Book Review: We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
An extraordinary, propulsive novel based on the true story of a family of Polish Jews who are separated at the start of the Second World War, determined to survive—and to reunite
It is the spring of 1939 and three generations of the Kurc family are doing their best to live normal lives, even as the shadow of war grows closer. The talk around the family Seder table is of new babies and budding romance, not of the increasing hardships threatening Jews in their hometown of Radom, Poland. But soon the horrors overtaking Europe will become inescapable and the Kurcs will be flung to the far corners of the world, each desperately trying to navigate his or her own path to safety.
As one sibling is forced into exile, another attempts to flee the continent, while others struggle to escape certain death, either by working grueling hours on empty stomachs in the factories of the ghetto or by hiding as gentiles in plain sight. Driven by an unwavering will to survive and by the fear that they may never see one another again, the Kurcs must rely on hope, ingenuity, and inner strength to persevere.
In a novel of breathtaking sweep and scope that spans five continents and six years and transports readers from the jazz clubs of Paris to Kraków’s most brutal prison to the ports of Northern Africa and the farthest reaches of the Siberian gulag, We Were the Lucky Ones demonstrates how in the face of the twentieth century’s darkest moment, the human spirit can find a way to survive, and even triumph.
Dear Ms. Hunter,
The title and cover of this book caught my attention. Who is this sophisticated couple and why were they lucky? They appear to be pre-war, maybe European but the misty background looked ominous. “A novel” is on the cover but the description tells me it’s “based on a true story.” Frankly I wasn’t sure what to expect and was actually a little nervous after reading the blurb.
Beginning in the days just before war is declared, we see most of the Kurc family gathered in their hometown of Radom, Poland. An educated, polished family of professionals, they are well respected in their circles of friends and acquaintances. Grown children are marrying and business is flourishing. One son is in France working as an engineer but his true passion is composing music. They’ve been slightly worried by the news from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia but surely that won’t ever spill over into Poland. With frightening speed, events prove otherwise.
Within weeks, their lives are upended and the family begins to be separated. It’s hard enough for those in Poland to know what has happened to the others there but for middle son Addy, who is unable to get permission to travel across what are now war zones from France, it’s agony to have no word of his family. Soon their lives have no future – there is only surviving today, staying one step ahead in the shifting political alliances and armies that tear the country apart.
Asides between chapters act to provide a backdrop of important world historical events. Characters know only what they would have known at the time so I was on pins and needles as I continued to read. The Kurc family will undergo the trials faced by their countrymen and fellow Jews – confinement in the ghettos, loss of their homes and belongings, midnight arrests by the NKVD, exile under harsh conditions to even worse ones, hunger, desperation, near escapes, and miraculous twists of fate.
After VE Day, the survivors begin to pick up the pieces and search for their loved ones. In some cases years have passed since they’ve had word of the missing ones. The loss among in-laws, cousins, aunts, and uncles is staggering and almost beyond comprehension. The chaotic circumstances would seem to defy answers. Return to old lives is impossible both by choice and the realities of bombed cities and still hostile countrymen. Since the story is told chapter by chapter from the varying points of view, I knew who had survived but the ultimate reunions across the globe are astounding.
It was only as I was reading the afterward that I realized that this is no fictionalized rendition of mass accounts of wartime survival. It was then that it becomes evident that yes, the Kurcs were – for the most part – the lucky ones to emerge from the destruction and to have found each other.