of historical fiction. We find fascinating information about actual events which we have likely never considered before: the details of the horrors inflicted on Polish Jews in Poland itself and, of course, in German camps; the difficulties of finding permanent homes for Holocaust survivors, including the stubborn resistance of the American government to the granting of visas to those victims of Nazi atrocities; the corruption of American governments at all levels — local, county, state, and federal — specifically in the 1960s. And on the plus side, we learn much about the courageous people who refused to bow to the Nazis; the Polish resistance and the stubborn will to survive of of the Jewish people; the complicated but extraordinary efforts of the American military to save, protect, and help Holocaust survivors to rebuild their lives.
“Eli’s Promise” is a moving and suspenseful piece of authoritative historical fiction; profoundly informative and entirely compelling. It’s highly recommended.
Review by Jack Kramer.
This review was first posted at Bookreporter.com.