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Review: In Hulu’s ‘We Were the Lucky Ones,’ an engrossing family drama with the Holocaust as backdrop

By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times
Published: March 31, 2024, 6:05am

My Ukrainian Jewish parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were comfortably ensconced in the Midwest when Hitler began persecuting the Jews; I have no familial connection to the Holocaust. Still, the sight of a swastika gives me shivers, and all the more so given that, in this age of denial and renascent fascism, the symbol has outlived its ironic uses (punk rock, Mel Brooks) and is simply a sign of antisemitism.

You can’t make a movie about that time without showing it, of course, and it’s necessary that such movies are made, as the Holocaust passes out of living memory. But it’s never an easy watch, nor should it be. Anything else would be a failure.

Big numbers become abstract; they can lose their meaning. A title card that introduces the new limited series “We Were the Lucky Ones,” adapted by Erica Lipez (“ The Morning Show “) from Georgia Hunter’s 2017 novel, which was based on the experiences of her family, tells us that by the end of the Holocaust 90% of Poland’s 3 million Jews had been annihilated: an incomprehensible fact. What makes “We Are the Lucky Ones,” which premiered Thursday on Hulu, work as well as it does is that it’s first and foremost a family drama; it never leaves its characters’ sides to take in the bigger picture. The Warsaw ghetto uprising is shown only as noise and smoke across a wall, glimpsed from afar.

The title suggests that this might not be the most depressing of Holocaust films, which is true; but there’s an encyclopedia of horrors that phrase might include. “You say I’m lucky,” one character will observe, “but maybe luck is relative.”

It’s 1938, and the Kurcs, an upper-middle-class family in Radom, Poland — mother and father, five adult children and their significant others — have gathered for Passover. Father Sol (Lior Ashkenazi) and mother Nechuma ( Robin Weigert ) deal in textiles and dressmaking. Dapper Addy (Logan Lerman) is visiting from Paris, where he works as an electrical engineer and aspiring songwriter. Jacob (Amit Rahav), long engaged to Bella (Eva Feiler), is in law school but prefers taking photographs; and Genec (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), a lawyer, has a new girlfriend, Herta (Moran Rosenblatt), who is still a secret.

Older sister Mila (Hadas Yaron), married to Selim (Michael Aloni), a doctor, is pregnant when we meet her, but soon struggling with motherhood. Headstrong Halina ( Joey King ), the baby of the family and the series’ center of energy, favors a bright shade of lipstick and is not thinking too seriously about her future, but she’s also ready to make a leap. Adam (Sam Woolf), the lodger, is an architect on whom Halina has set her eye.

It’s a convincing family portrait, filled out with food and music and gossip. Between them, the Kurcs offer a range of opinions on what might or might not be coming, and what should be done. Even after the Nazis invade Poland, halfway through the opening episode, things advance by degrees, so that the next worst thing can’t quite be imagined, and once imagined really believed. Decisions are put off, disagreements turn into arguments, and fate jumps in.

They’ll follow, or be impelled to follow, different paths through the war — paths that sometimes meet again with Dickensian coincidence — surviving through lucky breaks, daring escapes, the kindness of strangers, bribes, charm or cleverness, hiding or hiding in plain sight.

“The truth is they have no idea what a Jew looks like; that’s why they make us wear the star,” says Adam, who has become Poland’s most trusted producer of fake IDs.

“You can’t look scared,” Halina instructs Mila about passing for gentile, at which she’s something of an expert. “You need to make your posture normal; and you need to laugh more when Germans tell jokes.”

“I laugh,” says Mila, the Kurc least likely to. “Maybe the jokes should be funny.”

“And no Jewish eyes. If we look as sad as we feel, we may as well just announce ourselves.”

Each episode is titled for a location — Radom, Warsaw and Siberia, but also Casablanca, Monte Cassino and Rio de Janeiro. The variety of locations, the alternation of tone and predicaments as the series skips between threads, keeps it from becoming too emotionally, too existentially wearing. (They do want you to last until the end.) There are moments of respite, occasions for humor and even romance. The death camps are spoken of, but they’re elsewhere. Violence takes place mostly offscreen, and when it does hit close to home, it’s all the more disturbing.

Even the moderately well-informed viewer is bound to learn a few things, but “We Were the Lucky Ones” isn’t a history lesson. It’s a human story, of husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and lovers — a motion picture, to be sure, with a score in an Eastern European key, and montages, and one of those shots where the camera circles a kissing couple. Its purpose, as television, is to make you feel, for the characters and by extension for a people — to experience, such as might be possible, the stress of privation, the threat of discovery, and the tragedy of having to deny one’s identity in order to live. It’s a dark journey, but light comes in at the end. What’s lost may be found.


‘WE WERE THE LUCKY ONES’

Rating: TV-MA

How to watch: Hulu

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