Questions & Answers
You decided to write this story having discovered that you came from a family of Holocaust survivors. Was this information that had been deliberately withheld from you before that time?
I suppose you could say it was deliberate, although once I discovered this piece of my grandfather’s past it didn’t feel as if I’d uncovered some deep, dark secret. I grew up a mile from my grandparents – I was very close with them – but in the fourteen years that I knew him, the subject of my grandfather’s upbringing or of his relatives (most of whom lived abroad) never came up, most likely because I never thought to ask. I knew him not as Adolph Kurc (the name he was given at birth), but as Eddy Courts (the name he adopted upon moving to the States), the polyglot, engineer and composer. He had a few quirks, but I didn’t think much of them. I loved my Papa dearly. To me, he was American through and through.
It was a year after he’d died that I learned, thanks to an interview with my grandmother for a school research assignment, that my grandfather was born in Poland, and that he came from a family of Holocaust survivors. The discovery took me some time to process, of course, and I wish to this day I could ask my grandfather why, exactly, he made that decision to leave his Polish/Jewish heritage behind. But the more I uncovered in my research, the more I understood that it must have felt like an obvious choice, having seen what the label of 'Polish Jew' could have (should have, if left to the odds) meant for his family. Becoming an American citizen and immersing himself in American culture was, I imagine, his way of protecting himself, along with his children and grandchildren.
My mother tells me that when she was younger, my grandfather travelled occasionally to Brazil and to France to celebrate the Jewish holidays with his family, and that he’d reminisce now and then about the smell of his mother’s challah bread. So I can’t say that he withheld his faith and his upbringing entirely from his family, but rather made a deliberate effort, upon putting down roots in a free land, to look forward rather than back.
For as many members of the same family to survive as did yours must have been exceptional. Did you come across others in your research, and how do you account for it?
Sadly I didn’t come across any other families of Polish Jewish descent who came out of the Holocaust as intact as mine. The Kurcs were truly a statistical anomaly. They were incredibly lucky in that (aside from some extended family) none ended up in a concentration camp. Some were confined to ghettos or to work camps, but they managed to escape. Others were able to find places to live, by the grace of non-Jews willing to take them into hiding. Several lived as Aryans under the noses of the Nazis, thanks to their fluency in German and Russian, and to the meticulous hand of a relative in the Underground who made false IDs such as Halina's, left.. One brother’s life may have been saved, in the end, by the fact that he was sent by Stalin to work in the Siberian gulag, released a year later on the condition that he fight for the Allies. My grandfather was able to find a way out of Europe at the start of the war. Each relative faced his or her own seemingly insurmountable odds, but they all, somehow, managed to stay one step ahead of the enemy.
There must have been huge amounts of both historical and personal research involved in the writing. How did you go about it and how long did it all take? Did you have any doubts along the way?
Once the idea to record my family’s story was seeded, it took me a while to garner the courage to actually begin my research. The prospect of all the digging (let alone travel!) it would entail was daunting. It was 2008 when I finally set off for Paris for my first interview. From there I flew to Brazil and across the States, interviewing as many relatives, acquaintances and other possible sources as I could. The process of unearthing my family’s story was slow, and often felt like an uphill battle. There were discrepancies and holes that seemed to make it impossible to tell a cohesive narrative – but I kept at it, and little by little I pieced together the ‘bones’ of my family’s story, which took shape, in the beginning, in the form of a timeline. I colour-coded the timeline to help keep track of who was where/when, discovering right away that each Kurc had his or her very distinct survival tale to tell. Where there were gaps, I looked to outside resources – to archives, museums, ministries and magistrates around the world, in hopes of tracking down relevant information. Often this required the help of translators to pen queries in Polish, Russian, German, Italian, Hebrew and French. It took a while – sometimes up to a year – to receive a reply, but I was amazed at how much information I was able to find. Over time, I collected details from organisations near and far, including a nine-page hand-written account from one sibling, extensive military records for others, and (in perhaps my most treasured find) the first-hand accounts of three relatives who had since passed away, captured on video by the Shoah Foundation. It took years, but once my research was complete, I faced the next daunting task – crafting the skeleton of my story into a book.
You worked on this book for around eight years. Did you have a regular ‘day job’ alongside it and how did you manage to keep both going, as well as being a mother? When did the project change from a desire to know more of your own personal history into a published work?
Right around when I began work on my book, I made a career shift, leaving my job as a strategist at a branding and design firm to try my hand as a copywriter, with a focus on the adventure travel industry, a position I’ve held since. As a freelancer, I can create my own schedule, which is ideal as it gives me the time between assignments to focus on my book, and on being a mum. It’s always a challenge, of course, balancing work and home life (some days I’m quite miserable at it!), but I feel fortunate to have found a career that lets me do what I love most and also spend quality time with my family.
I never imagined when I kicked off my research that, nearly a decade later, it would culminate in the 400-page novel perched on my bedside table. I didn’t rule out publication – it was something I aspired to somewhere along the way – but I went into the project with the simple goal of capturing a piece of my ancestry, so that it could live on within our family. I knew ours was a unique and remarkable story, and I felt that recording it was important not only for the relatives whose lives are portrayed in the book, but for their children and grandchildren and for all of the generations to follow. It wasn’t until I finally got the courage to pass an early manuscript on to an editor, who in turn forwarded it, several rounds of revisions later, to an agent, that the prospect of publication became real.
Did you feel any tension between remaining faithful to the facts and the need to achieve a fictional truth?
I thought hard about whether to pen We Were the Lucky Ones as non-fiction. Every major narrative in the book is based on truth – uncovered in oral histories or through outside research. I made the decision to write it as a novel when I realized that the story, in its early stages, while rich with facts, lacked a bit of human colour. I’d stuck so closely to the truth and to conveying only the details that I’d been told, that my characters felt a touch too one-dimensional, too perfect. It made sense, in a way, as many of my interviews were conducted with the children of the Kurc survivors, each of whom described their parents (rightfully so) as heroes. But the more I thought about it, I realised my characters couldn’t have been perfect. They were smart and brave and resilient, yes, but they must have also been afraid, and angry, and at times consumed with guilt. On the flip side, they were also falling in love – and making babies! They were living their lives, holding onto those bits of normalcy that likely gave them the strength to carry on from day to day. In allowing myself the creative license to fictionalize my story, I was able to dial up these personal aspects, to dive a little deeper into my characters’ psyches, imagining what was running through their minds, their hearts, and in turn make each come across as less perfect, and more human. It was important to me to write my book in a way that would let readers step into the shoes of a family on the run during the Second World War. To imagine for themselves what that must have been like, felt like. It’s my hope that by fictionalising the Kurcs’ story, I was able, in the end, to deepen its humanity, and thereby bring it even closer to the truth.
It’s very ambitious for a first novel. What were the main challenges? Did you agonise over material you must inevitably have had to omit?
Time was clearly a challenge in the making of this book – I never thought it would take me so long to complete! And I did have a hard time omitting material in places, especially material I’d worked so hard to find. I also found it difficult to change a name (for the sake of clarity) or to leave out a relative (the sister of an in-law, say) whose story didn’t feel essential to the narrative. I agonized the most, however, over how to help my readers keep track of each of my characters. One of the things that makes the Kurc family’s story unique is how many of them managed to defy the horrendous odds they faced. With each chapter told from a different relative’s perspective, I worried that readers would have a hard time following along. I devoted a lot of brainpower to trying to make each of my characters different, and to conveying those differences on the page in a way that would allow readers to remember who was who as they hopped between storylines. I also created a family tree, which appears at the front of the book as a tool to help readers remember the characters and relationships.
As your book shows, the story of every Holocaust survivor didn’t end with the war and no one’s life ever went back to how it was, or even where it was, before. Why are these stories of recovery and displacement so much less written about?
That’s a great question. I wonder if it has something to do with the time in survivors’ lives when they become comfortable talking about their wartime experiences, about what it meant to start over. I read countless World War II accounts in my research that were told by the grandchildren of survivors (e.g., Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, David Benioff’s City of Thieves), and I find it interesting that the process of uncovering the stories of a Holocaust survivor often skips a generation. As we approach the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we’re entering a point in time where there are fewer and fewer survivors around to share their experiences – experiences that would be lost forever if left untold – and there is a push now, especially among third-generation survivors, to capture these stories. Perhaps once enough time had elapsed and the memories weren’t so raw, survivors became more willing and able to share. Or perhaps in some cases we grandchildren, able and curious to reflect from more of a historical and cultural distance, weren’t afraid to ask the questions - however difficult - that allowed us to pay tribute to those in whose footsteps we follow.
How did it feel visiting Radom in Poland knowing all you did about what happened there to its inhabitants, your family?
Knowing its history, I was nervous to visit Radom, but I was also excited – I couldn’t wait to explore the streets where my grandfather and his siblings spent the first decades of their lives. My husband and I spent a full day in Radom with a guide, a young man name Jakub whom I’d contacted through the city’s Culture Center. Jakub showed us the old Jewish cemetery, which I was shocked to learn was still being resurrected, as the tombstones had been repurposed by the Nazis for a military airport runway. We toured the empty square where Radom’s main synagogue once stood, and the street corner corner that was once the entrance to the city’s ghetto. We visited the apartment where my family once lived, and I got chills running my fingers along a rusted mezuzah still adhered to the building’s cement arched entranceway (only one of two remaining mezuzahs in the entire city, Jakub said). I left Radom understanding why my great-grandparents had decided to raise a family there – the city was quaint, liveable; I appreciated its understated, small-town vibe. But I couldn’t help but also feel the presence of the 30,000 Jews who had once inhabited the city (a community that was reduced to fewer than 300 by war’s end), who had enjoyed it for what it was before their lives were turned upside down.
Were you in touch with your extended family before working on this project, and how has the book affected the family dynamic and your relationships with them now? Was anyone opposed to what you were doing?
In the summer of 2000, my mother organised what would become the inaugural Kurc family reunion at our house on Martha’s Vineyard. I was twenty-one, just out of college. All nine of my mother’s first cousins readily agreed to come, each with spouses and children, some from as far away as Paris, Tel Aviv and Rio de Janeiro. We numbered 32 in all. I met many of my extended family members for the first time at that reunion, and will never forget sitting down one night at a table with my mother and her cousins and listening in as they recounted stories that had been passed down to them about their parents’ wartime experiences – stories unlike any I’d ever heard before. My great-aunt Felicia was at that reunion – she was barely a year old in 1939 when the Nazis invaded, but her memories of growing up in war-torn Poland were sharp. She spoke about a narrow escape from a killing field, and about the ingenious plan her mother concocted to sneak them out of the Radom ghetto. She described the Kurcs as 'the lucky ones'. Eight years later, when I began reaching out to relatives to let them know I’d like to sit down for an interview in an effort to record our family’s story, I was met with open arms and an overwhelming sense of gratitude – even from Felicia, whose memories of the Holocaust were still difficult to recount. The family has been incredibly supportive throughout.
In the course of your research you must have come across scores of other stories waiting to be told. Are you tempted to tackle any of these next?
Yes! Everyone I spoke with, whether one of my own relatives, or a friend of a relative, or someone who had been in the same place at a particular point in time, had a story to tell. I love that We Were the Lucky Ones offers a sweeping, global view of the Second World War, thanks to the fact that the Kurcs were scattered across the globe throughout the duration of the war, but I think often about taking one particular storyline (e.g., my grandfather’s, or young Felicia’s) and diving deep into a year or two of their lives.
I introduce my grandmother Caroline towards the end of the book. Born a Presbyterian in South Carolina, she was working for the American Embassy in Rio when she met my grandfather. I think too about telling her story, and what it meant to be a young American living abroad during the war, falling in love with a refugee without a clue as to the whereabouts of his family.