When Georgia Hunter was 15, one of her teacher at the Moses Brown School, Ransom Griffin, assigned her class a family “I-Search” project.
Hunter chose to interview her grandmother. In the process, she learned that her recently deceased grandfather, Eddy Courts, had a history she never imagined. Eddy, born Addy Kurc, was one of five children raised in Radom, Poland, in a Jewish family that was profoundly affected by the Holocaust.
“Until that interview with my grandmother,” Hunter says, “I had no idea that I was one-quarter Jewish or that my grandfather was raised in Poland. I assumed he was American through and through.”
After graduating from college and marrying, Hunter returned to her family history, embarking on a nine-year journey to research and record the Kurcs’ story of surviving the Holocaust. The result is her impressive debut novel, “We Were the Lucky Ones” (Viking, February 2017).
In Hunter’s lightly fictionalized narrative, we meet her great-grandfather Sol and his wife Nechuma, their five adult children and a beloved baby granddaughter. It is spring 1939, and increasing anti-Jewish sentiment has the community on edge. The close-knit Kurcs want to believe the danger is slight.
“It will all be fine,” insists Nechuma. In Paris, where he works as an engineer, Addy’s friends laugh off the threat: “All this talk of war is just a fuss.”
But it is only a matter of time before German forces invade and seize Radom. The family is forced into cramped ghettos and put to work in Nazi-run factories and workshops. Jews are shot in the streets of Radom and, chillingly, rounded up for relocation. Some of the Kurcs manage to flee the city, only to find there is no true sanctuary for them in Poland.
During seven harrowing years, the family scatters across Europe, Russia and South America, all the while wondering if they will survive to see one another again. And with good reason: Over the course of World War II, the number of Jews in Radom shrank from 30,000 to fewer than 300. Those who survived were indeed the lucky ones.
Turning history into fiction can be tricky, especially when using real names and details. Hunter finesses the challenge. Her novel brings the Kurcs to life in heart-pounding detail, from passionate young love and beloved traditions to narrow escapes, heartbreaking choices, starvation, imprisonment and torture. We come to care deeply about the fate of each of these resourceful, determined characters.
While writing, Hunter worried that the Kurcs’ descendants, who now live in France, Brazil and the United States, might find fault in her depiction of their relatives.
“But so far everyone has reached out to tell me how moved they are by the story,” she says.
Her cousin Alain, grandson of Hunter’s great-aunt Halina Kurc, wrote to thank her “for answering so many questions I never dared to ask. Your rendering of [the Kurcs’] daily struggle for life brought tears to my eyes.”
“We Were the Lucky Ones” has been named by Harper’s Bazaar “one of 14 books you need to read in February.” It is available online and at Books on the Square in Providence.
ANNE DIFFILY, a former editor of the Brown Alumni Magazine, lives in Warwick.