After escaping the Holocaust, Rowayton writer’s family members lived lives worthy of a bestselling book, and now a TV series
The winner of the 2018 Connecticut Book Award for fiction is a Holocaust novel, “We Were the Lucky Ones,” which has been translated into a dozen foreign languages.
It also has been optioned for limited TV series by Thomas Kail, who directed the musical, “Hamilton.” Very recently, a screenwriter signed onto the project, preparatory to seeking a producer.
“I can’t give you a name yet,” says the novel’s author, Georgia Hunter, but “her first impression was it’s the ‘Game of Thrones’ of the Holocaust. Because it’s this very global story told through one family’s eyes.”
The family is Hunter’s. “We Were the Lucky Ones” is essentially the true story of how her Jewish grandfather, his four siblings and their children managed to survive the Nazi invasion of their native Poland and their scattering across a world at war.
Hunter, who lives and writes in Rowayton, had a map made of their individual odysseys, but hesitates to show it because it might spoil the surprising arc of the book.
“That’s the wow factor of the book,” she says. Readers may think, “Oh, a Polish Holocaust story. It’s going to end up in a camp. Yes, they survived. But the paths they took spanned five continents.”
All lived under the threat of death and in the proximity of death, however. One of the siblings (the family name is Kurc) risks drowning in a freezing river. Another is deported to a Siberian labor camp, then fights with the Polish army in the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. Most acquire forged identification papers and fear being exposed as Jews.
The most harrowing (and mini-series ready) story belongs to a child, Felicia, who is five months old when the novel begins in March 1939.
By war’s end she will have hidden in a sack of rags, waited trustingly while her mother dug their graves at a mass execution site, kept silent under a table watching the blood drain from a summarily executed hideaway, been dropped from a second-story window stuffed in a straw mattress and buried in the rubble of a bombed convent.
Now 80, Felicia lives in Paris, married to the owner of a lingerie company. When Hunter began her research travels in earnest in 2008, she made Paris a first stop.
“It was hard. I took a very gentle approach with her,” Hunter says of their meeting. “She spoke in a very black-and-white manner. It was, this is what I had to do to survive.”
Up to that point Hunter had only a sketchy understanding of the siblings’ experience. Growing up in Attleboro, Mass., she knew her grandfather, who had changed his name from Addy Kurc to Eddy Court, as a composer and engineer turned businessman. But she did not learn that he had eluded Nazi capture or even that he was Jewish until shortly after his death when she interviewed her grandmother for a school ancestry project.
Her grandmother, from South Carolina, had met her grandfather in Rio de Janeiro late in the war. He was writing songs in Paris in the spring of 1939 and reached Rio by a circuitous, risky route that included long stops in Africa. Suddenly, talking to her grandmother, Hunter herself had acquired a new identity. She had become one quarter Polish Jew and granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor.
“It was shocking certainly, but not in any negative sort of way,” Hunter says. “I remember brimming with questions and curiosities. Tell me more. What about the rest of the family? How did they survive?”
Her grandmother didn’t know the details. More emerged at a family reunion in Massachusetts in 2000, the year after Hunter graduated from the University of Virginia. They came mostly from Kurc children in the form of second-hand anecdotes. Hunter saw the potential for a family saga, but did not pursue it. Instead, she married and began a career as freelance writer and editor.
They were living in Seattle when she says she finally “put a stake in the ground” to go ahead with a project that had nagged her. She remembers the exact date, Jan. 17, because that was the day she reached for a binder of material about her grandfather her mother had put together.
“I pulled it off the shelf and the first thing I saw was the program for my grandfather’s memorial service. And I noticed it was the same day, Jan. 17. It felt like he was there in the room, saying, ‘Do this. It’s about time.’”
“The goal was really to capture the family history. I wanted it to live in the shape of a book, that would be something tangible I could pass on to honor my family. And the fact that it turned into what it did and sort of snowballed is very surreal.”
She continued to do research even as the manuscript went through multiple drafts. When Viking bought rights to the book in June 2015, it had a different title, “The Eternal Ones.” By then Hunter had acquired an editor, an agent and a son, who is now seven.
Hunter and her husband, Robert Farinholt, who she met in college, moved to Rowayton about the time he was born. A second son was born prematurely the week after she finished the hardcover book tour in March 2017. The acknowledgements section consumes several pages, citing Kurc family descendants and others who helped during the book’s long gestation.
What Hunter did invent was sensory feelings of cold, sweat, pain and separation. One of the recurrent themes in the book is that family members often didn’t know where the others were or if they were alive. Hunter’s grandfather in Brazil felt especially cut off. He did not learn the family, including his parents, had survived until he got a Red Cross telegram in 1946.
Hunter already is plotting her next book. She sees it as being set in Italy or Greece, places again outside the usual Holocaust territory. It’s modern day narrator, she says, might be “the granddaughter of a survivor who discovers this family secret.”
“We Were the Lucky Ones” is currently the One Book-One Town community read in Easton. Hunter is due to speak there Wednesday, March 27.
Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.