“If you are to live, you cannot feel.” -LILAC GIRLS
LILAC GIRLS by Martha Hall Kelly is now one of my favorite books. My jaw dropped when I learned this was her debut novel. I could dedicate the next five hundred blog posts to it and still not have enough good things to say. Instead, I’ll settle for a book review.
LILAC GIRLS is a historical fiction novel which tells the the story of three women–Caroline Ferriday, Kasia Kuzmerick, and Herta Oberheuser–who find themselves entangled in the web of violence, tragedy, and hardship brought on by World War II. Before I launch into my review, allow me to introduce you to our leading ladies:
Caroline Ferriday was a real New York socialite who was once a Broadway actress (and y’all know I love Broadway). Now, she serves as an American liaison to the French consulate. After the war, she brings some of the Ravensbrück Rabbits to America (you’ll learn more about them later) to receive medical care. Caroline has a huge heart and is so passionate about helping others, particularly children and the Rabbits. She’s involved in numerous fundraisers and sends clothes and materials to those affected by the war. Despite this book’s heavy subject matter, Caroline often kept me laughing. She’s a single 40-something who befriends handsome Broadway star Paul Rodierre, and her inner monologue around him is something every woman can understand. For example, she wonders, “Why was I quoting Byron? It made me sound two million years old” (girl, we lit lovers have all been there) and “Why could I not stop talking to men like a schoolmarm? I deserve to end up alone, sent out on an ice floe as the Eskimos do with their elders.” Same.
When the story begins, Kasia is your typical 17 year old schoolgirl, but she grows up quickly when she joins the Polish resistance. Before long, Kasia, her sister, and her mother are captured and sent to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp. In captivity, Kasia is selected for medical experiments intended to help the Nazis learn to heal injured soldiers. Kasia’s leg is intentionally wounded, deliberately infected, and reduced to nothing but an experimental tool. Since they are test subjects who walk with a limping, hopping gait, Kasia and the other victims are dubbed the “Ravensbrück Rabbits.” Kasia is based on real-life Rabbit Nina Ivanska, and her story impacted me profoundly. She is a courageous, intelligent young woman, but her experiences lead to a long, difficult struggle with anger and guilt.
Herta Oberheuser is another fictionalized version of the actual woman. She’s a young doctor and is thrilled with the opportunity to serve at Ravensbrück, until she realizes, “The reeducation-camp label was a front. How could I have been so naïve?” Herta is the only female doctor, she needs money, and she feels obligated to serve her country, so she stays in the camp. Before long, she numbs her feelings and rationalizes horrific actions. In history’s eyes, Herta is a villain who committed atrocious acts. Indeed, she should be condemned for those deeds, but hearing her perspective humanized her in a profound way. While reading this book, I didn’t hate Herta; I pitied her.
World War II completely fascinates me. How could the world descend into the inhumanity of concentration camps, and how could someone who has experienced something so horrific adjust to life after it? When I come across WWII fiction, I snatch it up, hoping to find answers to these questions. Answers are exactly what I found in LILAC GIRLS. Through the strength, courage, and vulnerability of Caroline, Kasia, and Herta, I grasped a deeper understanding of people on all sides of the war–those involved from the outside, those inflicting evil, and those enduring it. Before reading this book, I didn’t know much about Caroline Ferriday or the Ravensbrück Rabbits. Now, I have a profound respect for the healthy women who suffered unimaginably, but became stronger because of it, and the amazing woman dedicated to aiding them.
LILAC GIRLS is a difficult read due to the war’s horrific nature, but I recommend it to all adult audiences. Give a copy to your friends, parents, book clubs, the stranger walking down the street, and everyone in between. This story needs to be told and understood. It’s not simply a story of history. It’s a story of humanity. Stories like LILAC GIRLS depict the best and worst sides of human nature, and it’s vital we learn from and understand both.
To Martha Hall Kelly, I must say thank you. Thank you for delving into such a difficult era and telling all sides of it with such raw honesty and beauty. The research and passion you put into crafting this novel is evident in every word. May we never forget Caroline Ferriday and the Ravensbrück Rabbits, and may Caroline’s lilacs always bloom.
‘Father loved the fact that a lilac only blossoms after a harsh winter… It’s a miracle all of this beauty emerges after such hardship, don’t you think?'” -LILAC GIRLS