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Novel recounts the survival of a family against all odds

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We Were The Lucky Ones Georgia Hunter Viking

The most significant part of Georgia Hunter’s debut book is its title.

We Were The Lucky Ones is a strange title for a book about the Holocaust, but we keep it in mind throughout the stories of the most difficult years in the lives of the Kurc family, beginning in prewar Poland.

Hunter’s debut novel is based on true events. Although every page brings new atrocities to the Kurcs, we are aware that this family is considered lucky. We know that in the end, the Kurc family will have miraculously survived – they are among the 300 Jewish survivors of the 30,000 who once lived in Radom, Poland.

When she was 15, Hunter learned that her grandfather, Eddy, who lost  track of his family during the Holocaust, spent almost a decade not knowing the fate of his family. Twenty years later, she would be well on her way on a journey that took her to visit her relatives (who now number over 100) and explore areas of Brazil, France, Israel, Poland, America and more to piece together this story of survival against all odds.

The book tells the stories of the different family members as each one desperately wonders where the others are. Many of the scenes described here, pieced together by the family members living through the war, their future generations and other survivors who went through and witnessed the same kinds of events, are tales that are lesser-told from that time.

Hunter’s family and countless others helped her with the facts so that she could put the family story on paper, something she knew needed to be done after she first learned of her grandfather’s story.

One of his siblings and his wife were sent to a Siberian labour camp, where their child was born in freezing temperatures that made his eyelids stick together each morning to be pried apart by his malnourished mother’s breast milk.

Others spent many years in hiding after escaping the ghettos. The survivor who may stick with us the most for her bravery at a young age is Felicia, the daughter of Eddy’s sister Mila. Felicia  grew up hiding from the Nazis under work tables before being sent to a convent where her hair was bleached blonde by the nuns (one of whom will later be named a Righteous Among the Nations). She then contracted scurvy when stuck in a basement following the bombing of Warsaw.

Throughout the book, we meet numerous people who help the family, Jews and non-Jews alike. One scene shows the horror when Mila volunteered, with Felicia, to be sent somewhere she believed was safe and then was told to start digging, realizing right away that she was meant to dig one grave for herself and one for her daughter.

At this point, a woman with Aryan features walked over to a German soldier and managed to talk her way out of being killed. With only a moment to think, Mila told Felicia to start running toward the woman yelling, “Mother! Mother!” and to grab her. Heartbreakingly for both of them, the 3-1/2-year-old child followed the directions. The woman, having no idea of the plan, simply looked down at this strange child grabbing her legs, picked her up and held onto her as if she was her own. When the shooting began, she covered the child’s eyes and whispered in her ear.

No matter how many times we read, watch, see pictures of and hear these stories, it still seems that they can’t be anything other than fiction – that the events are so grotesque even a horror writer couldn’t think them up. Yet everything that happened in this book was true.

The book traces the family from prewar Poland through World War II and the Holocaust, and then delves into the days after the war. The German surrender did not bring peace for everyone. Many people couldn’t get their health back and couldn’t handle eating after so many years of starvation. For some, when going back to their homes, they were refused entry or even killed.

When they tried to find a place to live, no one, not even Canada, would take them. No matter who they were or what they had before the war, they were left with nothing and nowhere to go. Luckily Addy Kurc (later renaming himself Eddy) was able to get to Brazil and bring his family there.

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In the book, Eddy tells of the tumultuous trip to Brazil and his life there during the war. The middle child of the Kurc family, he tried to find a way to live while not knowing where any of the members of his family were or if they were alive. He knew this couldn’t be understood by his fiancée of the time and so broke off his engagement to her.

The author’s note at the end of the book is possibly the most heartbreaking, maybe because we feel that we know the Kurcs so well at this point or because it finally makes it real.

We meet Felicia as an adult here, where the toll taken by the war is still evident in her pockmarked skin, the darkness of her eyes and the careful way she carries herself.

During a family gathering, Felicia says, “Our family, we shouldn’t have survived. Not so many of us, at least. We were the lucky ones.”

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