Growing up in Rhode Island, Georgia Hunter (Col ’00) had no idea her relatives were Jewish Holocaust survivors until, at age 15, she began delving into her ancestry for a class assignment. Her grandfather had died the year prior, never having revealed the story of his escape from Europe.
“He chose not to raise his children Jewish,” Hunter says. “Privately, he kept up Jewish traditions, but for the sake of his family, he was not religious.”
Hunter’s grandfather even Americanized his name, changing it from Addy Kurc to Eddy Courts (“Kurc” is pronounced “Koortz” in Polish).
In the decade following that simple high school assignment, Hunter would travel the world, following her family’s trail. In the end, she would weave their stories of heroism, grief and good fortune into We Were the Lucky Ones, a fictionalized account that spent four months on The New York Times best-seller list and is now available in 12 foreign editions.
The book follows the journey of Addy and his family—five siblings and their parents—as they are separated from each other at the beginning of World War II, eventually finding themselves scattered across five continents.
Some endured time in a Siberian Gulag; others were locked up in a Krakow prison. But even with all of the horror and barbarity they suffered, they held onto hope to someday reunite. That hope, Hunter believes, is what gave them strength to find their way back together.
In the 10 years she spent researching her family story, Hunter interviewed Addy’s siblings or their spouses who were still alive or—when that generation had already died—their children.
She traveled with husband Robert Farinholt (Com ’01) to Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, England, Brazil, Italy and around the United States, conducting dozens of interviews and poring through archival records.
During those interviews, Hunter leaned heavily on her undergrad study of behavioral psychology. She’d learned that people’s actions provide the clearest window into who they are. So instead of asking, “What kind of person was your father?” she’d say, “Tell me his favorite joke.” Or, “Tell me what annoyed you about him.”
By asking less-direct questions, Hunter was able to collect the compelling details that she could then imagine into conversations among her characters, bringing them to life on the page. (This creative license is also why her book is historical fiction, rather than nonfiction.)
When Hunter decided to turn her family history into a book, she quit her job as a brand strategist and became a freelance copywriter.
She found enormous support from her husband and from her mother, Isabelle Hunter, who tagged along to North Carolina on one interviewing trip. They were meeting 88-year-old Eleska, a Czech woman whom Addy had met on the Alsina, one of the last ships to carry refugees out of Europe. Addy and Eleska fell in love and would become engaged but would never marry.
“Georgia’s digging revealed that each member of the family followed his or her own highly unpredictable path,” Isabelle says, “and the project snowballed.
“That [the book] would take nearly a decade to complete or that it would ultimately be read by so many never really crossed our minds.”
For Georgia, too, establishing a deeper bond with Addy and that first generation through their children was
“There’s a universal fascination with ancestry—to find out who we are, why we are the way we are,” she says. “And this process has made me feel rooted in who I am.”