Historical Era: WWII
Historical Rating: History Rich – based on the author’s family members and their real-life fight to survive the Holocaust.
Overall Rating: 5/5
Book Jacket Summary: “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 the 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 a path toward safety.
As one sibling is forced into exile, another attempts to flee the continent, and 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 they may never see one another again, the Kurcs must rely on hope, inner strength, and, at times, sheer luck to make it from one day to the next.
With the visceral prose and heart-stopping momentum, Hunter transports readers from the jazz clubs of Paris to Kraków’s most brutal prison to the ports of Northern Africa and to the farthest reaches of the Siberian gulag in a novel of breath taking sweep and scope. Inspired by the author’s own family story, 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 persevere, and even to triumph.”
HFA Review: Georgia Hunter‘s book is not one to be read casually. This heart stopping yet heartwarming story of the Kurc family ebbs and flows beautifully, but always leaving the reader with the desire to keep going, keep turning the pages. I found it extremely difficult to put this book down because I had to know how the Kurc family was going to survive the latest of what seemed like never-ending trials and dangers. Many times one or a group of them would be backed so far into a corner that I (while sitting in my living room completely calm, healthy, and all my wits about me) couldn’t even begin to figure out how they would overcome in order to see another day. Not a clue. And then to learn how they persevered would leave me with mixed feelings of joy for the character(s) (as they didn’t become a statistic that day) and horror as I absorbed the fact had I been in their shoes I probably wouldn’t have been so creative/daring. In fact, I probably would have been dead early on, not even making it past the first few hurtles. A scary and jarring thought.
Ms. Hunter slowly introduces us to all the members of the sweet and delightful Kurc family, including the parents, Sol and Nechuma, and their five children: Genek (and his wife, Herta), Mila (and her husband, Selim, and their daughter, Felicia), Addy, Jacob (and his longtime girlfriend/soon to be fiance, Bella), and the youngest, Halina (and her boyfriend, Adam). The story is set up beautifully, as the reader bounces between the different family members. Each glimpse making the characters all the more endearing and yet almost always being left in a cliff hanger each time that character’s story would pause in order to move on to the next family member. This is why the book was so hard to put down. Each chapter’s end left me longing to know what happened to the characters I was just visiting with and, simultaneously, excitement (laced with trepidation) to start the next chapter and jump back into the action of the story line of another family member.
What stuck with me the most is how different the experiences were for each of the family members. Some endured more hardships than others, some brushed right up against death and looked it square in the eyes, and others were left with guilt because they slipped by with minimal hardship. No one escaped without loss and those losses were jarring and well written, giving a real and gut-wrenching sense of the unjust and horrific nature of what the Jewish community witnessed and endured. I thought I was well educated about the Holocaust, but I learned a great deal from this book. I didn’t realize how many varieties of experiences were all wrapped up in this 20th century nightmare.
I highly recommend this book as it truly will take you on quite a beautiful, horrible, but deeply memorable ride. The prose is alluring and the pace picks up quickly and doesn’t slow down until the very end. I appreciated in the author’s notes Ms. Hunter let us know about the lives these real people lived after the war. I had fallen so in love with the Kurcs (though that wasn’t their real name), it was nice to know how they fared in this world, a perfect ending to the book.
Historical Content: Though this book states on the copyright page, “This is a work of fiction based on actual events,” there is definitely more non-fiction to this story than fiction. My knowledge of the Holocaust increased 10 fold by reading this book. I came away with a greater understanding of how truly blessed my life has been and is, because, even on my darkest day, it doesn’t come close to what the characters in this book, and the European Jewish community as a whole, witnessed and endured during Hitler’s reign. I also walked away with a new sense of, and pride in, the human spirit and how people will rise above the worst of fates, coming together to help strangers in extraordinary ways all while putting their own lives on the line. It was another book where the history was so well painted for the reader’s mind that when closing the book I had to take a minute to readjust to 2017.
Publisher: Viking, 2017
Pages: 403 (including all the author’s notes at the end)