Thursday, June 15, 2017

Book Review: WE WERE THE LUCKY ONES

Title: We Were The Lucky Ones
Author: Georgia Hunter
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 416









At first, I wondered about the appropriateness of titling a book set during the Holocaust We were the Lucky Ones.

But that is exactly that the Kurc family, resident in Radom, Poland, at the start of the war in March 1939, turned out to be. Despite suffering the worst excesses, this family emerged alive through the War, ready to make a fresh start in the post-war world.

Each chapter of this story is told from the third person present tense point of view of a different family member. 

It is in this manner that we meet Sol and Nechuma Kurc, a prosperous Jewish couple, and their children. Eldest daughter, Mila, is married to Selim; they have a two-year-old daughter, Felicia. Son Genek is married to Herta. Addy, still single, is working in Paris, Jakob is in love with Bella, and youngest daughter, Halina, is in a relationship with Adam, the family’s tenant.

When World War II breaks out, the men, Selim, Genek and Jakob, are conscripted to fight. Jakob asks Bella to join him in Lvov where they live, and she does so, nearly losing her life as she makes the perilous journey. Those left behind are assigned new jobs. 

Halina is sent to pluck beets at a beet farm and Mila to sew clothes at a garment factory, where she goes to work, with Felicia strapped to her chest. At the factory, the child plays under the table all day. Meanwhile, Sol and Nechuma work in a cafeteria. Nechuma smuggles home potato peels to season their meal.

And then there comes a day when the family is assigned to a new shabby home while their spacious five-bedroom apartment is usurped by Germans. The Kurcs may only take their clothes and valuables.

Meanwhile, in France, Addy is sent a summons for conscription. He secures a time-bound visa to travel to Brazil. But the ship that he is travelling in is refused entry into Brazil because of the political picture of the continent has altered in the months in the interim period. 

The ship docks at Casablanca, where he gets into a relationship with Eliska, a rich Jewish girl.

At the end of each chapter, we get the historical events that transpired then, the ones that led to the War and saw Jews being persecuted and subsequently exterminated in concentration camps. Each chapter shows us things getting worse.

Genek and Herta are taken away from their home in the middle of the night and transported by train over the next 42 days in horrific conditions to Siberia. There they are made to work felling logs, surviving on meagre rations and facing Siberia’s horrible winters. It is here that Herta becomes pregnant and gives birth to baby Jozef.

Meanwhile, Halina joins Adam, with great difficulty, just as Bella had once done. Around this time, Bella discovers that her sister, Anna, and her husband are killed. Living in Lvov is fraught with danger, and so Jakob, Bella and her cousin, Franka leave for Radom again. Adam is taken to a work camp. Halina gets him released, using her grandmother’s silver cutlery as a bribe.

Each member of the family lived through such a harrowing time, and for long years, it seemed that things only got worse. I kept looking at the timeline, longing for 1945, when the Allies would win and the War would be over.

Portions of it made for difficult reading. I couldn’t read beyond these parts, imagining the plight of these people.

During the course of Genek and Herta’s terrible journey to Siberia, we read the heartrending account of the mother who sat for days with a dead baby in her arms, and stopped eating when the baby was thrown out by the Soviet soldiers. Later, the soldiers threw her out of the train too. 

I was also upset by the part in which little Felicia, who has been hidden in a sack and told to act like a statue during a Nazi inspection of the factory is nearly discovered by them.

There is so much that members of this family went through at the concentration camps. The holes in the ground that served as toilets. The demeaning lack of privacy. The anxiety of not knowing whether one would survive from one minute to another.

In the midst of difficulties, things start looking up for Addy. He finally reaches Brazil and after seven months of doing odd jobs, gets his work permit and a job. He and Eliska grow apart as he misses his family and Eliska fails to understand his sorrow.

Jakob and Bella return to Radom. As the political situation alters, allies turn into foes and vice versa, worsening the plight of the Jews depending upon where they find themselves.

Genek, Herta and Jozef are released by the Soviets and taken by train to Kazakhstan.

Hitler allows some Jews to emigrate to America. Mila and Felicia are on the first train, on the first leg of their long journey. But the train is led to a wilderness where the passengers are told to dig their own graves.

Jakob and Bella get a job in a factory outside Radom, in German-occupied Poland.

As the political situation worsens, the most fragile of securities slips away. All the siblings make efforts to help each other. Of them, Halina is the feistiest of the lot.

But my heart went out to Mila and Felicia. Mila’s circumstances were truly heartrending as she took the biggest risks to safeguard herself and her child. And Felicia herself, seeing such horrors at her age.

As their bodies waste away for lack of food, the author tells us of Bella, Her cheekbones grew more pronounced, and under her shirt, her ribs jutted from beneath her skin like a keyboard made up of only sharps and flats.

It was only at the end of the book that I became aware that it was a true story and that the author is the granddaughter of Addy. Truly a beautiful and touching recountal.

The writing was good, and the descriptions more than adequate. The author could so easily have resorted to using abusive language against the hateful Nazis. But she keeps to the facts, and gives us this fictionalized retelling of historically true events.

I was glad to read this one through to the end.

While we remember the millions that died in the Holocaust, we can rejoice with this family that lived to give thanks to God for seeing them through the worst.

(I got a free ARC from FirstToRead).


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