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Novel combines legal drama and historical fiction

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The Girl From Berlin by Ronald H. Balson (St. Martin's Press)

“There’s nowhere for us to go,” Jacob Baumgarten tells his wife and daughter as he struggles to devise a plan to protect his family from the frightening menace of a sadistic Nazi.

The year is 1937. Baumgarten is the Concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite his renown in Berlin, indeed throughout Europe’s cultural community, Baumgarten’s position with the symphony provides no shield from the Nazis’ systematic, expanding, iron reach.

His statement to his family, definitive and sorrowful, is descriptive of their predicament. It will soon be descriptive of the predicament of most of European Jewry. A few pages later the narrator starkly underscores Jacob’s melancholy declaration:

“We weren’t the only ones looking for a new home. In 1938, Europe faced an emigration crisis. Over a million European Jews were in the crosshairs of racial laws. Over 500,000 were trying to emigrate. To address this problem, and at the urging of President Roosevelt, 32 countries came together for a conference in the town of Evian-les-bains, France. Hitler did not object at all…. Sadly, if each country had agreed to accept only 17,000, it would have saved all of those émigrés, but after 10 days of discussions, the conference ended without any meaningful solution.”

With this simple arithmetic, the author powerfully reminds us that the cruelty of the few always requires the indifference of the many to fully achieve its malign aims.

The narrator of The Girl from Berlin is Ada, the girl of the book’s title whom we first meet as a child. We accompany her during the years preceding and during the Second World War through her remarkable career as an exceptional violinist and through many heartrending attempted evasions of the ever-stalking, quickly encroaching Nazis. Ada has recorded her memories in a manuscript that ultimately turns up in Italy.

That manuscript winds up in the possession of the Chicago-based, husband-and-wife team, Liam Haggart, private investigator, and Catherine Lockhart, attorney. They are Balson’s mystery-solving protagonists, familiar to his readers from his four previous novels. Haggart and Lockhart are hired by a friend to fly to Italy to prevent the friend’s aging aunt, Gabi, from imminent eviction from her home in the wine-rich hills of Tuscany.

The situation is urgent. Gabi does not understand why she is being forced to leave the home in which she has lived all her life. The eviction is to take effect in a matter of weeks. The local Italian lawyers she had hired to defend her rights have been ineffective. The lawyer spearheading the eviction process, by contrast, is ruthless. And the corporate client he represents is relentless.

Though skeptical of their chances of success, Haggart and Lockhart agree to help Gabi. Before they fly to Italy, however, Gabi sends them Ada’s manuscript. It is the key that will unlock the mystery at the heart of the novel: who is attempting to take Gabi’s property and why? And what is connection between Gabi and Ada, the girl from Berlin?

Balson tells two intersecting stories. One is in the present: the detective/courtroom drama in which Haggart and Lockhart eventually uncover the truth. The other is in the past: a chronicle of Ada’s life.

The stories meet at the fraught point where the many harrowing details of Ada’s life lace together the interconnected facts at the core of the nasty current-day legal conflict.

Like his other novels, The Girl from Berlin is a combined legal drama and historical fiction. This is hardly surprising given that Balson is a trial lawyer in Chicago whose university major was history. In combining both realms, he succeeds at creating affecting historical/thriller fictions.

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The Girl From Berlin is Balson’s fifth novel. Readers familiar with his first novel, Once We Were Brothers, and the three others in between, will recognize his recurring resort to the entertaining literary formula involving the congenial sleuthing couple. To the novel’s historical backstory, Balson adds the tense, high-wire drama of the narrative’s present day conflict. In the result, he has crafted a crime-thriller that does not let go of the reader’s emotions.

Along with Once We Were Brothers and Balson’s third novel Karolina’s Twins, The Girl from Berlin provides meticulously researched details of place and time in Holocaust-era Europe. Balson is masterful in recreating the suffocating, fear-soaked atmosphere in which Jews tried to live their lives. The facts require no embellishment. The truth of Nazi oppression was unceasing nightmare and horror.

For example, Ada described how life in Rome changed once the Nazis marched into the city merely two days after Mussolini was deposed and Italy surrendered to the Allies on Sept. 8, 1943. “In a matter of hours, the Nazis enveloped and occupied the city. The Gestapo was now in control. They set up headquarters with the SS on the Via Tasso, which soon became the city’s most frightening address. German trucks patrolled the streets with loudspeakers blaring. Random abuse and persecution began immediately…Abject wickedness had descended upon the city.”

Inasmuch as the story also treads inescapably upon moral issues of yesterday, Balson commendably demonstrates that those very same moral issues are timeless. There are a number of unsubtle references to legal, moral, and social issues that engage political discussion today in America.

The Girl From Berlin is especially important for the younger generation to learn about the slow but insidious rise of political forces that Balson aptly describes as “abject wickedness.”

Such wickedness, Balson reminds us in the voices of Ada, her parents and her friends, does not simply arise by itself. It arises through the active sabotage of democratic institutions by a few and the reckless inattention by the many.