‘We Were the Lucky Ones’ Review: Joey King and Logan Lerman in Hulu’s Stirring Holocaust Survival Drama

Depending on the moment, the title of Hulu’s We Were the Lucky Ones might sound like a bitter lament or a prayer of thanks, a sigh of relief or an expression of anguish. In the end, it also simply sounds true. Based on the novel by Georgia Hunter — which in turn was inspired by the actual history of her ancestors — the miniseries traces the far-flung journeys of the Kurcs, a Polish Jewish family, throughout World War II. That their paths will be harrowing is not in doubt; a sobering opening caption reminds us that “By the end of the Holocaust, 90% of Poland’s three million Jews were annihilated.”

Yet an exercise in misery this isn’t. No matter how devastating these stories get, what binds all of them together is a sense of hope — stubborn, hard-won, fainter at certain times than others but always undeniably there. So overwhelming is its sense of heart that it’s able to propel the series past some noticeable unevenness, all the way toward a finish that merits the tears it gets.

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We Were the Lucky Ones begins at what will turn out to be the last Passover that the Kurcs are able to celebrate at their family home in Radom, Poland — it’s 1938, and though they can’t know it quite yet, World War II is at their doorstep. By the time the Thomas Kail-directed premiere winds down in 1939, sisters Halina (Joey King) and Mila (Hadas Yaron) will remain at home with parents Nechuma (Robin Weigert) and Sol (Lior Ashkenazi), but two brothers, Genek (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) and Jakob (Amit Rahav), will be off at war and a third, Addy (Logan Lerman), stuck in Paris. By the end of the finale, this clan will have scattered even further, passing through five different continents over seven years of exile, imprisonment and other struggles.

The brisk pace required to cover so much ground in just eight hours is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the breathlessness reflects the general mood of anxiety: “Where do we stand when the bottom keeps dropping?” Sol asks; there is no staying still in times like the one he’s living in. The rhythm additionally keeps the series from growing mired in too much tragedy to bear; while there are certainly darker Holocaust dramas than this one, it’s painful to repeatedly watch these characters reel from one unimaginable blow, knowing only worse is still to come.

However, the series is also forced to prioritize blunt efficiency over nuance or depth. Each of the Kurcs is given only the broadest outline of a personality, flattering and vague: they are uniformly clever and brave and generous, their faith in each other unwavering, their romances steadfastly passionate. Notably, they also tend to be spared the cruelest tragedies this series has to dole out — it’s the supporting players, often their wives and husbands, who carry the heaviest burdens of loss and despair.

Still, creator Erica Lipez makes room for smaller, more intimate moments when she can, and these land as sparks of warmth in an otherwise downbeat saga. Scenes like Jakob’s girlfriend Bella (Eva Feiler) and Halina sighing about love letters while hiding out in the woods, or Genek fondly mocking an absent Addy to roars of laughter from his siblings, add texture to the familial bond that’s so essential to these characters. Standouts in the ensemble include Lerman, who crumples inward as Addy’s optimism flags over years without word from his kin, and Sam Woolf as Halina’s boyfriend Adam, particularly electric when he gets to explode in fury or anguish.

As the situation grows more desperate, these flashes of humanity prevent the Kurcs from flattening into cutouts defined solely by their circumstances. Through their eyes, the series keys in to the details that reflect how rapidly the previously unthinkable can turn into reality. In one scene, Adam reflexively dismisses rumors of gas chambers in the camps. Discussing the same reports weeks later, the sisters grapple with a different form of disbelief: “It turns out people could be like this.” Those out of direct harm’s way for now nevertheless taste fear in every breath, knowing their situation could change in an instant. One of the most heartbreaking images of the entire series is of Mila staring at herself in the mirror, practicing smiling so that her “Jewish eyes,” brimming with sorrow, won’t blow her cover as a gentile.

The triumphs the characters are able to enjoy by the end of their sojourn feel more than earned, even as the series brushes up against the guilt that accompanies their relative good fortune. “What right have we to expect more?” one person asks after listing all the relatives who’ve survived — as if she feels somehow greedy for living when others did not, or as if merely wishing for the safe return of those still lost might upset the balance of the universe.

But her husband only holds her tighter, replying with what might as well be We Were the Lucky Ones‘ thesis: “Hope is not a crime. I think it a necessity.” Whatever rough patches it has steered through, whatever trials its characters have suffered, the series makes a moving case for keeping faith in that.

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