JBC spoke with Geor­gia Hunter about the recent adap­ta­tion of her best­selling nov­el, We Were the Lucky Ones, into a binge-wor­thy minis­eries. Hunter shared the fam­i­ly his­to­ry that inspired the nov­el, the exten­sive research she con­duct­ed while writ­ing it, and the expe­ri­ence of return­ing to the book as she worked close­ly with the team bring­ing her family’s fic­tion­al­ized sto­ry to the screen. 

Simona Zaret­sky: Geor­gia, a huge con­grat­u­la­tions on the minis­eries adap­ta­tion of We Were the Lucky Ones! It’s stun­ning. Could you speak a bit about the true sto­ry behind the novel?

Geor­gia Hunter: Thank you! It’s been mind-blow­ing to see the series come togeth­er. I love that it seems to be res­onat­ing with audi­ences the way we hoped it would.

Yes, the nov­el (the inspi­ra­tion for the series) is based on the true sto­ry of my family’s Holo­caust sur­vival. Inter­est­ing­ly, despite the fact that I was quite close as a child with my grand­fa­ther Eddy (Addy in the book/​series), he nev­er spoke of being raised in the Jew­ish faith, or of his Holo­caust-era roots. It was a chap­ter of his past that came to light a year after he died, thanks to a high school Eng­lish assign­ment and an inter­view with my grand­moth­er Car­o­line. The dis­cov­ery sparked a lot of curios­i­ty and left me with a lot of questions. 

Some years lat­er, at a fam­i­ly reunion, I stum­bled into some answers when I found myself sit­ting around a table with my moth­er (Eddy’s mid­dle child) and her first cousins, lis­ten­ing to sto­ries unlike any I’d ever heard before about the war: a baby born in the Siber­ian gulag; a hike to safe­ty over the Aus­tri­an Alps; an ille­gal wed­ding in Lvov; a moth­er-daugh­ter escape from the ghet­to; a dis­guised cir­cum­ci­sion. I remem­ber think­ing, How am I just hear­ing these sto­ries now? And also, Some­one needs to write them down. I was twen­ty-one at the time and didn’t know then that some­one would be me, but I think that’s when the idea was seeded. 

The author with cousins at a Kurc fam­i­ly reunion, 2000

All pho­tos cour­tesy of the author

Eight years lat­er, I set off to try to unearth and record my family’s sto­ry. I flew around the world inter­view­ing rel­a­tives, fol­lowed in the foot­steps of the Kurc sib­lings on their paths to sur­vival, and reached out to every archive and data­base I could think of in search of rel­e­vant records. Lit­tle by lit­tle, the Kurc fam­i­ly nar­ra­tive — and the bones of We Were the Lucky Ones—came togeth­er. 

SZ: What was the expe­ri­ence of being a debut author and the recep­tion of We Were the Lucky Ones

GH: We Were the Lucky Ones is such a per­son­al sto­ry. The thought of pub­lish­ing it, to be hon­est, was scary. I kept it close for a long time, before final­ly reach­ing out to lit­er­ary agents. When the man­u­script land­ed in the hands of my now friend and agent, Bret­tne Bloom, I knew it had found its home. She and I, along with my amaz­ing edi­tor at Viking, Sarah Stein, worked on pol­ish­ing and revis­ing until we all agreed the book was ready to go to print. 

We Were the Lucky Ones was well received when it came out in 2017, but it real­ly took off when it was released a year lat­er in paper­back and made the New York Times best­seller list. Being a first-time author, it was wild to know that my family’s sto­ry had found its way into the hands and hearts of so many readers.

SZ: What was it like to revis­it the nov­el as it was trans­formed from a 2017 book to a miniseries? 

GH: I loved com­ing back to the book and the fam­i­ly his­to­ry in the adap­ta­tion process. I lis­tened to old inter­views I’d record­ed, rewatched Shoah inter­views, reread my notes, and dug up the records I’d uncov­ered. It felt great to be able to pass on all of these find­ings to the screen­writ­ers and the pro­duc­tion team, so they could refer to them as our scripts and sets came together. 

SZ: What was your role in the adap­ta­tion? Were there any films or direc­tors that influ­enced your approach to the miniseries?

GH: I got lucky in that Thomas Kail, who optioned my book and who’s one of the show’s direc­tors and exec­u­tive pro­duc­ers, is a close friend. I met him twen­ty-five years ago through my hus­band Robert — he and Tom­my were pals in sum­mer camp! When Tom­my called to ask if we could part­ner to bring We Were the Lucky Ones to the screen it felt like a dream come true. Tom­my encour­aged me to be a part of the adap­ta­tion process, and so I was — every step of the way! I helped with the pitch, in the Writer’s Room, on set, and in post-pro­duc­tion. All the peo­ple involved, from top to bot­tom — our amaz­ing showrun­ner Eri­ca Lipez, to the rest of our phe­nom­e­nal cre­ative and pro­duc­tion teams — were incred­i­bly invest­ed from day one. They held the project so dear­ly in their hearts, just as I have in mine. The refrain, the thing I heard over and over again from start to fin­ish was, Thank you for bring­ing us this sto­ry. We’re hon­ored and we’re going to do every­thing in our pow­er to do it justice.” 

There have been dozens of beau­ti­ful and impor­tant films and tele­vi­sion series made about the Holo­caust (and I hope there con­tin­ue to be many more) but I can’t say we tried to emu­late one piece or one approach in par­tic­u­lar. Our mis­sion was sim­ple, in a way: to try to tell the Kurc fam­i­ly sto­ry as truth­ful­ly as pos­si­ble, and to do so through a very real, very raw, human lens. We didn’t want the show to feel glossy or sepia toned or in any way dat­ed. We want­ed it to feel the oppo­site — vivid and relat­able. At its core, We Were the Lucky Ones is a sto­ry about a fam­i­ly. The cast is the beat­ing heart of the show and I think they did a phe­nom­e­nal job of bring­ing our vision to life. 

Logan Ler­man, who plays Georgia’s grand­fa­ther, and Geor­gia with her fam­i­ly dressed for a cameo.

SZ: What was it like to adapt the nov­el into a minis­eries? Have you heard any reac­tions from read­ers to the series yet?

GH: I’d spent so long imag­in­ing my family’s Holo­caust expe­ri­ence that it was sur­re­al, at first, to watch the sto­ry unfold on the screen. I trav­eled as often as I could to be on set for our shoot. We filmed the bulk of the series in Bucharest, Roma­nia, and the last six weeks in Mala­ga, Spain. I’ll nev­er for­get walk­ing onto the set of the Kurc fam­i­ly apart­ment with the cast for the first time. It felt like we were step­ping back in time, as if my rel­a­tives were there with us. James Mer­i­field, our set design­er, was teary as he showed us around the space, point­ing out the etched glass door to the din­ing room, the vin­tage Chi­na set, the framed pho­tos of each of the sib­lings, the piano adorned in Chopin sheet music. I was teary, too, bowled over by the details, the authen­tic­i­ty of it all. 

It was also sur­re­al to meet the cast. To put faces and per­son­al­i­ties to real-life rel­a­tives. We took our time in the cast­ing process and I love that all of our actors are Jew­ish. A third are Amer­i­can, a third Israeli, and a third British. They’re the best of the best, and became a tight-knit fam­i­ly in the process of rehears­ing and per­form­ing together. 

So far, read­ers seem to be quite moved by the series. Many have reached out to tell me how beau­ti­ful, heart-rend­ing, and time­ly it feels. My fam­i­ly has respond­ed well to it, too! We had an ear­ly screen­ing of our pilot at the US Holo­caust Muse­um in Wash­ing­ton, DC, and twen­ty-eight rel­a­tives flew from all over the world to be a part of it. They were all blown away by the episode. One of my favorite com­ments was from a fel­low third-gen­er­a­tion cousin who told me, I nev­er had a chance to meet my grand­fa­ther [Adam]. Watch­ing him on screen…it’s just how I imag­ined him.” 

A scene from the minis­eries recre­at­ed from a fam­i­ly pho­to, orig­i­nal pho­to vis­i­ble on author’s phone

SZ: Was there any­thing that sur­prised you about trans­lat­ing the nov­el to a minis­eries? (For exam­ple, were you able to include new scenes or research in this iter­a­tion of the story?)

GH: One of the things that struck me about the adap­ta­tion as I men­tioned ear­li­er was how beau­ti­ful­ly the cast gelled as a fam­i­ly on set. I loved watch­ing them per­form, and even more so watch­ing them between takes – the looks across the table, the bick­er­ing, the wor­ry, the laugh­ter, the love. It all felt so real and relatable. 

I was also in con­stant awe of the detail and authen­tic­i­ty with which our pro­duc­tion team was able to cre­ate the Kurcs’ phys­i­cal world. Our props team made exact repro­duc­tions of the fam­i­ly arti­facts I shared, includ­ing my grand­fa­ther Eddy’s snake­skin wal­let, my great-grand­moth­er Nechuma’s sil­ver brooch, and my great-uncle Adam’s note­books. When a fam­i­ly pho­to­graph sur­faced just days before we were due to shoot my grand­par­ents’ wed­ding scene, our cos­tume design­er, Lisa Dun­can, piv­ot­ed from her orig­i­nal cloth­ing choic­es and had repli­cas made of the dress and suit they wore on their actu­al wed­ding day. She also cre­at­ed repli­cas of the dress­es my great-aunt Feli­cia wore as a child — dress­es I’d dis­cov­ered in a col­lec­tion at Yad Vashem after the book was pub­lished. There are scenes in the series of our young Feli­cia (who goes by Bar­bara in the con­vent, the name stitched into her dress) wear­ing out­fits iden­ti­cal to those Feli­cia wore in real life. 

For the most part, the series plot stayed very close to that of the book, but we did include a few new scenes. For exam­ple, while the book starts in 1939 with my grand­fa­ther strand­ed in France and unable to return home for Passover, we decid­ed to open the series with a seder in 1938, so audi­ences could get to know the fam­i­ly as a whole. We also chose to let my great-uncle Jakob expe­ri­ence the Radom ghet­to liq­ui­da­tion. In real­i­ty he’d escaped the ghet­to just days before. But we felt the expe­ri­ence offered a glimpse into what was hap­pen­ing to the major­i­ty of the Jews in Radom, and that real­i­ty was impor­tant to share. 

Still image from We Were the Lucky Ones miniseries

SZ: What are you read­ing and writ­ing now? 

GH: I just fin­ished a nov­el rec­om­mend­ed by an Indie book­store in Seat­tle called No Two Per­sons, by Eri­ca Bauer­meis­ter. It fol­lows one book as it falls into the hands of nine read­ers, each depict­ed in a dif­fer­ent sto­ry­line, and, in very unique ways, changes each of their lives. Next I’m going to revis­it Jumpa Lahiri’s The Name­sake. I love Lahiri’s writ­ing and I remem­ber being inspired by how she so beau­ti­ful­ly described the immi­grant sto­ry — the strug­gle to hon­or one cul­ture and fit in with anoth­er — when I first read it years ago. I’m excit­ed to dip back in. 

Geor­gia, age one, and her grand­fa­ther Eddy

On the writ­ing front, I’m about to fin­ish my sec­ond book! It’s a his­tor­i­cal nov­el called One Good Thing and it tells the sto­ry of Italy’s com­plex and less­er-known Holo­caust-era past through the eyes of a young woman forced to rec­og­nize, com­bat — and even­tu­al­ly over­come — her deep­est fears. A har­row­ing but also a hope­ful tale of friend­ship and loy­al­ty. And an explo­ration of how, when the world clos­es in around us, we can find the courage and the strength to keep going.

Simona is the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s man­ag­ing edi­tor of dig­i­tal con­tent and mar­ket­ing. She grad­u­at­ed from Sarah Lawrence Col­lege with a con­cen­tra­tion in Eng­lish and His­to­ry and stud­ied abroad in India and Eng­land. Pri­or to the JBC she worked at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Her writ­ing has been fea­tured in LilithThe Nor­mal School, Dig­ging through the Fat, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She holds an MFA in fic­tion from The New School.