After speaking with Georgia Hunter and Jillian Cantor about their favorite historical fiction, we became more intrigued about the backstory behind Georgia Hunter’s novel We Were the Lucky Ones, which is inspired by a true story of a Jewish family separated at the start of World War II, who were determined to survive and eventually reunite.
It’s 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. Author Georgia Hunter gave us some insight into her writing and research, and then we created an interactive map that shows where in the world the Kurc family fled to. Simply click on the white dots below to read an excerpt from We Were the Lucky Ones that takes place in that location.
April 10, 1939—Passover
Sol spoons a mound of horseradish onto a piece of matzah, and the others do the same. Soon, he is singing again. When the blessing of the korekh is complete, it’s time, finally, to eat. Platters are passed, and the dining room is filled with the murmur of conversation and the scrape of silver spoons on china as dishes are piled high with salted herring, roasted chicken, potato kugel, and sweet apple charoset. The family sips wine and talks quietly, gingerly sidestepping the subject of war, and wondering aloud of Addy’s whereabouts.
At the sound of Addy’s name, the ache creeps back into Nechuma’s chest, bringing with it an orchestra of worries. He has been arrested. Incarcerated. Deported. He is hurt. Afraid. He hasn’t a way to contact her. She glances again at her son’s empty seat. Where are you, Addy? She bites her lip. Don’t, she admonishes, but it’s too late. She’s been drinking her wine too quickly and has lost her edge. Her throat closes and the table melts into a blurry swath of white. Her tears are poised to flow when she feels a hand over hers, beneath the table. Jakob’s. “It’s the horseradish root,” she whispers, waving her free hand in front of her face, blinking. “Gets me every time.” She dabs discreetly at the corners of her eyes with her napkin. Jakob nods knowingly and squeezes her hand.
Months later, in a different world, Nechuma will look back on this evening, the last Passover when they were nearly all together, and wish with every cell in her body that she could relive it. She will remember the familiar smell of the gefilte, the chink of silver on porcelain, the taste of parsley, briny and bitter on her tongue. She will long for the touch of Felicia’s baby- soft skin, the weight of Jakob’s hand on hers beneath the table, the wine- induced warmth in the pit of her belly that begged her to believe that everything might actually turn out all right in the end. She will remember how happy Halina had looked at the piano after their meal, how they had danced together, how they all spoke of missing Addy, assuring each other that he’d be home soon. She will replay it all, over and over again, every beautiful moment of it, and savor it, like the last perfect klapsa pears of the season.
September 21, 1939
Addy is tucked away at a cafe overlooking the Place du Capitole’s giant square, a spiral-bound pad of music paper open before him. He sets his pencil down and massages a cramp from the muscle between his thumb and forefinger.
It’s become his routine to spend his weekends parked at a bistro table, writing. He no longer travels to Paris—it feels too frivolous to get lost in the revelry of Montmartre’s nightlife with his homeland at war. Instead he devotes himself to his music and to his weekly trips to the Polish consulate in Toulouse, where he’s been trying for months to secure a travel visa—the paperwork required for him to return to Poland. So far, the effort has been exasperatingly fruitless. On his first visit in March, three weeks before Passover, the clerk took one look at Addy’s passport and shook his head, pushing a map across his desk and pointing to the countries separating Addy from Poland: Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia. “You will not make it past the checkpoints,” he said, tapping his finger on the line of Addy’s passport marked religia. Zyd, the designation read, short for Zydowski. Jewish. His mother had been right, Addy realized, hating himself for doubting her. Not only was it too dangerous for him to travel across German borders, it was, apparently, illegal. Even so, Addy had returned to the consulate time after time, hoping to convince the clerk to grant him some sort of exemption, to wear him down with persistence. But at each visit, he was told the same. Not possible. And so, for the first time in his twenty-five years, he’d missed Passover in Radom. Rosh Hashanah had come and gone as well.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Since he arrived in Brazil in August, Addy has found that the best way to avoid dwelling too much on the unknown, on the alternate universe he’s left behind, is to keep moving. If he stays busy enough, he can see Rio for all that it is. He can appreciate the city’s limestone and tree-lined mountains, offshoots of the Serra do Mar, that jut up from behind the beautiful coastline; the ever-present, enticing smell of fried, salted cod; the narrow, bustling cobblestoned lanes of the centro, where colorful, Portuguese colonial-era facades brush shoulders with modern, commercial high-rises; the purple jacaranda trees that bloom in what the calendar says is fall, but which is actually Brazil’s spring.
Addy and Eliska have spent nearly every weekend since they arrived exploring the streets of Ipanema, Leme, Copacabana, and Urca, following their noses to the various vendors selling everything from sweet corn pamonhas to spiced shrimp on skewers, savory refeicao, and grilled queijo coalho. When they pass a samba club, Addy jots down the address in his notebook, and they return later that evening to drink caipirinhas on ice with the locals, whom they’ve found to be quite friendly, and listen to music that feels fresh and alive, and unlike anything they’ve ever heard before.
Genek and Herta
Early March 1941
This godforsaken land has turned on them. Six months ago, when they’d first arrived, the air was so hot they could hardly force it into their lungs. Genek would never forget the day their train finally screeched to a stop and the doors were thrown open to reveal nothing but pine forest. He’d leapt to the ground clutching Herta’s fist in one hand and his suitcase in the other, his scalp swarming with lice, the skin over his vertebrae scabbed from leaning against the splintered wooden wall of the train car for forty-two days and nights. Fine, he’d thought, looking around at their surroundings. They were alone in the woods, impossibly far from home, but at least here they could stretch their legs and urinate in private.
They’d walked for two days in the blistering August heat, dehydrated and dizzy with hunger, before arriving at a clearing with a long, one-story log barracks that appeared to have been built in a hurry. When they finally set their suitcases down, their exhausted bodies reeking and sticky with sweat, they were welcomed with a few select words from Romanov, the black-haired, steel-eyed guard assigned to their camp: “The closest town,” Romanov said, “is ten kilometers south. The villagers there have been warned of your arrival. They want nothing to do with you. This,” he barked, pointing at the ground, “is your new home. You will work here, you will live here; you will never again see Poland.”
Genek had refused to believe the words— there was no way Stalin could get away with this, he’d told himself. But as the days turned into weeks and then months, the strain of not knowing their future began to chip away at him. Was this it? Was this how they were destined to live out their lives, felling logs in Siberia? Would they, as Romanov promised, never go home again?
Genek and Herta
A flash of orange hurtles through the space between their shoulders. Genek flinches. Herta covers Jozef’s face instinctively with her hand. They are three of twenty Polish recruits wedged into the bed of an old pickup, sitting hip bone to hip bone on slabs of plywood running the length of the bed. They’ve all come from different camps— released as Genek and Herta had been, on amnesty—to fight for the Allies. Their bodies are in bad shape—riddled with boils, ringworm, scabies, their hair sweaty and lice-infested, pasted to their foreheads. Tattered clothes hang loosely over gaunt frames and a foul odor surrounds them, following the truck like a repulsive, malodorous shadow. A few of the sickest lay crumpled at Genek’s and Herta’s feet, incapable of sitting up on their own, hours, it seems, from death.
A second sphere sails overhead, and this time Genek reflexively catches it. Why would the locals taunt such a pitiful-looking group of people, he wonders? But when he opens his hand, he finds an orange. A nice one, too. Fresh. Plump. The first piece of fruit his fingers have touched in over two years. He glances over his shoulder to see if he can spot whoever threw it, catching the eye of a young woman wearing a maroon headscarf, standing on the sidewalk with her hands on the shoulders of two young boys in front of her. She smiles, her brown eyes soft and full of pity, and suddenly it’s clear: the orange wasn’t hurled as a sign of disrespect—it was a gift. Sustenance. Genek’s eyes well up as he rolls the fruit between his palms. A gift. He waves at the Persian woman, who waves back and then disappears into a cloud of dust. Genek can’t remember the last time a stranger did something nice for him without expecting something in return.
He digs a dirty fingernail into the orange, peels it, and hands a wedge to Herta. She bites off a piece and holds what’s left of it to Józef’s lips, laughing softly as his nose wrinkles. “It’s an orange, Ze,” she offers. A new word for him. “Pomaran´cza. Soon enough, you’ll learn to like it.”
Genek peels off a wedge for himself and closes his eyes as he chews. The flavor explodes on his tongue. It’s the sweetest thing he’s ever tasted.
Montelupich Prison, Kraków, German-Occupied Poland
Halina is jolted awake by the metallic click of a key in a lock and the grate of iron scraping cement as her cell door is wrenched open. She narrows her eye that isn’t swollen shut.
“Brzoza!” Betz spits at her. “Up. Now.”
She stands slowly, breathing through the stabbing pain in her back. In the four days that she’s been imprisoned, she’s been questioned over a dozen times. With every interrogation, she’s returned to the cell with more bruises, each a deeper shade of purple than the last. She is on the brink of giving up. But she knows she must swallow the pain, the humiliation, the blood dripping from her nose, her forehead, her upper lip. She mustn’t break. She’s smart enough to know that the ones who break don’t return. And she refuses to take her last breath in this godforsaken jail. She cannot—will not—let the Gestapo win.
“Coming,” Halina grunts. She steps over legs and arms as she limps toward the door.
Read It Forward: At the beginning of your novel, it says that this story is based on true events. Can you tell us the real story behind We Were the Lucky Ones?
Georgia Hunter: The story that unfolds in We Were the Lucky Ones is based on true events. Every significant movement, incarceration, brush with death and escape described in the book actually happened. There could well have been more events of a similar magnitude that I don’t know about, but the key milestones that form the narrative of the book are based on solid facts that I learned through oral histories, primary sources, and tangible research.
From these facts, I developed an extensive timeline that tracks each of the five Kurc siblings, their significant others, and their parents throughout the war. This color-coded document, which includes both personal details (such as the documentation my grandfather acquired in order to leave France in ’41 and the date of his brother’s “secret” wedding in Lvov) and historical truths (events like Nazi invasions and details like the names of the ships that brought my relatives to Brazil at the end of the war), served as the “bones” of my book. Now and then when I stumbled across a gap, I allowed myself the creative license to fill it in—but only if I could answer yes with confidence to the question “is it feasible that this could have happened?”
RIF: What kind of research did you do into the story? Did you travel to any of the places you write about?
GH: We Were the Lucky Ones is the culmination of nearly a decade of research: of recording family narratives, of translating old letters and documents, of reaching out to every possible person, museum, and organization that might be able to offer up pertinent records, and yes—of traveling to the places I’ve written about, to experience them myself.
My research began with a trip to Paris in 2008 to explore the City of Light through the eyes of my grandfather, and to interview family. Paris was especially meaningful since that’s where Felicia, the only surviving relative with first-hand memories of the war, lives. Not long after my Paris visit, I traveled the States to interview second-generation Kurcs (there are ten first cousins in all) in Seattle, Miami, San Francisco, Providence, and on Martha’s Vineyard. In 2008 I had the chance to talk with dozens of family members at a reunion in Tuscany, and a few years later I flew to South America to interview another cousin in Rio, where I spent time searching the Brazilian National Archives for records (I found dozens!). In 2011 I sat down with my grandfather’s ex-fiancée, the young Czech woman he met on the Alsina, one of the last refugee ships to leave Europe. Her memories were incredibly sharp and I was amazed at how her eyes still sparkled at the sound of my grandfather’s name.
Last summer my husband and I drove 1,100 kilometers through Poland and Austria, wandering through many of the cities mentioned in the book, and retracing my family’s exodus southward at the end of the war. We spent a full day walking the streets of the family’s hometown, Radom, with a local historian, which was not only extraordinarily moving, but also helpful in understanding what “home” meant to my relatives before their worlds were turned upside down. In August of this year, my husband and I returned to Europe (with our four-year-old son this time) to travel from northeastern Italy down the coast of the Adriatic to Bari, once again following in the Kurc family’s footsteps. I’ll never forget standing with my boys on a platform at the Bari train station where, after six years of not knowing if they’d ever see each other again, my grandfather’s brother, sisters, and parents reunited.
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Along with traveling for interviews and to experience through my own eyes the most relevant destinations in my family’s journey, I’ve also conducted research at several museums (including the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in D.C., the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, and the Sikorski Museum in London), and I’ve spent countless hours with translators, penning letters to archives, ministries, magistrates, and other organizations around the world in hopes of attaining records. I hit the jackpot with the Hoover Institution at Stanford, with the U.K. Ministry of Defense, and with the Shoah Foundation, thanks to which I was able to watch live interviews with three of my now-deceased relatives, detailing what they went through during the war.
I’ve made a significant effort, too, to immerse myself in the works and expertise of authors, historians, and survivors who have helped immensely to add color and understanding to my family’s story. I’ve also put on my detective hat, sleuthing online resources such as JewishGen, Yad Vashem, the International Tracing Service, The International Red Cross, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center, for whatever tidbit of information I might find.
RIF: What made you decide to write this story as a novel?
GH: I thought hard about writing my book as narrative non-fiction. The bones of the narrative were there—I’d done my research, and my timeline was complete. I found, however, that in early drafts of the manuscript, some of my scenes felt a little one-dimensional, my characters a little too perfect. I wanted the Kurcs’ journey to feel immersive and visceral, for my readers to imagine for themselves what it meant to be Jewish and on the run in WWII—and to do that I needed more “connective tissue.” I needed the colorful details that would add more depth and emotion to my story.
I wasn’t explicitly told, for example, that the family dined on special occasions at Wierzbicki’s Restaurant in Radom, Poland (the town where they were from), but through my research, I learned that Wierzbicki’s was, in fact, a restaurant that the city’s middle class would have visited on birthdays or anniversaries. Knowing how immersed and assimilated my family was, I thought it plausible that Mr. Wierzbicki (the owner) may have personally greeted my great-grandparents at the door, as I describe in the first chapter. I felt that this type of detail, although not confirmed factually, would enrich the reader’s experience by offering a deeper grasp of the characters’ personalities and motivations.
I was restrained as well in early drafts by my commitment to creating my characters exactly as they had been depicted to me in interviews. And in my interviews (mostly with the children of my protagonists), each and every one of my relatives was hailed as a hero. It was understandable. These people were heroes, especially in the eyes of their children. But the more time I spent trying to stand in the Kurcs’ shoes, the more I understood that they weren’t perfect. My relatives were courageous, sharp-witted, and resilient beyond belief, yes, but surely they were also afraid and angry and at times, despondent. They were human.
I wasn’t around to experience the Kurcs’ remarkable saga myself, but it was the “unbelievability” and statistical improbability of their story that drove me to unearth and record it. By allowing myself to step into the hearts and minds of my relatives—to imagine the thoughts that must have run through Mila’s head as she and her daughter attempted to escape the ghetto in broad daylight, the heartbreak that Bella must have endured upon losing her sister and parents, the torture that must have shadowed my grandfather for the seven years he spent not knowing whether his family was dead or alive—I have made my characters more real, and brought my story, I hope, closer to the truth.
RIF: Was your grandfather also a composer? Do any of the songs Addy wrote in the novel exist in real life?
GH: Yes and yes! My grandfather’s first hit was, in fact, List (“The Letter”). It was written for voice and piano and performed by the young Vera Gran. (You can listen to the piece on YouTube.) My grandfather claimed that when List was released in Poland, he heard it aired several times a day on the radio. The bit in my book about the soldiers in his squadron whistling its tune during Addy’s short stint in a Polish column of the French army is also true.
My grandfather played the piano and composed all of his life but became quite serious at retirement, when he devoted much of his time to writing music, working with lyricists and arrangers, and scouting out some of the best instrumental and vocal talents around to perform both his classical and popular works. A highlight was a performance of his Violin Sonata in F Minor at the prestigious Wigmore Hall in London, as well as at other venues around the world.
My grandfather’s classical music reflected his own rigorous training as a child, especially the powerfully emotive influence of Chopin, Poland’s beloved composer. But at the same time, his early success with a popular tune and his years spent frequenting the jazz clubs of Paris just before the war inspired him to create ballads, blues, and jazz. He didn’t have to look far to partner with a lyricist—he and my writer dad, Tom Hunter, developed several pieces together. Needless to say, those recordings are among my most valued possessions.