Georgia Hunter has written an epic novel, We Were the Lucky Ones, based on a true family story. Before World War II, her great-grandparents, Nechuma and Sol, owned a thriving business and with their five children, lived a comfortable life in Radom, Poland. Their world was filled with music, art, and love of family. Observant but not Orthodox Jews, they blended in with other upper-middle-class families, both Jewish and Polish, sending the children to private schools where most students were Catholic. But in 1939, as Nazi Germany is rising and the five children have begun their own families and careers, Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, and a short time later, by the Soviets from the east. Struggling to survive, the family is torn apart as each member responds as they must, fleeing, or hiding, or disguising themselves as non-Jews.

Georgia Hunter was unaware of this family history during her American childhood. She was close to her grandfather, who had renamed himself Eddy Courts (from Addy Kurc) when he arrived in the States. To her, he was a successful businessman, and a musician and composer. After his death in her mid-teens, Ms. Hunter was assigned a school project on family history, and interviewed her grandmother. This is when she discovered that her grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. Five years later, she learned more at a family reunion, and the spark of this novel ignited.

Hunter spent nine years researching and recording her family’s story and the related history. She decided to present her work as a novel. Because all of the family members take different paths to safety and freedom, We Were the Lucky Ones incorporates many historical events through their struggles, with beautifully detailed settings and action-packed scenes. The finely drawn characters pull us into the book and personalize the grotesque and harrowing story of what happened to the Jews of Poland.

Elise Schiller: Thank you for joining us. Can you describe the process of your research for We Were the Lucky Ones?

Georgia Hunter: Thank you for having me! The project of unearthing and writing my family’s Holocaust past has been a nine-year labor of love. It began in 2008 when I set off with a digital voice recorder to interview a relative in Paris. From there I flew to Rio de Janeiro and across the States, meeting with cousins and friends—anyone with a story to share. My family’s narrative took shape, at first, in the form of a timeline, which I peppered with historical details and color-coded by relative to help keep track of who was where/when.

Where there were gaps in my timeline, I looked to outside resources—to archives, museums, ministries, and magistrates around the world, in hopes of tracking down relevant information. Over time, and with the help of translators, I sent out queries in Polish, French, Russian, and German, little by little collecting details from organizations near and far, including a nine-page statement hand-written by 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, captured on video by the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

ES: With so much truth underlying this novel, why did you make the decision to write this story as a novel rather than a work of non-fiction?

GH: My goal in writing We Were the Lucky Ones was not only to tell the story in a way that did the family justice, but that also allowed readers to step into my relatives’ shoes, to imagine for themselves what it meant to be a young Polish Jew on the run during the Second World War. And so while my narrative is based on actual people and real events, I decided in the end to allow myself the creative license to fictionalize it—to add those human, emotional details I wasn’t able to uncover in my research, such as what my characters were thinking and saying and feeling. I also opted to write the book in the present tense. These decisions, I hoped, would make the story feel less like a lesson in history, and more visceral, more relevant to today’s reader—and perhaps even bring the story even closer to the truth.

ES: You very effectively shifted point of view among the many characters, writing in the third person. Did you think about other point of view options for this book? How did you decide this would be the most effective?

GH: When I realized in my research that the Kurcs’ path to survival included not just one but several storylines (since most of the family scattered at the start of the war) it became obvious to me that I needed to write the book from multiple perspectives. I didn’t consider any other point of view other than third person, to be honest—I felt this perspective would make the most sense to my readers, and would help to differentiate one storyline from the next.

ES: Did you struggle with structuring the narrative, given the number of characters and events?

GH: The Kurcs’ paths to survival spanned five continents over six years. Once I realized the (enormous!) scope of my story, the idea of telling it in a cohesive, digestible narrative was daunting, to say the least. With so many characters to keep track of, I thought a lot about what made each of the Kurc siblings unique, and how to convey those characteristics on the page in a way that would allow readers to remember who was who as they bounced 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.

ES: You didn’t know that you were from a family of Holocaust survivors until you interviewed your grandmother in your mid-teens. Did she share why your grandfather hadn’t passed the stories on to his children?

GH: Yes, I was fifteen when, thanks to a high school English assignment, I sat down with my grandmother Caroline for an interview and discovered that I was a quarter Jewish, and that I came from a family of Holocaust survivors. I remember my grandmother explaining that my grandfather’s Polish/Jewish past wasn’t meant to be some big secret, but rather a chapter of his life he’d chosen to leave behind. He’d seen what his religion could have (should have, if left to the odds) done for his family—becoming an American, changing his name, and building a successful career, my grandmother said, were his ways of moving on, and of protecting his children.

ES: Were you raised as a Catholic?  How did finding out that you are a quarter Jewish impact you on a personal level?

GH: I was raised in the Unitarian Universalist church, although religion was never paramount in our home. I wonder often how knowing about my Jewish ancestry as a child might have shaped me as a person. I believe, however, that the shock of making the discovery later in life sparked an intense curiosity, and an insatiable thirst for answers—which in turn gave me the determination to commit myself (for the better part of a decade!) to the task of recording this chapter of my family history.

My grandfather opted not to talk openly about his religion or of the hardships he and his family endured, but I’m keenly aware today of those traits he did pass down. My grandfather taught me to be curious and resourceful; to never shy away from a challenge, no matter how insurmountable it may seem; to be a problem solver. He taught me to embrace the arts: language and music and culture. And perhaps most importantly, my grandfather taught me that nothing in the world is more important than family.

ES: Which characters in the book do you identify with the most, and why? Who do you see as the “emotional center” of the book?

GH: I identify most with my grandfather, Addy, as I knew him the best, and as I see so much of him in my mother, in my aunt and uncle, and also in myself. I can also identify closely with Mila. I became a mom in 2011, halfway through researching the book. Having a child of my own made some of Mila’s more harrowing scenes heartbreaking to write, as I could suddenly relate from a new mother’s perspective to what it must have felt like for Mila to be so desperate to find a safe haven for her young child.

The family bond was strong in each of the Kurcs—but if I had to pick I would consider my grandfather the emotional center of the book. His storyline, in contrast to those of his parents and siblings (who remained in Europe and were largely consumed with the singular mission of surviving from day to day) offered more opportunity for reflection. And perhaps because I was the closest to him, and because he didn’t face the same atrocities the others were forced to endure, it felt natural for me to step into his shoes, his heart, his mind, as I channeled his wartime experiences from both a physical and emotional perspective.

ES: Has the research, writing, and publication of the book created stronger ties between you and your scattered second cousins, the progeny of the original five siblings?

GH: Absolutely! My family has always been close, but for me personally, this project has helped to create deeper, more meaningful bonds. Over the course of my research, my relatives welcomed me into their homes for days of conversation, trekked around town with me to find old addresses, and helped me with everything from translating letters to hunting down records at city archives. I was especially moved when several cousins (some of whom you meet as babies at the tail end of the book) flew from Brazil, France, and across the States to attend my New York City book launch event—it was a thrill and a true honor to talk about the book for the first time as a published author with them in the audience!

ES: Having immersed yourself in the history of WWII, of war and genocide, do you see parallels with things that are happening in the world today?

GH: Sadly, yes. I never thought this book would feel so relevant. I’m horrified to know that there are millions of refugees today desperate to escape persecution in their homelands as my relatives (among millions of others) once were. The Kurcs’ story has helped me to realize that, while it’s easy to feel helplessly distanced from the crises unfolding across borders, there’s no better time than right now to take action. And so, I draw inspiration from the people in my ancestors’ lives who, seventy years ago, stepped up under no obligation beyond their own personal moral imperatives to help: I think of the ambassador who issued my grandfather an illegal visa to Brazil, the nun who took little Felicia into her convent, the peasants who kept my great-grandparents in hiding—all strangers to the Kurcs—and I ask myself: what can I do to help?

ES: What are you working on now?

GH: At the moment I’m elbow deep in diapers and swaddles, as my husband and I welcomed a second baby boy to the family in April! I’m looking forward to spending some quality time with my boys this summer, and to returning to the festival circuit this fall. I’m also hoping to spend some time working on book #2. I’m not sure yet what it will be about, but I love the historical fiction genre and I’m inspired (as you may have gathered) by stories that revolve around an underdog protagonist—someone faced with terrible odds, whose narrative offers not only a big-picture understanding of a particular place or time in history, but also a lesson in courage, perseverance, and love. I saw the film Lion not too long ago and left the theater teary-eyed and thinking wow—now that’s exactly the kind of story I want to write about next!

Georgia Hunter is a writer living in Connecticut. Her website offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the extensive research We Were The Lucky Ones entailed. You can buy her book here

Elise Schiller is the author of the novel Watermark, published in 2016. Watermark was recently named a finalist in the Fiction and New Novel categories of the  Next Generation Indie Book Awards.