We Were the Lucky Ones chronicles the experiences of a large extended family during the Holocaust. The novel starts before Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and concludes a few years after World War II ends. Together and separately the many family members — grandmother and grandfather, numerous adult children and their partners, and grandchildren — encounter a wide range of circumstances, including living in the ghetto; being forced to work in Nazi Germany’s factories and farms; serving in the resistance; going into hiding in private homes, a Catholic school, and in plain sight with false identification; serving in various countries’ militaries; being abused in prison; struggling against the cold in Siberia; and emigrating from Europe both during and after the fighting. While the novel’s title discloses the family’s survival, death is all around: in the Nazis’ indiscriminate violence toward Jews, from the SS mobile killing squads, and in the sharp hunger and squalid conditions that are constant and unyielding throughout.
As author Georgia Hunter explains at the end, she based this book on her own family’s experiences. She describes how she became aware of her family’s history, interviewed family members to learn their stories and gather memories, and researched the underlying facts for the places, historical events, and people featured in the novel. Of course this personal connection contributes greatly to the compelling nature of the individual stories. Each chapter is tightly and expertly written so that the stories constantly push forward without shortchanging the descriptions and dialogue, which feel complete and engaging. That said, each chapter switches from the perspective of one individual or pair to another, and this can be confusing, particularly at the beginning. Fortunately the chapter headings help clarify, as does the reader’s increasing familiarity with the various characters as the novel progresses.
Unlike many novels set during the Holocaust, this one sets the right tone with its matter-of-fact descriptions and emotional balance. This approach makes We Were the Lucky Ones appropriate for readers knowledgeable about the Holocaust as well as those unfamiliar with the variety of circumstances individuals faced during that time, not just in Europe but all over the world, from the Middle East to South America. By the end all readers will appreciate the resourcefulness and, yes, luck that contributed to this family’s survival.