We Were the Lucky Ones
Before Passover in 1939, Nechuma Kurc writes her son, Addy telling him of the changes to their town, Radom, and the nascent anti-Semitism under Nazi influence and advising him to stay in France rather than return to Poland for the holiday. Little do they know how much will change between their correspondence and the next time they see each other. In that time, the family–Nechuma and her husband Sol, daughters Mila and Halina, and sons Genek, Jakob, and Addy, endure singular struggles. Halina and her husband, Adam, try to pass as gentiles outside the Jewish ghettos. Nechuma and Sol take refuge hiding in a Polish family’s house. Mila, a single mother since her husband Selim hadn’t been heard from, tries to raise Felicia in the shadow of ward. Genek and his wife Herta are sent to a Siberian work camp. Jakob and his childhood love and recent wife, Bella, struggle through separation and depression. And Addy, a refugee, wonders where he will go when no countries want to admit Jews. Often, the family has no means to contact each other, and the uncertainty wears on them as much as the deprivation and horrors of war and persecution.
History repeats itself. This is one truth of which she is certain.
Though the Kurcs were lucky ones, their experiences highlight the plight of Polish Jews. I learned a lot from this well-researched novel even though it’s hard to imagine there could be even more harrowing details about Nazi depravity to be had. Additionally, I wasn’t familiar with the events in Poland under Soviet occupation. While Addy may seem most fortunate as he was able to leave Europe, his experiences as a refugee show how difficult it was to get visas and travel to safe harbors. Periodically, the novel includes “bulletins,” brief capsules summarizing the war. Again, these contributed to my comprehension of events, particularly the ones related to Poland, like the Warsaw uprising. Snippets of language–Polish, German, French, Russian, Italian, and Portuguese–enhance the authenticity of the narrative.
Hunter based the novel on her family’s experience, and it’s definitely a story worth telling. At the same time, the framework provided some limitations. First, the point of view shifted among the Kurc family, and at times, the number of narrators and settings made the flow of the book somewhat choppy. At the same time, characters outside the nuclear family, like Halina’s husband, Adam, who worked for the underground as a counterfeiter, intrigued me, but readers heard about his activities only as Halina reported them. Felicia who begins the novel as a child, has some sections from her point of view, and they were jarring to me because their maturity was too developed for a two- or three-year-old. All of the characters–the Allied characters anyway–were basically written as good people, well-intentioned, kind, and generous. I wondered if the impulse to smooth over any unpleasant characterizations related to Hunter’s family ties or as compensation for the terror they experienced.
One intriguing element to the story is that after the war began, the family was led not by patriarch Sol but by youngest daughter, Halina. Her drive to protect her family accentuates the tension between being assertive and taking control of the situation while living in conditions where the characters had little control. The book also tracks how an upper-middle class family loses material possessions but thrives on hope and belonging. Of course, the possessions are helpful on the black market or to bribe authority figures. On the other hand, a need for food or safety can catalyze betrayal.
As the novel begins with a Seder, it ends with a Seder and the celebration of family. While the Kurcs had a happy ending, they were not unscathed by the war or the holocaust. This book is a testament to their experience and that of millions of others not as lucky. We Were the Lucky Ones is worth reading to remember and honor them.