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Unacknowledged Privilege Dulls Holocaust Drama We Were the Lucky Ones

Joey King and Logan Lerman's limited series ignores the factor that plays the greatest role in this survival story: money.
  • Joey King in We Were the Lucky Ones (Photo: Vlad Cioplea/Hulu)
    Joey King in We Were the Lucky Ones (Photo: Vlad Cioplea/Hulu)

    Though it's inspired by a true story, We Were the Lucky Ones is almost too fantastical to be believed. Across eight episodes, the Kurcs, a Jewish family from Radom, Poland, confront the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust as they're separated and sent to different corners of the globe. As the Nazis advance, inflaming existing antisemitic sentiment and forcing Jews into ghettos, only to liquidate them months later, the Kurcs must go to extreme lengths to survive. Those who make it through the war do so by a stroke of luck (as the title indicates), and though they emerge scarred, their experiences reaffirm their belief in the power of the human spirit.

    Series creator Erica Lipez and author Georgia Hunter, who turned her family's experience during the Holocaust into a bestselling novel, argue that the Kurcs' survival can be attributed to maintaining hope even in the darkest of times. In their lowest moments — when brothers Addy (Logan Lerman), who flees Europe on a refugee ship, and Genek (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), exiled to a Soviet prison camp with his wife Herta (Moran Rosenblatt), begin to doubt that they'll ever see their family again — they're encouraged to shove aside their fears and anxiety and stay optimistic. "Faith is a choice," says Herta, in what may as well be We Were the Lucky Ones' thesis statement. "It's an act of will."

    The limited series justifies its idealism, to a certain extent. Youngest sibling Halina (Joey King), joins the Polish resistance and devotes herself to protecting her parents, Sol (Lior Ashkenazi) and Nechuma (Robin Weigert), and their fate is directly linked to her refusal to take "no" for an answer. If characters survive dreadful conditions in labor camps, mass executions, and the razing of cities, the show suggests, it's only because they believe doing so is possible. "We have to try" becomes their rallying cry, and those who don't follow that directive pay the ultimate price.

    But by foregrounding the Kurcs' unwavering hope and their commitment to one another, We Were the Lucky Ones ignores the factor that plays the greatest role in their story: money. As prominent, high-end tailors, Sol and Nechuma are particularly well-off, and their children live comfortably as lawyers (Genek and Jakob, played by Amit Rahav), engineers who moonlight as music composers (Addy), and lab assistants (Halina and Mila, played by Hadas Yaron). The Kurcs don't flaunt their wealth, but they're affluent enough that their biggest concerns before the war — and even in its early days — involve matters of the heart, including Halina's budding romance with architect Adam (Sam Woolf) and Jakob's hesitance to make things official with longtime girlfriend Bella (Eva Feiler).

    As the German occupation of Poland begins, the Kurcs use their wealth and status in the community to their advantage in small but meaningful ways. When the men are sent east to Lvov to fight, Halina and Bella pay handsomely to travel there in hopes of reuniting with their loved ones; later, the family is forced from their home, but Sol pulls a few strings and gets them the nicest possible apartment in the Radom ghetto. Even as the Nazis launch their extermination campaign, the Kurcs are able to stay out of harm's way by exchanging cash or valuable items, insulating them from the carnage taking place around them.

    Nowhere is the Kurcs' privilege clearer than in Addy's storyline, which unfolds separately from that of his family. Addy, the golden child, is living in Paris before the war, but when France falls, he secures a spot on one of the last refugee ships out of the country. Almost immediately, he puts his charm to good use as the emcee of a nightly cabaret show where first-class passengers in formal attire sing along to show tunes as they sip champagne.

    While these glimpses of Addy's glamorous life aboard the boat (and later in South America) ensure Lerman, the top-billed actor alongside King, remains part of the narrative, they serve as a bizarre point of contrast to scenes of his siblings in a Siberian Gulag or hiding amid a pogrom. Often, it feels as if Addy's journey is playing out in a different show entirely, one that centers romantic drama — Lerman is so charismatic in the role that he could have chemistry with a wall, but Lihi Kornowski proves a capable scene partner as love interest Eliska — above all else.

    At times, We Were the Lucky Ones glances at the advantages this group, particularly those aboard Addy's boat, have over the millions of Jews who were unable to flee Europe or pay for their safety. Addy, a second-class passenger granted privileges because of his musical talents, feels conflicted that he's been given dispensation by the captain to move freely about the ship and in port; when he voices this to the ultra-wealthy Eliska, who's generally unsympathetic to the concerns of anyone below her status, she accuses him of engaging in unnecessary "self-flagellation."

    Their conflict continues in later episodes, with Addy insisting that Eliska and her mother's (Marin Hinkle) money won't "protect" them in Casablanca, but his words are undercut by his desperate plea to use their pocketbook to travel to Spain, which declared neutrality during the war. In moments like these, it becomes apparent that Lipez wants to have it both ways. The limited series subtly mocks the obscene wealth on display around Addy — why else have two first-class passengers perform "Puttin' On the Ritz" at the cabaret? — all while refusing to recognize that his family benefits from similar, albeit less extravagant, privileges. The Kurcs may be gifted an untold number of "miracles," but they're able to take advantage of them only because they have enough money to secure a position where such blessings are within reach.

    This willful ignorance casts a pall over a show that succeeds in other ways. While Halina's relationship with Adam feels forced, King embraces the heavier aspects of her character's story, and she's captivating in the final few episodes, when Halina's resolve is tested like never before. The supporting cast delivers similarly nuanced performances, including Feiler and Rahav, who mine great emotion from the gulf that emerges between those grieving their loved ones, and those who have not yet experienced that kind of loss.

    We Were the Lucky Ones also effectively conveys the insidious nature of antisemitism and the way the Nazis turned Jews against one another by forcing Judenraete councils to implement their policies. By introducing storylines about family friend Isaac's (Ido Samuel) moral struggle as a Judenraete enforcer and emphasizing the violence perpetrated by regular people, the creative team extends culpability beyond the Germans and Soviets, making for a more complicated — and complete — look at the Holocaust.

    Of course, the timeliness of this message can't be overstated. In the aftermath of Hamas' October 7 attack and Israel's retaliatory assault in Gaza, it's all but certain that We Were the Lucky Ones will be hailed as an "important" show. And it is: It's necessary to relive this shameful period in history to ensure it doesn't happen again, just as it's vital to empathize with all kinds of refugees, as Lerman said during a panel at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.

    But that doesn't mean it's beyond reproach. While We Were the Lucky Ones has the best of intentions, it fails to acknowledge the material circumstances that played into this true story of survival against all odds. A deeper examination of the Kurcs' journey requires grappling with the fact that this is a family rich not just in hope or determination, but in a financial sense — only then is it possible to explore just how lucky Hunter's ancestors really were.

    We Were the Lucky Ones premieres March 28 on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: We Were the Lucky Ones, Hulu, Amit Rahav, Erica Lipez, Eva Feiler, Hadas Yaron, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Joey King, Lior Ashkenazi, Logan Lerman, Moran Rosenblatt, Robin Weigert, Sam Woolf