I think I’ve finally found a book to recommend to friends who want to read about the Holocaust, but don’t want to be submerged in an “orgy of violence.” (Note: I am not a fan of using the phrase “orgy of violence” to describe the Holocaust, or any mass atrocity for that matter, but other historians use this phrase frequently in their writing.)
We Were the Lucky Ones, by Georgia Hunter, is a multigenerational story of the Kurc family and their experience during the Holocaust. The book chronicles the entire Second World War as seen through the eyes of Nechuma and Sol Kurc and their five children. What’s wonderful about this book is that it’s essentially the author’s family history in novel form. The story demonstrates multiple experiences from the Holocaust. For example, one son, Addy, lived in France under the Vichy government and fled to Brazil to escape persecution. Genek and Herta were deported to Siberia and subjected to forced labor under the Russians. Mila sought to raise her daughter in a Jewish ghetto after her husband disappeared. While it’s about the Holocaust, practically none of the story takes place in concentration camps, which is something I love about it. Instead it shows other experiences of the Holocaust, while highlighting the persecution and uncertainty the Kurc family lived in during the war.
I can’t say this this is an easy book to read; it’s heart-wrenching, terrifying, parts of it are graphic, and there are a lot of characters to keep up with. However, it’s such an important piece of history to read. The writing is excellent, the storylines are interesting; I loved this work because it highlights that there was no universal experience during the Holocaust, except terror. Also, I really appreciated that at every section, there was a timeline of what happened during WWII that corresponded with the story’s timeline. It definitely helped contextualize the Kurc’s story against the historical narrative and is a great way to sneak in your daily dose of history.
We Were the Lucky Ones. Georgia Hunter, Viking, 2017.
In light of the recent national debate (and violence) over removing Confederate statues, it was a rather timely decision to read Desmond Tutu’s work on reconciliation and collective healing. Tutu is one whose work I’ve admired for quite some time, and I was happy to finally delve into one of his books.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Desmond Tutu and his work, he was the Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa, and is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient (1984.) He’s a theologian, a human rights activist, a professor, and was a major opponent of the South African apartheid (think of a religious Nelson Mandela.)
The premise of this book is that societies must actively seek reconciliation after human rights violations have occurred on behalf of their government. Tutu’s work outlines the endeavors of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) of which he was a member. The TRC provided a platform for the victims of apartheid to share their experience while offering amnesty to the perpetrators in exchange for their confessions and apologies. Rather than punishing those responsible for the apartheid, Tutu argues that having them publicly confess and then pardoning them laid a solid foundation on which South African society could be built.
Overall, Tutu’s book is truly moving. He offers many well-chosen examples to illustrate life for Blacks under the apartheid state, while also recounting the proceedings of the TRC. His work offers both an overview of the South African apartheid and the theological justification for forgiveness in times of atrocity.
No Future without Forgiveness. Desmond Tutu. Image, 2000 (first published in 1999).
I almost never recommend historical books, especially if they’re non-fiction. Mostly because historical non-fiction is almost always written for historians. While I read a lot of excellent books published by academic presses, I would never tell my friends to read them because, quite frankly, academic reading is much more rigorous than leisure reading.
Erik Larson’s work is the best of both worlds. Seriously. Larson was trained as a historian and a journalist, which means he knows how to dig for evidence and analyze what he finds, and write a narrative. Devil is actually two stories- the first is of the building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the second of H.H. Holmes, America’s first known serial killer. Larson weaves accounts of Holmes’ murders against the backdrop of the designing of the World’s Fair.
The chapters on Holmes are, at times, gruesome, but I found them to be well-balanced with the story of the World’s Fair. This book does have a lot of detail in it, but I could not put it down. If you liked Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, I think you might like this one, although if you’re not a fan of Capote, you might still enjoy the history of the Chicago World’s Fair.
As a side note, have you read The Road by Cormac McCarthy? I’ve been trying to read it for over a week, but I keep losing interest. I think the dragging on may be part of his style and important to the book, but I’m not sure I can finish it. What do you think, should I hang in there, or move on to the next book?
Erik Larson. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. Vintage Books, 2004.