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“We Were the Lucky Ones” Author Georgia Hunter Felt ‘Like My Ancestors Were There With Me’ on Set of New TV Series (Exclusive)

Hunter's 2017 novel, now a forthcoming Hulu series, is based on her family’s experiences during the Holocaust

<p>Penguin Books; Andrea Carson</p>

Penguin Books; Andrea Carson

'We Were the Lucky Ones' author Georgia Hunter

When author Georgia Hunter thinks of her grandfather, Eddy, music comes to mind.

“He was either at the keys of the piano or composing right up until the end of his life," she tells PEOPLE. "Or we were listening to some classical music that I didn't know at the time, but I'm sure it was Chopin mixed in there. I remember his house being full of beautiful art and textiles, and then later learning that he made a lot of it by hand.”

Eddy, who changed his name from Addy later in life, served as the inspiration for We Were the Lucky Ones, Hunter's ambitious, poignant novel based on her family’s experiences during World War II. The book, which was published in 2017 by Viking, has been adapted into a TV show starring Joey King and Logan Lerman. It premieres on Hulu on March 28.

<p>Penguin Books</p> 'We Were the Lucky Ones' by Georgia Hunter

Penguin Books

'We Were the Lucky Ones' by Georgia Hunter

Hunter, an only child, grew up down the road from Eddy, who passed away from Parkinson’s disease in 1993. She's shared memories of him in the author's note of the novel — his talent as a pianist and composer, his knowledge of multiple languages, the banishment of ketchup from his house. Despite the time they spent together, Hunter says that there were parts of her grandfather’s life that he didn’t share with her.

“People say, ‘Really? You didn’t know he was [a] Holocaust survivor? He never talked about being raised in the Jewish faith or growing up in Poland?’” she says. “Looking back, I can see some of those [kinds] of quirks, if you will — his European-ness and his resourcefulness. But at the time, I didn't think anything of it.”

Ahead of show's premiere, Hunter sat down with PEOPLE to discuss the novel, its extensive research process and the importance of her family’s story.

The family historian

<p>Courtesy of Hulu/Disney</p> Georgia Hunter

Courtesy of Hulu/Disney

Georgia Hunter

We Were the Lucky Ones follows the Kurc family, whose five adult children —  Genek, Mila, Addy, Jakob and Halina — end up scattered across the world during the Holocaust. Told in alternating perspectives, the novel showcases the persistence of the siblings, as well as their parents, Sol and Nechuma, and their spouses, to find their way back to one another.

For Hunter, the seed for the book was planted with a high school English assignment about family history. It prompted her to learn more about Eddy's experience during World War II, such as how he was living in France when the conflict began. Later, Hunter learned more about how his parents and four siblings survived, against all odds.

Related: Joey King Says 'There Is a Lot of Hope' in Her and Logan Lerman's Holocaust Drama We Were the Lucky Ones

“I went into this particular project as a family historian, not really as an author,” Hunter says. “I had never written a book before, so I set out in 2008 to unearth and record the family story.”

Over the course of a nearly decade-long research process, Hunter would interview family members and Holocaust scholars around the world, spend time digging through archives and libraries, and visit her family’s hometown of Radom, Poland to uncover stories that one publisher told her were almost too extraordinary to be believed.

<p>Vlad Cioplea/Hulu</p> A scene from 'We Were the Lucky Ones' featuring Moran Rosenblatt as Herta and Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Genek

Vlad Cioplea/Hulu

A scene from 'We Were the Lucky Ones' featuring Moran Rosenblatt as Herta and Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Genek

Hunter would learn, for example, that her cousin, Józef, was born in a Siberian labor camp, and that his mother used her breast milk to keep his eyes from freezing in the harsh weather. There was a secret wedding held in a blacked-out house. Hunter’s relative, Adam, who was living in Warsaw with false papers, found a way to hide the fact that he was circumcised from a landlord who accused him of being Jewish.

“I remember laughing along with Ricardo, [Adam’s] son, who was telling the story, and then when it came time to write that scene, realizing that, ‘Oh my gosh, there was nothing funny in that moment,’ Hunter says. “This was a life or death moment.”

Related: On This Holocaust Remembrance Day, Meet a Fierce 100-Year-Old Woman Who Survived the Unimaginable

Writing the novel, in which most characters were named after Hunter's family members, became even more emotional for Hunter once she became a mother herself early in the drafting process. She particularly resonated with Mila, who was raising her young daughter, Felicia, during the war. Mila had to go to extremes to protect Felicia, such as hiding her in a bag of fabric scraps while Mila was working in a factory, and temporarily sending Felicia to live in a convent under a false name.

“I just couldn't get over what it would've taken to have the courage and the ability to keep going day after day and to make these decisions about her daughter and her daughter's safety over and over again,” Hunter says.

“I felt like my ancestors were there with me”

<p>Vlad Cioplea/Hulu</p> Logan Lerman (left), Robin Weigert (center) and Thomas Kail (second from right) on the set of 'We Were the Lucky Ones'

Vlad Cioplea/Hulu

Logan Lerman (left), Robin Weigert (center) and Thomas Kail (second from right) on the set of 'We Were the Lucky Ones'

Hunter admits that the novel's TV adaptation still feels surreal. She worked on the series alongside showrunner Erica Lipez and director Thomas Kail, who encouraged her to be involved in every step of the creative process. Though she didn't work on the teleplay, Hunter spent every day in the writer's room, and readily provided family artifacts to the props team.

“I had photographs, I had some music,” Hunter says. “Logan [Lerman] carries the same snake skin wallet that my grandfather carried, and Robin [Weigert], who plays Nechuma, wears the same broach that my great-grandmother wore.”

Related: 'Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' 's Alex Borstein Dedicates Her Emmy to Her Grandmother, a Holocaust Survivor

The research paid off — Hunter recalls seeing the set for the family’s Radom apartment for the first time, and being shocked by its accuracy, right down to details like the etched glass on the dining room doors.

<p>Vlad Cioplea/Hulu</p> A scene from 'We Were the Lucky Ones,' where the Kurc family celebrates Passover

Vlad Cioplea/Hulu

A scene from 'We Were the Lucky Ones,' where the Kurc family celebrates Passover

“I remember walking in and feeling like I was stepping back in time, and I just started crying,” Hunter says. “I felt like my ancestors were there with me.”

The cast, whose principal actors are all Jewish, were also curious to learn more about the people they were portraying.

“There were a lot of questions about trying to get to the core of who these people were," Hunter says. "They really just wanted to get to know my relatives on a very personal level and [asked] questions that you’ll never see in a script or that show up in a show: ‘What were their quirks? Did their parents sing them any special lullabies? What did they like to read? What kind of parents are they now today?’”

Related: 98-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Is Keeping Her Promise to Tell Her Story — and She's Doing It on TikTok

“I just feel like they did such a beautiful job of bringing them to life in the most authentic way,” she adds.

Looking forward

<p>Courtesy of Hulu/Disney</p> Georgia Hunter (left), Joey King, Logan Lerman (center), Erica Lipez and Thomas Kail

Courtesy of Hulu/Disney

Georgia Hunter (left), Joey King, Logan Lerman (center), Erica Lipez and Thomas Kail

In addition to the Hulu series, Hunter is currently working with educators to create a curriculum around We Were the Lucky Ones. She wants to help students learn both about the novel's development and the historical period itself.

“I never thought when I set out in 2008 that the story would feel so relevant,” Hunter says. “It feels like history is repeating itself…there's no more important time to share stories about the Holocaust.”

The author also has a new book in the works, One Good Thing, set to publish in 2025. It's another World War II drama, this time taking place in Italy.

Related: 'All the Light We Cannot See' Trailer Shows WWII Turmoil and Hope Found in the Unlikeliest of Friendships

<p>Andrea Carson</p> Georgia Hunter

Andrea Carson

Georgia Hunter

“I felt like the Holocaust in Italy was a little bit lesser-known and less understood than Poland and what was happening in Eastern Europe,” she says.

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With We Were the Lucky Ones, however, Hunter emphasizes that there's more to the history of families like hers than tragedy.

“There are very dark moments, but there are also babies born and music made and romances forming,” she says. “Hearing the lighter parts from the family members really helped me incorporate those lighter moments into the story, which helped me as the author get through it emotionally and, I think, helps a reader too. The balance of the light in the dark.”

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