Tracing the Family’s Footsteps
Photographs and reflections from my research travels through eastern Europe, France, Italy, and Brazil.
The images are far too familiar—the photos and videos of families pressed shoulder to shoulder in boats at double or triple the vessels’ capacity, desperate to flee the violence, oppression, and starvation in their home countries. Thousands, we’re told, perish during their attempts to escape. A lucky few make it to a safe haven. Millions are stuck—“warehoused,” I’ve learned, is the technical term—in bleak refugee camps, facing waits of unknown duration for a chance to start a new life somewhere, anywhere, safe and welcoming. Many wait their entire lives without getting that chance…–Georgia Hunter for Lit Hub
Last year, Robert and I set off on a weeklong, 685-mile journey through Poland, the Czech Republic, and Austria, following in the footsteps of my relatives, who traveled the same path seventy years before. A few weeks ago, we hopped the pond once again to complete a second leg of my family’s post-war exodus, this time with our four-and-a-half year old son in tow. Our itinerary—470 miles in seven days—followed the eastern seaboard down the back of Italy’s boot.
The trip, Robert and I decided from the get-go, wouldn’t be as research-intense as the previous summer’s, but rather a chance to simply make the journey, and to experience the sights, sounds, and flavors of Italy as my relatives might have.
While the Kurcs traveled by rail, we opted to drive, choosing roads and highways that followed the train tracks paralleling the coastline. We began our trip in Venice, powering through our jet lag with double-shot espressos and a refreshing swim in the hotel pool. Two days later, we motored south in a rented Citroen along the autostrada, pausing to stretch our legs in San Marino and taking in sweeping views of the Adriatic—the same blue-green sea my relatives would have admired through the windows of their train car.
Bari was a significant meeting place for the Kurc clan when WWII finally came to an end. I’ll never forget walking the city’s train station platform with Wyatt by my side, listening to the squawk of Italian over the loudspeaker and watching the trains come and go, trying to imagine the scene as if through my relatives’ eyes. It was a spine-tingling experience to be there, in the same spot my ancestors once stood, and later that afternoon I hugged my boys hard, overwhelmed with gratitude for the simple, stabilizing knowledge that my family was alive and well, and for the fact that when it came time for us to leave Italy, we’d be doing so not as destitute refugees with an unforeseeable future, but rather as well-fed tourists, returning home to a place of comfort, of peace.
We wrapped up our stay in Puglia, home to some of Italy’s most dramatic beaches and miles upon miles of olive groves. We swam in the warm, salty sea, explored the postcard-perfect towns of Puglignano a Mare and Monopoli, sloshed through the rain in the Trulli village of Alberollo, ventured 320 feet underground into Castellana’s cold, stalactite-rich caves, and gorged on fresh-off-the-boat branzino, homemade orecchiette pasta, and cone after cone of creamy gelato. We flew home happily exhausted, a few pounds heavier, and full of memories that, weeks later, Wyatt still enjoys rehashing in detail. (Remember when we climbed up the mountain and I ate three scoops of fragola ice cream? he often asks.) It was, for all three of us I think, the adventure of a lifetime.
The other day, when it registered that Wyatt would be starting school in a couple of weeks, I realized just how much of this summer has been devoted to The Eternal Ones. In some ways, it’s as if I’ve been living two parallel lives—one in the moment, and one in an alternate universe, seventy years in the past. July was all about incorporating the feedback I’d received in June from my editor, Sarah. When I wasn’t shuttling between soccer camp and swim practice, I was in full-fledged editing mode. By the time I sent off a revised manuscript at the end of the month, I was bleary-eyed and relieved to have the book off of my plate for a few weeks. I left the following day for Martha’s Vineyard, for a family gathering in honor of my grandmother, Caroline.
Twenty-four relatives flew and ferried in for our Vineyard get-together, from Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Oakland, Orange County, Miami, Chattanooga, Chelsea, and Boston. It was heartwarming, to share meals and reminisce together about the beautiful woman my grandmother was (if we could all just channel her virtue, her calm! we sighed)—and also surreal, to be surrounded by several of the family members whom I’d interviewed so long ago—for theirs were the stories that lay the groundwork for The Eternal Ones. I hadn’t seen many of these relatives in months (years, in some cases), but I was struck by a sense of familiarity the moment I greeted each, as if the process of immersing myself so deeply in our shared ancestral past had somehow brought us closer.
When I wasn’t at the beach or bent over a jigsaw puzzle or helping myself to a second portion of Anna’s Brazilian feijoada, I spent my free time on the island picking brains and pulling addresses from my manuscript, preparing for a trip I’d been wanting to take for years.
On the first of August, Robert and I tucked our passports, international driver’s licenses, and cameras into our carry-ons and set off from Edgartown through JFK and Paris to Warsaw, where we began a 1,100-kilometer journey on land through Poland, the Czech Republic, and Austria. Our goal: to follow the path of the Kurc family, who traveled the same route seventy years ago, in search of freedom. Robert coined it our Eternal Quest.
We would explore Warsaw and Krakow, where several family members barely survived the war in hiding, or incarcerated. We would visit Radom, where my grandfather grew up. Ultimately, we would push south through Vienna to Villach, Austria, where, to avoid the border, the family opted to sneak over the Julian Alps into Italy—on foot. It was an ambitious itinerary but it was nothing, of course, compared to the trek the family faced.
As we entered our first address into our GPS at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport, my pulse thrummed with the anticipatory sense that I had no concept of what, exactly, the next ten days would bring. I hadn’t a clue that in a few hours I would meet a young Polish/French woman, Elena, whose grandmother had fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. I had no idea what it would feel like to discover a mezuzah affixed to the arched doorway at the family’s old address in Radom—one of the only remaining signs of pre-war Jewish life in the city. To run my fingers over it as my grandfather and his parents and brothers and sisters certainly had. I had no way of knowing I would fall in love with the medieval one-time capital city of Krakow, or that it would take me hours to find the strength to speak again after walking through the infamous death camp complex of Birkenau.
Robert and I are home now, happily exhausted and fulfilled. I’m still processing the experience, and it would take days to describe just how grounding, at times heartbreaking, and overwhelmingly inspiring the trip was—so for now I’ll simply share a few touching moments, in photographs.
But first—a thank you to Robert, the most adventurous person I know—the engine behind this endeavor, not to mention a tireless and phenomenal photographer and videographer. Thank you as well to Jakub and Olga, who took hours (and hours) out of their Monday to show us around Radom—exploring the city and its fascinating history through their eyes was truly priceless. And thank you to my mother Isabelle and my mother-in-law Margie, for tucking Wyatt under their wings while we were away. It took a village to bring the Eternal Quest to fruition, but we made it happen, and I will be forever grateful for the memories.
You guessed right, Daryl—the mosaic in the banner photo above lives just off the shore of Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Congratulations on being the first to respond correctly—your iTunes gift card is on the way (you should consider downloading Getz & Gilberto’s Girl from Ipanema to commemorate your win!).
Robert and I visited my family in Rio a year and a half ago to do some book research and to partake in Copacabana’s epic New Year’s Eve celebration (more on that festive trip in a later post). We spent our first free afternoon walking the mosaic sidewalks hugging the shores of Ipanema, Copacabana, and Leme beaches.
Following in the footsteps of my grandfather and his siblings, who arrived in Rio in ’41 and ’46, respectively, was quite surreal. What a shocking change of scenery it must have been for them, stepping off the boat from war-torn Europe to a strip of white sand and sparkling sea!
I did a little digging and I learned that Rio’s ubiquitous sidewalk mosaics are the work of landscaping artist Roberto Burle Marx. The pattern is meant to capture the movement of the sea. For me, the mosaic is symbolic of my research—of my mission to piece together the stories of my family’s fragmented past. I also see it as a symbol of unity—a coming together of sorts. My grandfather and his siblings spent the majority of the Second World War scattered across five continents, determined to survive, and to reunite. It was in Rio, after a seven-year survival saga, that their paths finally converged.
Thanks to all of you who have guessed/commented on last week’s “name that photo” contest. The verdict’s still out on where the banner shot (above) was taken…which means a $25 iTunes gift certificate is still up for grabs!
I’ve decided to post one, last clue—a panned-out photo (below)—which I imagine will incite a few aha’s! You can see the mosaic at the bottom right…although the mountains are the real give-away. And yes, that’s my dear husband sipping from a freshly-lopped coconut (and he wonders why he wasn’t allowed to participate in the contest!).
Submit your guess via comment below. First response wins!
I’ve decided to host a contest. What’s more fun, after all, than a chance to WIN something?? Before I explain the rules, however, I have to apologize to my family on my mother’s side (which includes anyone with the last or maiden name Kurc, Courts, Hunter, Abernathy, Prasquier, and Eichenwald)—you’re not allowed to play! (Hint: you all have an unfair advantage.)
Now, on to the fun part: the contest. To win, be the first to tell me where the banner photo (above) was taken.
If you’d like to venture a guess, you can submit it via comment in the “Leave a Reply” box, or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In honor of my family’s passion for all things musical, the grand prize (drum role, please) is a $25 iTunes gift certificate. Hooray!
Bonne chance! Boa sorte! Powodzenia! Good luck!
We Were the Lucky Ones ranked #18 on the Indie Bestseller list for hardcover fiction!
We Were the Lucky Ones is selected by Harpers Bazaar as one of 14 Books You Need to Read in February…”a tale of resilience and commitment to one another amidst the direst of obstacles.”
“Love in the face of global adversity? It couldn’t be more timely.” –Glamour magazine, on We Were the Lucky Ones
We Were the Lucky Ones is picked by Glamour magazine as one of the Best Books to Read in 2017
Thank you, Bustle, for including We Were the Lucky Ones in your “15 New Authors You’re Going to be Obsessed With” roundup!