Inspiration Behind the Book
How I discovered my Polish/Jewish heritage and what inspired me to unearth and record my family’s Holocaust-era history.
Two weeks ago, I had the honor of being invited by Penguin Random House (PRH) to join a panel of six authors with forthcoming titles at an Open Book event in New York. Our assignment, we were told prior to the event, was to speak for ten minutes each about our books to a group of 100 librarians from the Tri-State area. Despite the fact that a podium + an audience made my heart palpitate, I jumped at the offer, grateful for the chance to share the story behind We Were the Lucky Ones with an auditorium full of book lovers, and also for the chance to give thanks to the librarians around the world I’d relied upon in my research.
When I arrived at PRH’s Manhattan headquarters, I was whisked upstairs to a green room, where my nerves were quelled when panel member (and highly seasoned speaker/author) Jennifer Boylan introduced herself and laughed about how ironic it was that our publishers had asked us to speak–“Don’t they know if we wanted to speak in public,” she quipped, “we’d have been actors, not writers!”
The five other author talks were incredibly captivating, and it was a privilege to meet these writers and to learn first-hand about the storylines and thought processes that went into their novels. I’ve included links to my fellow presenters’ websites at the end of this post, and if you’d like to check out my talk on YouTube, you can do so here.
Soon after the Open Book event, I was thrilled to learn that We Were the Lucky Ones had been reviewed by the trade news magazine Publishers Weekly.
“…Hunter side-steps hollow sentimentality and nihilism,” Publishers Weekly writes, “revealing instead the beautiful complexity and ambiguity of life in this extraordinarily moving novel.” (complete excerpt below)
A few days later, I received another review of sorts, this time from a cousin in Israel…and while I’m thankful beyond belief for my first glowing industry review, reading Alain’s feedback felt even more meaningful.
Weeks before, I’d sent galleys to a few of the Kurc relatives I’d visited and interviewed in my research, without whom my book could never have been written. One of those relatives was Anna, daughter of my grandfather’s sister Halina. Anna read the book in two days and told me over Skype how moved she was by it, and that she’d passed the galley on to her oldest son, Alain. A few days later, an email arrived that made my heart swell.
“Thank you for bringing to life our family, for answering so many questions I never dared to ask,” Alain began. “Your rendering of the [Kurcs’] daily struggle for life brought tears to my eyes. I thank you for those tears, as they also made it obvious to my children that I was not ‘just reading another book,’ that the story I was reading was so very special because it was also my story, also their story. Thanks to you, I’ve learned so much about where I come from…I feel stronger. Thank you for this incredible gift.”
Thank you, Alain, for these words. I can’t describe the emotion–the relief and the pride and the overwhelming gratitude–that courses through me every time a relative tells me what the book has meant to her or him. It was for the family, after all, and for the generations to come, that I wrote the book in the first place.
With Alain’s sentiments warming me to the core, I wish you all a holiday full of laughter and love and most of all, the gift of family.
PRH’s Open Book Event Panel Members:
Publishers Weekly’s Complete Review:
“Debut author Hunter excavates the remarkable history of her own family in this chronicle, which follows the journeys of a Polish Jewish family during the Holocaust. The 1939 German invasion of Poland sunders the Kurc family.
Aging parents Sol and Nechuma stay in their home of Radom, along with their adult daughters Halina and Mila. Their sons Genek and Jakob join the Polish army; a third son, Addy, is stuck in France, soon to be conscripted. During the course of the war, the Kurcs are flung to distant points of the globe, from Brazil to Siberia. They work for the Underground, fight battles in Italy, and are imprisoned in gulags. They stage daring escapes from ghettos, hide in plain sight in Polish cities, and, always, yearn for the days when their family was whole.
V-day finds some of the Kurcs together, but the celebration is empty; they are still sundered, mourning, and directionless. The Kurc family’s final triumph is not tied to the defeat of the Nazis, but to the family’s survival and reunion against impossible odds. However, this is not a saga with a jubilant Hollywood ending, The Kurc family’s survival is often due to nothing more than desperate luck. Hunter sidesteps hollow sentimentality and nihilism, revealing instead the beautiful complexity and ambiguity of life in this extraordinarily moving tale.”
I left you last month with a post about my editor—and I promise to update you on Jane’s encouraging feedback at a later date. This post, however, I’d like to dedicate to my grandmother, Caroline, who passed away on Tuesday, two days short of her 100th birthday.
My grandmother was born on December 18th, 1914, in Clinton, South Carolina. I marvel often at how she, a young Presbyterian from the South, ended up in Rio de Janeiro during the Second World War—and even more so at the fact that while in Brazil, she married my grandfather, her antipode—a gregarious, unflinching Polish Jew. I’ve filled many pages of The Lucky Ones with the story of how my grandparents met, of the meals and conversations I imagine they shared in those early years.
My grandmother was courteous. She was poised. She carried herself with confidence and ease, but (unlike my grandfather) had no interest in being the center of attention. She never complained. She welcomed young relatives from all over the world into her home, often for months at a time, with genuine warmth. Her niece Kathleen described Caroline as perhaps the kindest person she has ever known.
When I think of my childhood, I think of my grandmother. I think of us watering her purple pansies, creating art projects from the pages of expired calendars, playing endless games of Milles Bornes. I think of all of the birthdays we shared (I was born on her 64th), of the patience and encouragement with which she taught me to swim in the neighbor’s pool, of how she would painstakingly peel the tape from her Christmas presents in an effort not to rip the paper, which she would reuse the following year.
My grandfather died when I was fourteen. A year later, my English teacher assigned our class the task of uncovering a slice of our family histories–an “I-Search” project, Mr. Griffin called it. My mother suggested I interview my grandmother about how my grandfather came to America—a story I knew little about. I readily agreed, and soon found myself in my grandmother’s living room, listening intently as she recounted a chapter of life that my grandfather had chosen to leave behind. As I took it all in, I remember feeling like I’d unearthed something big. Something important. As our conversation came to an end, I hugged my grandmother and told her how much I appreciated the memories. She smiled and patted me on the knee and in her soft southern drawl said, “You know, Eddy had four siblings. You should interview their families, too. They’ve all got stories. Write them down, write a book about them. I know I’d love to read it.”
Thank you, Granny, for the suggestion. And for the tenderness, selflessness, honesty, and grace you so effortlessly embodied. I think of you often as I stumble through life, doing my best to emulate the way in which you carried yourself, the way you interacted with me, with others. You continue to inspire and shape me—as a granddaughter, a daughter, a friend, a wife, a mother.
I miss you more than words can describe. It was hard, celebrating my birthday this year without you. But I’m comforted in knowing that you are very much alive in the pages of my book, as well as in the hearts of your children and grandchildren, and in all those you touched.
“I know it may sound greedy to want more days with a person who lived so long, but the fact that my mother was 92 does not diminish, it only magnifies the enormity of the room whose door has now quietly shut.”
~ Stephen Colbert, on the passing of his mother
It was January 17th, 2008 when I finally picked my mother’s black binder up off the shelf. A new year, full of resolutions, including one big one—to unearth and record my family history. I sat cross-legged on my couch in Seattle, the binder resting on my lap, took a long, slow breath, and flipped it open.
Glued to the first page was the program for my grandfather’s memorial service. At the top, a charcoal drawing of Papa in the place he loved most—bent over the keys of his Steinway baby grand; below it, the words he’d dictated to my mother just days before he died:
Engineer, globe-trotter, polyglot, composer, business man, philanthropist
My mother told me she’d asked my grandfather whether he thought people would know the meaning of the word polyglot. His response, apparently, was: “they can look it up.”
Listed at the bottom of the page was the date. January 17. I flipped open the program, noting the time of the service: 1:00 pm. I froze.
We sat in the second row, my mother, father, and I, our vertebrae pressed upright against the wood pews of Murray Unitarian Universalist Church in Attleboro, Massachusetts, the air ripe with the familiar scent of old hymnals, flowers, and candles. One of my grandfather’s compositions, a piece for cello and piano called “Lullaby,” played softly over the speakers (you can listen to it here):
I was fourteen. It was my first memorial service. I was confused, sad, and mostly afraid—afraid my mother would break down crying and I’d do the same.
Light-headed, I came to. I’d been holding my breath. Exhaling, I looked at my watch: 10:02 am Pacific time. I glanced back down at the program. The service had taken place fifteen years ago, to the exact day, and even minute.
My eyes welled with tears and I looked over my shoulder, half expecting to see a ghost of Papa in the doorway waving his cane at me, mumbling it’s about time!
I remember the day I told my mother I wanted to write a book about our family history. We were sitting on her gray and white-striped couch in Providence, Rhode Island, the day after Christmas, 2005.
“I’ve decided I’d like to write a book about how Papa and his siblings survived the Holocaust,” I said. I held my breath, unsure of how my mother would respond. (Try telling the average person you’re thinking about writing a book and chances are they’ll look at you with eyebrows raised and offer something to the extent of, “sounds exciting…but don’t quit your day job.”) I’ll never forget the way my mom’s big, hazel eyes lit up.
“I think that’s a great idea!” she said, glancing at a photo of her father she’d set on the cabinet of our upright piano. “You don’t hear stories like ours very often…well, really at all,” she added, and then sprung up off the couch, returning a minute later carrying a black three-ringed binder. “Here,” she said, handing it to me.
She’d put the binder together after my grandfather died in 1993. It was stuffed with photos, letters, postcards, and newspaper clippings. “I’ve always wanted to do the same—research it, write it all down—just never had the time. This,” she said, patting the binder resting on my lap, “is as far as I’ve gotten.”
And just like that, the baton was passed, the responsibility mine—it was up to me now to cross the finish line. I sensed a hint of relief from behind my mother’s smile and for a second I was envious.
I took the binder home with me to Seattle, where it lived on a bookshelf in my office while I toyed with the idea of writing the book. The thought of it scared the hell out of me. It would entail trips to Europe, Brazil, Israel, and all over the States for interviews, hours of sifting through old letters and photos, not to mention the highly daunting task of actually putting words to paper. While I knew it was something I needed to do, it was too daunting a project to tackle right away. For two years I kept up my day job, the book idea germinating somewhere in the back of my mind, until finally I couldn’t ignore it any longer.
It turns out my grandfather (who later changed his name, for obvious reasons, from Adolph/Addy to Eddy), was just one of over twenty Kurcs originally from Radom, Poland. He was living in Toulouse in ‘39 at the start of the war. When he learned it would be too dangerous to return home to Poland for Passover, he embarked on a singular mission: to get out of Europe. His escape wasn’t easy.
After a brief stint in the army, he hitchhiked to Marseille, talked his way into a visa, and embarked on what was meant to be a three week journey aboard a ship full of refugees sailing for South America. Six months later, he found himself in a detention camp in Casablanca with an expired visa. By the time my grandfather finally arrived in Rio, he’d lost contact with the rest of the family. For five years, he tried desperately—but without any luck—to track down news of his parents and siblings.
I looked around at my parents, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, their faces soft in the candlelight. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like—to be thousands of miles from home, without a clue whether my family was dead or alive. Would I have been able to make my way out of war-torn Europe to South America? To go on living a normal life, wondering whether I’d ever again be able to hear my mother’s voice, to feel the warmth of my father’s hug. Highly unlikely, I decided.
As the evening stretched on, the stories, like the wine, kept flowing. I learned that my grandfather’s nephew, Josef, was born in a Siberian gulag. That my grandfather’s sister, Mila—after several failed attempts—escaped a ghetto with her three year old daughter, Felicia, in tow. That my grandfather’s brother in law, Adam, mastered the art of replicating “official” stamps for false IDs by using hard-boiled eggs.
“We were the lucky ones,” Felicia said. “We were the family that made it out alive.” It was quiet on the porch for a moment before she added, “But luck…was only part of it.” I watched her, holding my breath, waiting wide-eyed for the explanation I hoped would come next—if it wasn’t luck, then what was it? But Felicia just stared out into the darkness, lost in a world of thought.
Hours later, lying in bed trying to process everything I’d heard that evening, it occurred to me that ours was probably one of the only Jewish families from Poland to survive the war intact. Why was I just learning this now? And what was my grandfather doing in Morocco? Why did Genek end up in Siberia, of all places? How does a three year old evade an enemy like the Nazis? I needed answers.
In July of 2000, the summer after I graduated from the University of Virginia, my mother organized a Kurc family reunion at our house on Martha’s Vineyard. She invited thirty-two relatives (many of whom she hadn’t seen in over twenty years), and to her surprise, all thirty-two RSVPed, “Of course we’ll be there!” We rented a house down the street from ours and asked the neighbors next door if they could spare a bedroom or two for the week. When my mother told me I’d be sharing a room with a cousin I’d never met, I was (admittedly) a bit apprehensive.
My parents and I spent the first two days of our reunion shuttling family from the island’s minuscule airport and ferry dock to our house in West Tisbury. Kurcs rolled in from everywhere—Miami, Oakland, Seattle, Chicago, and from as far away as Paris, Rio, Tel Aviv and São Paulo. I’ll never forget standing in the kitchen on our first night together, enveloped in the smell of my mother’s lasagna and a cacophony of laughter and tri-lingual conversation, trying to figure out where, exactly, I fit in. Everyone looked so…different. Some were dark-skinned, others light, some blue-eyed, others brown-eyed, like me. Hair color ran the spectrum from black like my mother’s to blond to fiery red. It was strange, I remember thinking, to be surrounded by so many people who looked and talked nothing like me, but who’d been introduced hours earlier as family.
The Vineyard graced us with a week of rain during our reunion, which translated to a lot of indoor together time. But what could have been an awkward, claustrophobic kind of week turned out to be exactly the opposite. My cousins were fun and funny, curious, and interesting. By day we’d sprawl over the living room sofas, comparing hobbies and tastes in music and movies (how was it that my Brazilian and French cousins were better versed in American pop-culture than I?); we’d hit the town for minigolf or burgers, and when the sun peeked through the clouds, we’d park ourselves on the beach or play volleyball in the front yard. By night, we’d help set the table (tableS, actually—it took three pushed together to accommodate the whole family) as our parents hummed to jazz CDs—there was always music playing, it seemed—preparing dinners ranging from all-American barbecue to traditional Brazilian feijoada. And then we’d sit down to feast.
After dinner, my mother’s generation would gather on the back porch, where they’d pull a bunch of chairs around in a circle and talk, often for hours. One night, I wandered outside, settled down on a picnic bench next to my aunt Kath, and listened. As darkness fell, my mother lit some candles and uncorked a couple of bottles of wine. Languages alternated mid-sentence between English, French, and Portuguese and it was challenging, at first keeping up with the chatter. But I managed, and when conversation shifted to my grandfather and then to the war, I leaned in closer. Little by little, I began to piece together a part of my family’s past which, until that day, I had no idea existed.