April 16, 2018
Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention up front, but when I embarked upon this book I was expecting to read a story that would have fallen into the genre of “historical fiction,” i.e. a fictional account of a fictional family told against the backdrop of the all-too-real canvas of World War II. What I got instead was the astounding, near unbelievable, TRUE account of a Polish-Jewish family’s miraculous survival during this darkest time in human history. It is not until the epilogue/“Author’s Note” that we learn that the author’s Grandfather was in fact one of the main characters in her remarkable story.
The author acknowledges that her family elders, quite understandably so, were not eager to discuss the horrors of their past. Given the sparsity of details that were handed down to her, I imagine that a good amount of this epic tale can be chalked up to poetic license, so to speak, and that the writing of this tome entailed a good deal of “fleshing out” of a very skeletal handed-down (and oftentimes not first-hand) account. Nevertheless, the essence of this tale is true, and nothing short of miraculous, awe-inspiring and, indeed, life-affirming.
The protagonists here are Sol and Nechuma Kurc, their five young-adult children and their respective spouses. The story unfolds all over the far-flung corners of the globe during and after the Second World War: Poland, France, Siberia, Palestine, Argentina and, lastly, the United States. (Keeping track of the many main characters may have been a bit unwieldy, but the author handily provides a family tree at the book’s beginning, which I found myself consulting time after time.)
The aspects of this story that moved me most deeply were:
First, one cannot read this book without being struck by the perseverance and determination of the family members to provide for one another and simply to survive at the most elemental level during times of starvation, extreme weather, persecution and all the other privations of war-torn Europe. To say that We Were the Lucky Ones is a testament to the human spirit is to state the obvious.
Second, the love this family held for one another and the cohesiveness of the family unit – especially when all else was lost – was something that really touched me. There is a not-so-very subtle message here about what matters most in life. The instances of self-sacrifice (Halina for her parents and Mila for her daughter, to name just a couple) are particularly noteworthy.
Third, the family, having immigrated to the Unites States immediately post-war, made the utmost of their lives here, all going on to become successful in their chosen spheres. It strikes me that, as clichéd as it may sound, America is truly the land of opportunity for those who are willing to make it happen. As an American whose own Grandparents came here from Europe, I have to say that the author’s choice to bring this out brought a lump to my throat.
I don’t know if it’s even possible to describe a Holocaust story as having a happy ending, but if it is at all possible – considering the devastating losses to the world and to humanity at large - this family’s story had one. In fact, the book lightly touches upon the concept of survivor’s guilt: Toward the end of the book one of the characters muses about how none of them should have survived, and yet (against the odds) all of them did. They were the lucky ones….
A word about the unspeakably brave souls who harbored the hunted: people like Halina’s boss who was willing to vouch for her (on more than one occasion), or like the peasant family who hid Sol and Nachuma behind a false wall in their home, or the Mother Superior who ran an orphanage and who was willing to accept the falsehood that little Felicia was “Aryan” in order to spare her life. To paraphrase a sentiment of Anne Frank’s: despite everything, there truly are good people in this world. In a world gone mad, these courageous individuals are true heroes.
The sanctity of life and the belief that life is something worth fighting for are not new concepts to Holocaust literature. This book ranks right up there with the best in the lessons it has to impart.
All in all, edge-of-your-seat story-telling, with an extremely poignant ending. Definitely recommended.