Game-changing findings, tracked down through ministries, magistrates, museums, and archives around the world.
Neck deep in research on Stalin’s Siberian gulags, I was consumed with the burning question of how and why Genek and Herta were sent off to Siberia in the first place. By recommendation of the Kresy-Siberia Foundation, I contacted Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Amazingly, I heard back right away—not only did Hoover have a record of Genek’s name, they had a nine-page, hand-written report he’d filed after the war.
An envelope arrived a few weeks later. Goosebumps shot up on my arms and I shivered as I opened it. I’d never met Genek, but here were his words, penned by his own hand! The record was written was in Polish, of course. After a week of waiting impatiently for a translation, I was finally able to read it. On the 28th of June, 1940, Genek begins, eight KGB agents burst into my flat…
Sure enough, Genek’s report explains exactly how, when and why he and Herta were arrested and deported to Siberia. In it, he describes everything from the squalid condition of their camp (in a region called Altynay), to their twelve-hour days of felling logs in the bitter cold, to the ruthless nature of the KGB watchman, Romanov, assigned to their barracks.
With the details of Genek’s deportation laid out before me, I put an email out to the Kresy-Siberia yahoo group and soon heard back from a woman whose parents were sent to the same camp in Siberia. Altynay, she said, was where she was conceived. Michel (Genek’s son) and I called her at her home in Ottawa, and I listened in as they talked, wondering what it must feel like to connect with someone whose family shares such an unlikely, yet similar past.
Eager to fill in the blanks of Genek’s military career, I emailed the UK’s Ministry of Defense (Anders fought under the command of the British Army, renowned for keeping meticulous wartime records). A note came back a few days later…yes, we have record of a Gerszon Kurc. I’d hit the jackpot—again!
A few weeks later, a summary of Genek’s military career arrived in the mail, along with a book of army records, which included everything from promotions to hospital visits. It turns out Genek was awarded six medals of honor, which he never collected—Michel is now in possession of two of them.
In the following months I would hear back from the Memorial Center in Moscow, the State Archives of the Russian Federation, the Polish Institute/ Sikorski Museum in London and from several other children and relatives of Siberian exile survivors.
With every record and every conversation, Genek’s journey began to unfold before me. It is, in many ways, unbelievable—from Poland to Siberia, through the Middle East, to the Italian front…with a wife and a child in tow! Unearthing it has been a thrill—this, I imagine, is how a detective must feel, uncovering clues that lead to the Big Discovery. It’s also been an honor. To weave together a story that would have otherwise gone untold—a story as remarkable as Genek’s—this, for me, is what this project is all about.
After six weeks of squatting with friends and another six weeks of tackling travel writing assignments and endless piles of boxes, we’re (nearly!) settled in our new home…which means, at long last, I can return to my book.
Inspired by a recent visit from my cousin-once-removed, Michel (visiting New York from Brazil), I thought I’d give you a glimpse at what it took for me to uncover his father’s WWII survival story.
I knew very little about Genek, the oldest of my grandfather’s four siblings, at the start of this project. What I did know—that he and his wife Herta were deported to a Siberian gulag during WWII where their son Josef (Michel’s older brother) was born, and that later he fought for the Allies under a Polish general by the name of Anders—was intriguing, to say the least. Why was he deported? Where exactly was he deported to? How did he end up in the army?
Michel and Josef shook their heads when I asked. “One of the only stories my mother told us,” Michel said, “was that when Josef was born, it was so cold in their barracks, his eyes would freeze shut; mother used drops of her breast milk to coax them open.” This small detail left me breathless as I tried to imagine what it must have been like, giving birth to a child in a Siberian gulag.
I decided the first step in my research would be to familiarize myself with the history of Stalin’s Siberian labor camps. I was astonished to learn that hundreds of thousands of Poles (some estimate up to 1.5 million) were exiled to gulags during WWII…and that when Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded Russia in 1941, Stalin released these prisoners (those still living), granting them “amnesty,” on the condition that they would fight for the Soviets, who now sided with the Allies. “Amnesty” was an interesting word choice, for as far as I could tell, most had committed no crime. Approximately 40,000 Polish exiles, including Genek, went on to form Anders’ Army.
My head spun as I tried to digest it all. So one day Genek is a prisoner of the Russians, the next he is asked to fight for them? Talk about twisted irony.
Anders’ Army, I learned, traveled across Russia, Kazakhstan, and over the Caspian Sea to Persia, and from there, through Palestine to Egypt and into Italy. What must that journey have entailed? And where were Herta and Josef throughout? The more I learned, the more I needed to know. The answers were out there—they had to be—the question was how to find them.
Stay tuned—my search continues next with, “The Night Eight KGB Agents Burst Into My Flat.”
“I wasn’t the only one in the family with multiple identities,” Ricardo said when he’d finished explaining the story behind his two birth certificates. “During the war, my parents went by the name BRZOZA.”
Ricardo’s father, it turns out, was part of the Jewish Underground. He made false papers. “How?” I asked. “He replicated the stamps used on government IDs—cut the rubber by hand. He was a perfectionist.” Apparently Adam also found a way to use hard boiled eggs to do the job. “He’d peel them and roll them over the ink, to lift a stamp from one ID and place it on another.” Ingenious, I thought, shaking my head.
Ricardo’s parents were constantly on the move during the war. Adam worked for the railroad by day, and for the Underground by night. Halina’s jobs ranged from running labs at a Russian military hospital in Lvov to cooking for the Volksdeutsche (Germans living outside the Reich) in Warsaw. Toward the end of the war, she was hired as a maid for an Austrian—Mr. Den—who happened to be the head of a German bank in Poland. “Do you think he was a Nazi?” I asked, goosebumps springing up on my arms. “You know, I’m not sure,” Ricardo said. “But I assume so.”
There were several occasions, of course, when Halina and Adam needed more than their papers to prove their “Christian” identities. Like the time when Halina found herself behind bars after a neighbor accused her of being a Jew; it was Mr. Den, in the end, who vouched for her and demanded her release. Or the time when a landlord’s wife became skeptical of Adam’s papers, and he was forced to “prove” he was uncircumcised. (Most Europeans at the time—except for Jews and Muslims—were uncircumcised). You’ll have to read the book to learn how that feat went down.
As Jews living in Poland during World War II, survival for my family, I realized, meant not only toting multiple identities, but convincing their adversaries that, beyond a shadow of doubt, those identities were real. Could I have done it? Could I have mustered the gall to tell the authorities that my son was born in Brazil, six months after his real Italian birthday? Would I have had the audacity to look the gestapo in the eye and ask how dare they accuse me of being a Jew? Could I have summoned the nerve to drop my trousers in front of a landlord’s dubious wife?
Considering the life-or-death consequences that were at stake…who knows?
Dear family, friends, and followers of The Lucky Ones,
Exciting news on the home front–Robert and I have welcomed a new branch to our family tree! Thomas Wyatt Farinholt (“Wyatt”) arrived on November 23rd, just over three weeks early (in true Kurc fashion, he’s already on his own schedule–determined to take fate into his own hands!).
The past nine days have been the most exhilarating and exhausting of our lives–every second filled with a delirious sense of love and gratitude. As we adjust to our new household of three, I’m reminded that our family’s story is an evolving one–one without a beginning or an end, and one that (I hope) will be told for generations to come.
Coincidentally, the morning before Wyatt’s arrival, I received a translation of a document hand-written in Russian from the Registrar in Radom, Poland. It’s dated November 24th, 1907 and signed by my great-grandfather, Schlomo. The document, it turns out, is a birth certificate for Schlomo and Nechuma’s first-born son, Genek. I wonder now whether the certificate was a harbinger of what was soon to come??
I’ll be posting a bit less frequently for the next few weeks as we get settled, but I look forward to picking up where I left off as soon as I’ve got a bit more time (and sleep!) on my hands. In the meantime, welcome, Wyatt, to the family–I’m counting down the days until I can share with you the story of The Lucky Ones.
After its debut in January, We Were the Lucky Ones spent over four months on the…
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