This is probably the only time I’ve ever hesitated over whether to class a book as “historical fiction” or “non-fiction.” I went with historical fiction because the book clearly follows the conventions of that genre: it gives us the inner thoughts, private conversations, and other tiny details a writer of non-fiction could never really know, vividly bringing the story of the Kurc family to life as only a good piece of fiction can. But as the Author’s Note at the end makes clear, this book is not just “based on a true story”: it is an amazing true story, built on the author’s meticulous research into the experiences of her grandfather’s Polish- Jewish family during WW2.
The story begins in the spring of 1939. The Kurc family are middle-class, assimilated Polish Jews living in the city of Radom. The parents, Sol and Nechuma, are in their early 50s, and they have five grown children: Genek, Mila, Halina, Jakob and Addy. Two of the children are married, one (Mila) with a child of her own; all except for Addy live near their parents’ home in Radom. Addy, a musician and engineer, is living and working in France but planning to come home for Passover as usual, when anti-Jewish sentiment in Poland and the growing thread from Nazi Germany leads his mother to suggest he stay in France for the holiday. Little does Addy know it will be nearly 10 years before he sees any of his family members again.
The story traces the experiences of each of the five Kurc children, their parents and their partners, throughout the years of horrific suffering that follow. Some parts of the story — as Jews are forced out of their homes, into ghettos, forced into cattle cars, taken to unknown and sinister destinations from which no-one returns — are familiar. Other parts will be new to anyone who hasn’t made a specific study of WW2 Poland: the way in which the country was divided between German and Soviet invading forces; the differences for Jews in the German and in the Soviet zones; how Jews who used fake ID papers to live under a non-Jewish identity survived; the story of “Anders’ Army” of Polish exiles who were sent by the Soviet Union to fight for the Allies in Italy. This is an amazing story of suffering, endurance, and survival.
There’s a fairly major detail that makes We Were the Lucky Ones unique among Holocaust stories, and while it’s pretty clearly telegraphed and covered in a lot of the interviews and press around the book, some people do consider it a spoiler, so I’ll spoiler-tag it here and say: if you like to remain free from any kind of spoilers and you want to read this book, you can stop reading here ….
SPOILER ZONE AHEAD!!