We Were the Lucky Ones

Written by Georgia Hunter
Review by Sarah Johnson

This debut novel recounts not only one but multiple harrowing tales of unlikely survival. It’s also an amazing piece of historical reconstruction, expertly translated into fiction. As Hunter reveals at the start, fewer than 300 of the 30,000-plus Jewish residents of Radom, Poland, remained alive after WWII. Her grandfather and his four siblings were among them. Learning about her family’s Holocaust past as a teenager, she set out to uncover their stories: interviewing older relatives, tracing their paths across Europe and elsewhere, poring through archives for relevant facts.

Knowing the ultimate outcome, one may wonder whether the novel offers any suspense. In short, yes. The circumstances her characters endure are excruciatingly traumatic; that they manage to survive is thanks to a combination of resourceful planning, split-second decisions made under tremendous pressure, and random luck. Also, there are numerous other people they care deeply about, and readers will anxiously hope that they survive as well. Many chapters end with a mini-cliffhanger, which seems over-the-top initially but does heighten tension.

The story has impressive breadth, spanning over six years and many countries around the globe as the Kurcs pursue separate quests for safety through a Nazi-darkened world. One can sense the terror faced by Mila, forced to hide her two-year-old daughter, Felicia, in a paper sack of fabric scraps when the Gestapo invades the factory where she works—and feel Felicia’s claustrophobic fear as well. Genek and his wife Herta endure near-frozen conditions in a Siberian gulag, where their baby son is born. The author’s grandfather, Addy, an affable, talented musician, leaves Paris early on, but his planned voyage to Brazil is held up, and he remains consumed by worry over his family. The novel is full of tangible details but has thriller-style pacing. Reading it is a consuming experience.