Book Review: We Were the Lucky Ones
Desperate times inspire bravery, creativity, resilience, and endurance. In the expansive Holocaust narrative genre, these qualities are ever-present – but rarely in such stories does every protagonist survive, as they do in Georgia Hunter’s fictionalized family history, We Were the Lucky Ones (Viking 2017).
As a teenager, Hunter learned that her mother’s family had survived the German occupation of Poland. Some fled, some hid, some fought, but all were reunited in the Americas after seven years of separation and uncertainty. After extensive interviews and research, Hunter created a novelization of their stories. She vividly describes her great-grandmother, Nechuma, and her family’s way of life, as they gathered around the Passover seder table:
“...Rather than live in the Old Quarter as the majority of Radom’s less affluent Jews do, they own a stately apartment in the center of town...Their fabric shop is thriving; Nechuma takes great care on her buying trips to collect the highest quality textiles, and their clients, both Polish and Jewish, come from as far as Kraków to purchase their ladieswear and silk. When their children were school-age, Sol and Nechuma sent them to elite private academies...Sol and Nechuma hoped to give their children a chance to side-step the undertones of anti-Semitism that had defined Jewish life in Radom since before any of them could remember.”
We Were the Lucky Ones is structured like a concerto grosso, interweaving the stories of Hunter’s great-grandparents, grandfather, great-aunts and -uncles, and second cousins. The shifting point of view is elegantly executed and always clear, and Hunter evokes pre-war Poland with loving detail, clearly showing what was left behind and lost.
The entry point for the story is Hunter’s grandfather Eddy Courts, née Addy Kurc. A pianist and composer who studied in Paris, he was able to leave Europe for Brazil at beginning of the war. The emotional trauma he faced as he traveled a circuitous route from France to Dakar and finally to Brazil pales in comparison to the ordeals of his parents and siblings in Poland, Lvov, and Siberia, but he is eventually able to use his position to bring them to the New World.
We Were the Lucky Ones follows the Kurc family from upper middle-class comfort in Warsaw and Radom to various shtetls, each of which is eventually liquidated, to Siberian labor camps, to Tel Aviv, and to the Italian war front at Monte Cassino. Some Kurcs survived by obtaining false papers and masquerading as Christians; others hid in barns or convents. These are all familiar elements of Holocaust stories, but the most important moment of Hunter’s novel comes as Addy’s ship, en route to America, stalls in Casablanca, Morocco. The passengers, all refugees fleeing the Nazi occupation, are confronting the expiration of their 90-day visas issued by the Brazilian embassy. While a few wealthy passengers find hotels in Morocco, most are housed at the Kasha Tadla refugee camp.
“The camp is fly infested and cloaked in the inescapable scent of excrement, thanks to several holes dug in the dirt that serve as toilets. Addy lasts two uncomfortable nights sleeping head to toe with a pair of Spaniards in a tent built for one before deciding he’s had enough of Kasha Tadla. On the morning of his third day, he sidles up to a guard at the camp’s entrance and, in perfect French, offers to go to the city for a few desperately needed supplies for the group. ‘We are out of toilet paper, and soap. We are dangerously low on water. Without these things, people will be sick. They will die.’ “
After getting to know Addy Kurc and his cosmopolitan shipmates, the image of them suffering in an unhygienic and crowded refugee camp is jarring. The effect is to immediately bring into sharp relief the millions of displaced today: Syrians, Yemeni, Somalians, and others. They, too, are musicians, doctors, sophisticated and well-educated humans, individuals with lives worthy of empathy, just as the Jewish refugees of the 1930s and ‘40s were. Just as the Kurcs, they have been uprooted – each with a web of children, siblings, parents, and cousins whose safety and happiness are of paramount importance.
We Were the Lucky Ones is a compelling read, notable for Hunter’s clear portraits of her plucky, resilient family, and for her ability to build suspense and investment without emotional manipulation.
Courtney Naliboff lives, writes, teaches, and parents on North Haven, an island off the coast of Maine. She is a columnist for Working Waterfront, and writes about rural Jewish parenting for Kveller.com.
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