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The Sirens of Suspense




Ronald H. Balson is an attorney practicing with the firm of Stone, Pogrund and Korey in Chicago. The demands of his trial practice have taken him into courts across the United States and into international venues.

An adjunct professor of business law at the University of Chicago for twenty-five years, he now lectures on trial advocacy in federal trial bar courses.

Travels to Warsaw and southern Poland in connection with a complex telecommunications case inspired Once We Were Brothers, his first novel..

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The sine qua non of authoring a legal thriller is to stay within the framework of the law. You may come up with a gripping plot outline, but if it isn’t supported by valid legal precedent – statute or case law – well, as My Cousin Vinny might say, “It doesn’t hold watah.” Imagine Twelve Angry Men if a simple majority could convict or acquit. No tension in that jury room. Imagine Agatha Christie’s Witness For The Prosecution if there were no English doctrine of double jeopardy. Lorraine said Vole was guilty? Arrest him and try him again. Any rip-roaring legal thriller depends on valid legal support.

In Once We Were Brothers, Ben Solomon accuses Elliot Rosenzweig, a prominent, wealthy Chicagoan of being a former Nazi SS officer. Ben plans to bring him to court, put him on the witness stand and publicly expose him for his participation in the persecutions of the Nazi regime. As fascinating as that plot was to me, it could only work if there is a way to acquire jurisdiction, a way to bring him before the court. There had to be an existing cause of action that would allow a private civil plaintiff to bring a former Nazi into the U.S. courts for relief. Strange as it seems, that proposition is generally a dead end.

Because the Nazi crimes did not occur in the United States, and were not committed against United States citizens, the U.S. cannot bring criminal charges against former Nazis. In 1978, Representative Elizabeth Holtzman sponsored a bill which ultimately became the Holtzman Amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act. It provided that the U.S. courts could revoke the visa or naturalization papers of any person who “ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person [under the Nazi regime].” So, when the U.S. discovers a former Nazi living in this country, the Justice Department can conduct civil proceedings to denaturalize and deport that person, and it has done so on over one hundred occasions.

Ben Solomon could have referred Rosenzweig to the Justice Department for prosecution, but only if he had evidence strong enough to convince the U.S. Attorney to take the case. In our story, Ben knew he didn’t have strong enough evidence, especially against so powerful an adversary, so he made the decision to bring Rosenzweig into civil court himself. Once again, an author’s dilemma. On what grounds? How could Ben do that? What right would Ben have to bring a former Nazi into court?

By 2004, the year Ben recognized Rosenzweig, individual law suits for money and reparations were barred. German Reparations in 1953, 1998 and 1990 barred further individual claims for money against the German government or German citizens. Class actions against Germany and German industry for forced labor were settled and the settlement became a treaty barring further suits. So, if my plot outline were to survive, I had to find a way to legitimately bring Rosenzweig into court. Enter Maria Altman.

Maria was a Viennese Jew, the daughter of a wealthy patron of the arts, who fled from Austria with her husband in 1938. They made their way to the U.S. but left all of their valuable property behind. Maria’s uncle owned several valuable paintings, including five by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Those paintings were looted by the Nazis during the war and ended up in an Austrian Museum. In the 1990s, when the Austrian archives were opened, Maria learned that the paintings, which had been left to her in her uncle’s will, were in the possession of the Austrian Government. She filed suit in the U.S. courts.

Maria’s case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court, which confirmed her right to sue for return of her property looted by the Nazis. Since then, U.S. courts have recognized a private plaintiff’s right to sue for restitution of his property which was misappropriated during the war. Problem solved. Ben sued Rosenzweig for return of his family’s jewelry and other property. A simple restitution case in the state court. Now all he had to do was convince a jury. My problem was solved, but Ben still had work to do. Whether or not Ben will succeed in his quest, well, that is best left to a evening curled up with the book.




WHAT REAL LIFE TO NOVEL DILEMMA DO YOU FACE? Tell us or comment on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a a copy of ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS! (U.S. entrants only, please.)


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