“We Were the Lucky Ones” review: A heartening story of Holocaust survival

Joey King and Logan Lerman star in Hulu's limited series based on the best-selling historical novel.

It’s always daunting to press play on a TV show, movie, or documentary about the Holocaust. As necessary and important as these stories are, they’re also agonizing. And Hulu’s new limited series We Were the Lucky Ones — about a Polish family forced to scatter across multiple continents during World War II — is a tough watch. But those who brave this moving limited series, based on Georgia Hunter’s historical novel, will also find it to be edifying, educational, and ultimately rewarding.

The eight-episode drama introduces us to Halina Kurc (Joey King), a young woman living with her family in Radom, Poland, in 1938. It’s Passover, and Halina’s parents, Sol (Lior Ashkenazi) and Nechuma (Robin Weigert), are giddily awaiting the return of their son Addy (Logan Lerman), a musician who lives in Paris. The family is thriving: Sol and Nechuma own a successful fabric store; their sons Genek (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) and Jakob (Amit Rhav) are training to be lawyers; Addy’s latest composition is a radio hit; and their daughter Mila (Hadas Yaron) is expecting her first child with her doctor husband, Selim (Michael Aloni). Still, fears about Hitler’s growing ambitions and rising antisemitism across Europe have begun to infiltrate the periphery of their cheerful existence. “It’ll pass,” Genek assures Addy. “Radom is not Germany.”

<p>Vlad Cioplea/Hulu</p> Joey King and Logan Lerman in 'We Were the Lucky Ones'

Vlad Cioplea/Hulu

Joey King and Logan Lerman in 'We Were the Lucky Ones'

His optimism, as we know now, was misguided. The premiere, written by showrunner Erica Lipez (The Morning Show, Bates Motel), carefully cultivates a feeling of creeping dread — a Jewish man with a black eye smoking a cigarette outside a Radom café; a man walking the streets of Paris in a government-issued gas mask — as the dangers facing the continent become harder to ignore. Before the hour is over, the Germans have invaded Poland, launching the Kurc family into a years-long nightmare.

Inspired by the true story of Hunter’s ancestors, We Were the Lucky Ones’ sprawling narrative explores how the Nazis’ reign of terror reached far beyond the borders of the death camps — and why survival offered no escape from the horrors. Sol, Nechuma, Mila, and her daughter (Artemisia Pagliano) are pushed out of their home and forced into factory work; Halina and Bella (Eva Feiler), Jakob’s girlfriend, make a dangerous trek to Soviet-occupied Lvov to find him; Genek and his wife, Herta (Moran Rosenblatt), are sent to a brutal, Russian-controlled work camp; Addy attempts to flee to Brazil but winds up trapped in Nazi-sympathizing Dakar.

<p>Vlad Cioplea/Hulu</p> Joey King, Lior Ashkenazi

Vlad Cioplea/Hulu

Joey King, Lior Ashkenazi

Though their circumstances are extremely varied, every member of the Kurc family is surrounded by the threat of death: Pogroms, mass shootings, starvation, back-breaking labor, the flagrant cruelty of SS soldiers, etc. But Lucky Ones also emphasizes the invisible torture that’s intrinsic to the daily act of survival. “You need to laugh more when Germans tell jokes,” Halina scolds Mila, after they decide to conceal their identity. “No Jewish eyes! If we look as sad as we feel, we may as well just announce ourselves.” Even as their torment worsens every passing year, the Kurc family defies the Nazis’ evil by refusing to succumb to it. “Faith is a choice,” says Herta. “It’s an act of will.” That theme, which recurs through countless other Holocaust survival stories, is what makes the tragedy of Lucky Ones bearable.

As the feisty and quick-witted Halina, King is the emotional engine of the series. Attacking her character’s ordeal with passionate defiance, the actress ensures that the Kurc family’s intense yearning for a reunion underscores her every scene. (Both she and Ashkenazi, as Halina’s steadfast father, Sol, even manage to get a few laughs, which is no small feat in a Holocaust drama.) And Lerman, an actor whose boyish mien can veer suave or heartbreakingly fragile, melds easily with the charismatic Addy.

For Jewish survivors, the struggles of World War II didn’t end on VE Day. The excruciating wait for updates on family members from the Red Cross, the jarring shift back to freedom after years of oppression, the return to cities that no longer feel like home — We Were the Lucky Ones touches too briefly on these rich themes in its 73-minute finale. But it also gifts viewers with much-needed moments of ugly-cry uplift — and a reminder that there are some stories we should never stop telling. Grade: B+

We Were the Lucky Ones premieres Thursday, March 28, on Hulu.

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