Georgia Hunter, We Were the Lucky Ones

I knew when our book club chose this book that it was highly rated, and in the end I agreed. But for much of the book I found it difficult to “feel” the individual characters. Maybe because the story being “reported” was true. By the end, however, I realized that the main character had been given great and empathetic depth, because the main character was the family. I confess I also had difficulty with the style of going back and forth from one character/family member to the other with time passage being the thread. But as an author I couldn’t imagine any other way to do it.

The experiences were cruel, the evil unbelievable and yet real, and the courage and creativity amazing. What held me tightest, however, was the feeling that the book was not just a record of terrible events in the past, but a call to be aware of present dangers. I’ll try to explain what I mean by referring to some of my own history. I was 11 years old – almost twelve — when the United States entered the war in 1941. And what was I doing as it progressed? Sitting on the front lawn with my best friend — eating chocolate, drinking coke, and watching the boys go by. Oh yes, there were other things like flattening empty aluminum cans, drawing the black shades at night, counting ration coupons, watching Time Newsreel at the movies, worrying about my brother and brother-in-law serving overseas. But mostly I was living in a nice, safe world of school, dances, and dates. What a contrast to the experiences of the author’s family! 

Then in 1951, as a recent college graduate, I traveled with the National Student Association on a tour to Europe: Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, England, Holland, and Belgium. How very fortunate I was, but that’s not the point. I really liked everyone I met. We walked past bombed out buildings, piles of rubble, stores built up out of nothing on busy corners, cigarettes 60 cents apiece compared to our American 20 cent packs. But I liked the people. And that’s what alerts me. It was good people who let the horrors happen. And how gradually the family in the story realized the danger they were in. How improbable it seems that good neighbors could become the enemy. But they did. And then there was the student guide in Germany who said, “This will come to your country someday.” The caution was there.

In 1955 I was back in Europe, this time visiting one of the extermination camps with its photos of local people “surprised” at what had been going on in their back yard. Good people who saw only what they wanted to see. You don’t need to be a psychologist to know that’s what people do – see what they expect and want to see and don’t let the rest in. 

I’ve been back to Europe a few times since. As is true of anywhere I travel, even in my own back yard, I like the people. They are good people, just like the good people who let the horrors happen that threatened and terrified the family in “We Were the Lucky Ones.” I can’t read that book only as a piece of awful history. I can’t help but see it as a powerful caution.  

I’m glad I read it. The book deserves all the accolades it has received. And I’ll continue to be aware that it was human beings – many of whom went home after their “work” to loving, welcoming families – who perpetrated the evils. To that extent it is contemporary. We are the good ones. Maybe it’s important to think about that. We Were the Lucky Ones is more than history, more than sympathy for what was, more than rejoicing with the surviving family. To me it is a call to vigilance.

Posted July 5, 2021 by Mona Gustafson Affinito in Uncategorized

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