Georgia Hunter is the author of the novel We Were the Lucky Ones, which is based on her family's experiences during World War II. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and travelgirl magazine. She lives in Connecticut.
Q: This novel was based on your own family’s story, which you only found out about as a teenager. Can you describe how you learned about it, and the impact it had on you?
A: I was very close with my grandfather and my grandmother. When I was growing up, we lived a mile apart, and spent a lot of time together. He died when I was 14. He was very sick the last few years of his life. I look back on, how did I miss the little signs [about his background]?
At 15, my English teacher assigned us a research project. We were tasked with interviewing a relative to learn about our roots. The goal was to learn something about ourselves. With my grandfather’s memory so fresh, I sat down with my grandmother and in that interview I learned he was not born in America but in Poland, and he was from a family of Holocaust survivors.
[I didn’t know] the Jewish piece of my history. It was a piece of his past—he wanted to fit into his neighborhood; he was the only Jew in the neighborhood. My grandmother was a Presbyterian from the South. He would coordinate trips to Brazil [to see his family] with Passover, but he wouldn’t make a big deal of it.
I’ll never forget that hourlong interview…it sparked a lot of curiosity and questions. I was not feeling defensive. It was shocking, but not in a negative way, but in a way of wanting to know more. There were only so many questions my grandmother was able to answer.
That was the very first seed of inspiration. There was a family reunion six years later, which solidified the notion that somebody needs to write our story.
Q: Why did you decide to write it as a novel rather than as nonfiction?
A: Especially with the amount of research! It was a nine-year labor of love, interviewing people around the world. It’s amazing what kind of information I was able to find. I had a timeline I color-coded by sibling.
It was also a refresher for me, a lesson in history. Their story is so global. This was five continents over six years. I had to do a lot of research. In the end, the historical pieces were so helpful for me, I decided to keep them in the book [as introductions to various chapters]. That grounded the book in history—it was a nice way to not have to force that into the story itself.
I wanted the story to read like a novel, like we were there for them, especially for my kids. That was the reason I decided to give myself the creative license to fictionalize some details—what they were thinking, wearing, feeling, the dialogue. I had no access to the survivors, except Felicia [a cousin]…I hope I brought the story closer to the truth…
Q: What did you learn that especially surprised you?
A: Some of the records I was able to find blew my mind. One cousin was born in Siberia, and he didn’t know why his parents were sent there. He would wake up as a baby with his eyes frozen shut and his mother would use breast milk to open his eyes.
Thank god for the web—I was connected to these specialized groups…The Hoover Institute at Stanford had a document written by my great-uncle Genek that explained why he was arrested, why he was sent east, the name of the camp, the day his son was born, the journey to join the army a year later. That document was a big surprise. It was very moving to be able to pass the document on to his children.
I went into the research thinking it would be my grandfather’s piece—France, Dakar, Brazil, and Poland. But I was amazed to realize his four siblings, his parents, his niece all had separate paths to survive. I realized this was going to take a lot more research, and it helped me make the decision to write the book from multiple perspectives. Their mission was not to die, and second, to keep hope alive that [they would] see each other.
Q: The book’s title came from something one of your cousins said. How did you choose that for the title, and what does it signify for you?
A: It was at a family reunion back in 2000 when I was 21 where I was first exposed to the greater story. The story was told with levity, “I was born in a Siberian winter…”
Except [cousin] Felicia. When she spoke, she was the only one who had first-hand memory. She said it was a miracle we are all here. She was raising a glass…she said we need to be grateful for the miracle, we are the lucky ones.
That stuck with me…it was incredible. They were making decisions all the time, what to say, what was the right decision. A lot were split-second decisions…
Thank god for the ending—to ask readers, in a market saturated with World War II and Holocaust books, to take another one [is a lot, but this] will not be as depressing…
Q: What do your family members think of the book?
A: They liked it! I sent them galleys early on and held my breath! I interviewed everybody, but I didn’t have them read the drafts. I didn’t want ten rounds of feedback, and if I was fictionalizing it, I wanted to have some say! I’m thankful they all loved it.
From the first day, they were all so excited. They were grateful. At my New York City launch event in February, I had a talk in Manhattan at a Barnes and Noble—over 20 relatives flew in from Brazil, France, California, and Florida. It was so special, so moving. It turned into a family reunion. It meant the world to me.
Of the five siblings, four were represented by children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. I feel closer to all of them. The process was special. I spent weeks in their homes, their cities…This is my mom’s generation. Through getting to know them better, I was able to channel their parents, through them.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: I’m just getting back into it. I gave myself maternity leave—I was pregnant through the book tour, and [my son] ended up coming five days after my last stop on the tour! It was a whirlwind of a year! I went straight into the fun of a newborn. I’m coming up for air in time for the book festivals.
I love the historical fiction genre. I have exhausted my family stories, so the next one will probably not be as personal, but I have a list of stories I come across. I love the theme of protagonists up against the odds. I love reading about time and place through novels.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I do get asked about ancestry, how to research it. I have a page on my website under the book tab with ancestry search tips. I would encourage people to look there. There are some great resources.
From my own experience, this process of unearthing, digging, recording my past—the findings were the most rewarding part. When I would reach out to a relative, spend time in their home, reach out to archives in Russia, Poland, France, and get a letter back, the feeling of understanding why we are the way we are is so rewarding.
You can create a document for future generations…People who lived through those times will soon be lost. It’s more important now than ever.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Georgia Hunter will be speaking on Friday, Nov. 3, as part of the Lessans Family Literary Series at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington.