Family Ties: Georgia Hunter on ‘We Were the Lucky Ones’ (Q&A w/ event details)

Georgia Hunter will present her debut novel, We Were the Lucky Ones, at the Fairfield University Bookstore on Monday, February 27th, at 7:00 p.m. This event is free and open to the public. RSVP: FairfieldUBookstoreEvents@gmail.com; walk-ins are welcome. Copies of the book will be available for purchase/signing. Location: 1499 Post Rd.

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Today, I’m honored to be in the virtual company of Georgia Hunter.

Georgia is the debut novelist of We Were the Lucky Ones (Viking)—a new release that was named one of Glamour Magazine’s Best Books to Read in 2017 and Harper’s Bazaar’s Books You Need To Read in February. When Georgia was fifteen years old, she learned that she came from a family of Holocaust survivors. We Were the Lucky Ones, though fictionalized, draws on her efforts to uncover her family’s history; her blog (www.weweretheluckyones.com) offers an intimate at the extensive research this project required. Georgia makes her home in Connecticut.

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Author Georgia Hunter.

Praise for We Were the Lucky Ones:

“Reading Georgia Hunter’s We Were the Lucky Ones is like being swung heart first into history. . . . A brave and mesmerizing debut, and a truly tremendous accomplishment.” —Paula McLain, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Wife

“[A] remarkable history . . . Hunter sidesteps hollow sentimentality and nihilism, revealing instead the beautiful complexity and ambiguity of life in this extraordinarily moving tale.”—Publishers Weekly

From the publisher:

An extraordinary, propulsive novel based on the true story of a family of Polish Jews who are separated at the start of the Second World War, determined to survive—and to reunite

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 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.

A novel of breathtaking sweep and scope that spans five continents and six years and transports readers from the jazz clubs of Paris to Kraków’s most brutal prison to the ports of Northern Africa and the farthest reaches of the Siberian gulag, 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 survive, and even triumph.

we-were-the-lucky-ones

Now, Georgia reveals the familial facts that inspired her fiction …

John Valeri: What inspired you to write We Were the Lucky Ones – and how did the process of crafting your debut novel compare to expectations?

Georgia Hunter: Growing up, I had no idea I was a quarter Jewish, or that I came from a family of Holocaust survivors. It wasn’t until a year after my grandfather had died, during an interview with my grandmother for a high school English project, that I discovered this piece of my ancestral past.

Six years later, a few months after I’d graduated from college, my mother hosted what would become the first of many Kurc family reunions at our home in Massachusetts. This was a turning point for me, as I was introduced to several relatives I’d never met before, and also to snippets of the greater Kurc family’s story: a cousin born in the gulag; a great-aunt who walked over the Austrian Alps, while pregnant with her firstborn; a secret wedding in a blacked out flat in Lvov; a desperate mother-daughter attempt to escape the Radom ghetto – the stories were unlike any I’d ever heard before.

I can’t say I left that reunion knowing I’d write a book someday (I was 21 years old, preparing for my foray into the ‘real world’), but I can say it was then that the idea of unearthing my family history was seeded. It would be another eight years, though, before I set off for my first interview.

You ask how writing the book compared to my expectations, but with the novel being my first, I can’t say I had many expectations! Looking back, I think this was a good thing, as it allowed me to research and write in my own time, without any preconceived notions of what the finished product should look like.

JV: You come from a family of Holocaust survivors. In what ways did that influence this work – and how does fact inform fiction?

GH: I think the fact that I didn’t grow up Jewish or knowing that I came from a family of Holocaust survivors ended up being beneficial in the creation of We Were the Lucky Ones. It allowed me to write in a way that felt less judgmental and more straightforward, unbiased. I was lucky as well in that my family somehow managed to skirt the horrors of the Holocaust that fell upon the masses. They never saw the inside of a concentration camp. They survived. Theirs is a story of hope and inspiration, with a very different ending than most.

I made the decision to fictionalize We Were the Lucky Ones when I realized my characters, in early drafts of the manuscript, felt too one-dimensional. I’d stuck so closely to what I’d been told in my interviews (during which my relatives were conveyed – rightfully so – as heroes), that they often came across as too perfect. They were courageous, resilient, and ingenuous, yes. But they were also human. They were falling in love (even making babies!), and they must have also been confused and angry and at times consumed with fear. By allowing myself the creative license to dive a little deeper into my protagonists’ psyches, to imagine to the best of my ability what was running through their hearts and minds, it’s my hope that I was able, in the end, to bring the story even closer to the truth.

JV: Tell us about your research process. What revelations did you find most surprising – and how did you know when it was time to stop reading and start writing?

GH: My research began with a series of interviews, as I set off to collect as many oral histories as I could. My goal was to get to know the personalities of the Kurc siblings (along with their parents and spouses), and to understand how, exactly, they managed to forge their individual paths to survival. It took me years, but little by little (and thousands of sky miles later) I pieced together the bones of my story into a massive timeline, which I color-coded by family member.

Where there were holes in my timeline, I turned to outside resources such as archives, museums, and magistrates. I was amazed by how much information I was able to find. With the help of the Shoah Institute, for example, I had access to three first-hand accounts from family members who’d since died. Through the Hoover Institution at Stamford University, I tracked down a nine-page, hand-written account of my great uncle Genek’s, explaining when and why he’d been sent to the gulag. Through the U.K. Ministry of Defense I found dozens of military records, including Medals of Honor for those relatives who’d fought for the Allies – medals that had yet to be collected.

One big surprise came when I discovered, with the help of a librarian at the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum, that fewer than 300 of the ~30,000 Jews originally from Radom, Poland (my family’s hometown) survived the Holocaust. This statistic meant that the Kurcs alone made up nearly seven percent of the city’s survivors. For an entire family to remain intact as mine did was truly a statistical anomaly.

I shifted from research to writing when my timeline finally felt complete. I began by plotting an outline, and then chapter summaries, and from there the manuscript began to come to life.

JV: The story spans five continents and six years. How did you account for these complexities when plotting – and in what way do they enhance the narrative?

GH: It was a challenge to pull it all together, but I reminded myself often that it was the complexity and scope of the narrative that made my family’s narrative unique, and that if I could pull it off, the story would offer both a memorable personal account, as well as a sweeping, global perspective of what it meant to be Jewish and on the run during the Second World War.

JV: It’s been said that past is prologue. What are the lessons to be learned from this book – and why are they particularly relevant, given the current world climate?

GH: I’ve learned so much through the process of writing this book – about my family, about myself, and about several aspects of the Second World War that were unfamiliar to me going into my research. I think my biggest lesson, however, is one I gleaned from the years I spent trying to imagine myself in the shoes of my grandfather and his siblings, which is a lesson in perseverance. The Kurcs, despite the hardships, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds they faced, never gave up. They managed, somehow, to stay one step ahead. They hoped beyond hope that they’d live to see another day, and to see each other again. This idea, of not giving up, even in the face of adversity, feels especially relevant to me today.

Looking back, I’m also moved by those people who helped my family along the way: the ambassador who issued my grandfather an illegal visa to Brazil; the Austrian banker who lied about a great-aunt’s religion to save her life, at the risk of his own; the Polish peasants who kept my great-grandparents in hiding, against the threat of death if caught harboring Jews. I think about these people often, about how they put their lives on the line to protect strangers, and about how I likely wouldn’t be here today with them. Thanks to them, I’m inspired now more than ever to recognize the fact that, across borders, there are millions of people in need – and to do what I can, when I can, to step up and help.

JV: In your opinion, what is the role of the bookstore within its community – and how do you think attending your event at the Fairfield University Bookstore might heighten the reading experience for those who attend?

GH: I’ve always felt that bookstores, like libraries, are magical places. Where else can you wander into a room, pick up a book, and step into the future, or back in time, or into the shoes of someone whose story might make you see the world (and perhaps yourself) a little differently? Whether in search of inspiration, advice, or simply a distraction, bookstores offer an endless array of possibility, along with a welcome place for a community to convene.

I’m thrilled to be able to speak at the Fairfield University Bookstore! There’s something really special about hearing an author speak about his or her work – for me, it adds a heightened element of understanding and appreciation, not only for the subject of a book, but for what went into writing it. I think part of what makes my particular story interesting to others it that it’s a study in genealogy, and I believe we are all drawn to the question at some point in our lives of where it is that we come from, of why we are the way we are. And while not everyone will dive as deeply into their own ancestry as I have, perhaps hearing from someone like me who’s traversed the daunting path of unearthing her roots will inspire attendees to ask themselves some similar questions, to do a little digging of their own.

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With thanks to Georgia Hunter for her generosity of time and thought and to Olivia Taussig, Publicist at Viking/Penguin Books, and Nancy Quinn, Special Events Coordinator at Fairfield University Bookstore, for facilitating this interview.

 

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