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

Diving into a TV series, film, or documentary centered around the Holocaust is always a solemn decision. These narratives, while crucial, often evoke profound anguish. Hulu’s latest limited series, “We Were the Lucky Ones,” delves into the harrowing journey of a Polish family torn apart by World War II. Despite its heavy subject matter, this gripping series, adapted from Georgia Hunter’s novel, offers not only enlightenment but also a deeply rewarding experience.

Set in 1938 Radom, Poland, the narrative revolves around Halina Kurc (portrayed by Joey King), a young woman living with her family. Amidst the anticipation of Passover, Halina’s parents, Sol (Lior Ashkenazi) and Nechuma (Robin Weigert), eagerly await the return of their son Addy (Logan Lerman), a musician residing in Paris. The Kurc family thrives, owning a prosperous fabric store while their children pursue promising careers. However, looming fears of Hitler’s expanding influence and anti-Semitic sentiments across Europe begin to encroach upon their once vibrant lives. Despite reassurances from her brother Genek (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) that “Radom is not Germany,” the ominous cloud of uncertainty grows ever darker.

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

His hopeful outlook, in hindsight, proved to be unfounded. The series premiere, penned by showrunner Erica Lipez (known for her work on “The Morning Show” and “Bates Motel”), meticulously constructs an atmosphere of impending doom. Scenes depict a Jewish man with a bruised eye puffing on a cigarette outside a Radom café, and a figure strolling through Paris wearing a government-issued gas mask, highlighting the escalating perils engulfing the continent. Before the episode concludes, the German invasion of Poland thrusts the Kurc family into a relentless nightmare lasting years.

Drawing inspiration from the real-life experiences of Hunter’s ancestors, “We Were the Lucky Ones” embarks on a sprawling narrative journey. It delves into how the horrors of the Nazi regime transcended the confines of concentration camps, revealing that survival offered no respite from the atrocities. Sol, Nechuma, Mila, and her daughter (portrayed by Artemisia Pagliano) are uprooted from their home and coerced into grueling factory labor. Meanwhile, Halina and Bella (played by Eva Feiler), Jakob’s girlfriend, undertake a perilous journey to Soviet-occupied Lvov in search of him. Genek and his wife, Herta (portrayed by Moran Rosenblatt), find themselves consigned to a harsh work camp under brutal Russian control. As for Addy, his attempt to escape to Brazil results in him becoming ensnared in Nazi-aligned Dakar, sealing his fate in the heart of darkness.

We Were the Lucky Ones - Halina and Bella start their passage to Lvov. Sol, Nechuma, and Mila must find a new home in German-occupied Radom. Addy is conscripted into a Polish unit of the French army. Halina (Joey King) and Sol (Lior Ashkenazi), shown.

In spite of the diverse challenges they face, each member of the Kurc family lives under the constant shadow of death: from pogroms and mass shootings to hunger, grueling labor, and the relentless cruelty of SS soldiers. Yet, “Lucky Ones” also underscores the silent agony inherent in the daily struggle for survival. “You must smile more when Germans crack jokes,” Halina admonishes Mila, urging them to conceal their true identities. “No trace of Jewish sorrow! If our faces mirror our inner pain, we might as well reveal ourselves.” Despite the deepening torment they endure with each passing day, the Kurc family resists the Nazis’ malevolence by steadfastly refusing to surrender to it. “Faith is a decision,” asserts Herta. “It’s an act of determination.” This recurring theme, echoing through countless other accounts of Holocaust survival, lends a semblance of hope amidst the tragedy depicted in “Lucky Ones.”

In her portrayal of the spirited and sharp-witted Halina, King becomes the emotional core of the series. With fiery determination, she tackles her character’s trials, ensuring that the Kurc family’s fervent longing for reunion permeates every scene. (Both King and Ashkenazi, portraying Halina’s unwavering father, Sol, even manage to inject moments of levity, a commendable feat in a Holocaust narrative.) Meanwhile, Lerman, whose youthful appearance can shift between suavity and heartrending vulnerability, effortlessly complements the charismatic Addy.

For Jewish survivors, the end of World War II did not signify the end of their struggles. The agonizing wait for news from the Red Cross about loved ones, the jarring transition back to freedom after years of oppression, and the return to cities that no longer feel like home—these themes are touched upon briefly in the 73-minute finale of “We Were the Lucky Ones.” Yet, the series also offers viewers much-needed moments of cathartic release and serves as a poignant reminder that certain stories must continue to be told.

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