We Were the Lucky Ones

Image of We Were the Lucky Ones
Release Date: 
February 13, 2017
Reviewed by: 

Georgia Hunter presumably loves her family and didn’t want to insult anyone when she set out to write a fictionalized account of how these well-to-do, assimilated Polish Jews survived the Holocaust.

Unfortunately, that means her end product—the debut novel We Were the Lucky Ones—emerges as an adventure story about a set of stick figures, each one more beautiful and noble than the next.

Genec Kurc, the oldest son, has “blue eyes, a dimple on each cheek, and an irresistible Hollywood charm.” His wife, Herta, “with her deep-set eyes and perfect lips and chestnut hair spilling in waves over her shoulders . . . looks like something out of a dream.” Meanwhile, Genec’s younger sister, Halina, was “born with an inexplicable mop of honey-blonde hair and incandescent green eyes.”

When Genek is arrested by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police), Herta staunchly insists that “I’m coming with you.” Sixty pages later, when Halina is summoned by another set of NKVD goons, her husband, Adam, repeats the almost identical vow: “I’m going with you.”

And apparently, throughout five and a half years of horror, not a single member of the extended Kurc family ever panics, quarrels, whines, betrays anyone, or acts selfishly.

In the official publicity material, Hunter says that “every significant movement, incarceration, brush with death, and escape described in the book actually happened.” So even if the characterizations strain credibility, readers can happily accept the seat-of-their-pants thrills of the basic plot.

At the start of World War Two, the Kurc family patriarch and matriarch, Sol and Nechuma, are prosperous fabric merchants in Radom, a large town about 60 miles south of Warsaw. Living with them or nearby are four of their five adult children, assorted spouses and romantic partners, their extended families, and one baby granddaughter. The middle son, Addy, is working in Toulouse, France, as an engineer.

However, the Kurcs are soon blasted around Europe and beyond like shots from a machine gun:

Genek and Herta are shipped in a cattle car to a Siberian slave-labor camp. Another brother and his wife manage to wangle jobs at a local factory, which is a step above ghetto misery, at least for a while. The oldest son-in-law disappears, while his wife and baby are squeezed into Sol and Nechuma’s tiny apartment in the Radom ghetto. Halina and Adam, thanks to fake IDs, eke out a risky existence as Aryans in Warsaw. For his part, Addy gets one of the last visas out of France to the presumed safety of Brazil.

To her credit, Hunter smoothly keeps track of this sprawling cast as they move from one temporary hideout to another across five continents, and the narrative rarely flags.

The writing, meanwhile, is serviceable. Hunter’s overreliance on clichés is rescued by occasional flares of strong sensory descriptions.

One wife, crawling through a meadow in hopes of avoiding border guards, feels “as if she’s anchored to the earth, weighed down by her appendages, by her countless layers of clothing, by Jakob’s camera, by the muscle that clings to her bones and the sweat that coats her skin.”

Most powerfully and beautifully, the novel conveys the family’s love for Radom. Even Addy, seemingly safe in France after Hitler invades Poland – and before France surrenders—wistfully recalls spring in his hometown, “when the domes of the horse-chestnuts bordering Warszawska Street begin to leaf, offering shade to patrons perusing the ground-floor shops for leathers, soaps, and wristwatches. Spring is when the flower boxes adorning the balconies on Malczewskiego Street overflow with crimson-red poppies.”

Hunter also said, in the publicity material, that she chose to write a novel rather than a memoir in order to invent scenes and “connective tissue” that would “add more depth and emotion to my story.”

Yet she failed to take advantage of the opportunities fiction offers for depth of characterization. She could have created flesh-and-blood people with faults and weaknesses—and then claimed that, after all, it was only fiction and her relatives in real life were much nicer.