“Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly – Book Review

lilac girls

Lilac Girls” is a story of the mind numbing horrors of war.  Horrors so gruesome that they are unimaginable unless you’ve experienced them first hand. The author has written about them in such a way that you as a reader almost feel that you have…  The novel is based on the lives of real people and takes place between 1939 and the late 1950s.

Not for the faint of heart, the story is often grueling.  Mercifully, the author alternates chapters from the intense, distressing, and onerous scenes from Ravensbrück to the life of Caroline in New York. Also, the alternating viewpoints serve to show the stark contrast between the inhumane and desperate living conditions of the prisoners with the privileged and indulgent lifestyle of New York’s elite.

Three women:

Caroline Ferriday

Caroline Ferriday

Caroline Ferriday 37 – former Broadway actress and unmarried socialite from Connecticut who works as a volunteer at the French Consulate, Rockefeller Center, New York.  She works tirelessly to provide care packages to send to France to aid their ever-growing numbers of orphaned children.

French Embassy Building 610 5th Avenue, New York

French Embassy Building
610 5th Avenue, New York

The novel details her great love for married French actor Paul Rodierre who was sent to Natzweiler during the war.



After the war philanthropist Caroline went on to work with women who had endured wartime atrocities.  She was awarded both the Cross of Liberation and the French Legion of Honor for her work. In 1958 she brought thirty-five Polish women, former ‘Rabbits’ to New York for medical and dental attention.  “Lilac Girls” was inspired by her story.

Ravensbrück inmate

Ravensbrück inmate

Kasia Kuzmerick, 16 – lives with her family in Lublin, Poland.  She works with the resistance and considers herself to be an enemy of the Nazis. A former girl guide, she and her family are patriots during the time of the German occupation.  They are told that Poland no longer exists as a country.  Polish will no longer be spoken.  Schools will close. Curfews will be enforced. All foodstuffs will be confiscated and rationing will begin.  Eventually, Kasia and her sister and mother are arrested and sent to Ravensbrück where she would stay until the camp was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross in April 1945.  At which time Kasia was only twenty-two years old.



Dorothea Binz

Dorothea Binz

Of the 130,000 women sent to Ravensbrück, only 40,000 survived.

The novel describes the many atrocities perpetrated at Ravensbrück and details the inhumanity and cruelty of the guard Dorothea Binz.  One wonders how people such as Binz could sleep at night.  Had they no conscience at all…?  She had her Alsatian dog attack prisoners at her command.

Alsation attacking prisoner

Alsatian attacking prisoner





Herta Oberheuser

Herta Oberheuser


Herta Oberheuser,  25 – a newly trained physician, lives in Düsseldorf and is of pure German blood. She is a leader in the Bund Deutscher Mädel, abbreviated BDM) which was the girls’ wing of the Nazi Party.  She goes to work at Ravensbrück, a re-education camp for women.  She has always wanted to perform surgery, something which female doctors are seldom allowed or encouraged to do.  At Ravensbrück, she gets her opportunity and performs surgical ‘experiments‘ on the inmates – one of which is Kasia…

I found it difficult to get my head around the fact that Herta studied hard to heal others, could love practicing medicine, yet at Ravensbrück do the very opposite by her inhumane surgeries on healthy girls and women thereby forgetting her Hippocratic oath to ‘do no harm’.

lilacs divider

I have read many books on the atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish in World War II.  This novel opened my eyes to the fact that it wasn’t just the Jews who were persecuted.  Catholics and others who did not have ‘pure’ German blood were also persecuted.  Eugenics under the dictatorship of Hitler…

The second and third parts of the novel go on to describe post-war conditions in the United States, France, and communist Poland.  Kasia’s life in Poland under the NKVD, Stalin’s enforcement agency, was one of continued deprivation and lack of freedom.

Kasia Kuzmerick and her sister Zuzanna are loosely based on the real life Nina Iwanska and her physician sister Krystyna.

An eye-opening, disturbing, and well researched historical novel which re-examines history and the part that the ‘Rabbits’ of Ravensbrück played in WWII.  “Lilac Girls” educates and entertains – just what historical fiction is meant to do.  A powerful debut!

Thanks to Ballantine/Random House via NetGalley for providing me with a digital ARC of this novel in exchange for this review.

Click here to see a gallery of photos of some of the real-life Rabbits of Ravensbrück.

about the author blue

Martha Hall Kelly is a native New Englander but has become nomadic, splitting hMartha Hall Kellyer time between New York City, Martha’s Vineyard and Atlanta, Georgia. She worked as an advertising copywriter for many years and raised three splendid children, while researching Lilac Girls, her first novel. When Martha is not chasing after her new puppy she is hard at work on her next book. You’ll find more info about the true story behind Lilac Girls at her website.


About Fictionophile

Fiction reviewer ; Goodreads librarian. Retired library cataloger - more time to read! Loves books, gardening, and red wine. I have been a reviewer member of NetGalley since October 2013. I review titles offered by Edelweiss, and participate in blog tours with TLC Book Tours.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, debut novels, Historical fiction, NetGalley, war stories, Women's fiction and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to “Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly – Book Review

  1. Pingback: Blogger to Blogger Series: An Interview with Lynne @Fictionophile – The Reading Chick

  2. Pingback: ‘Lilac Girls’- Martha Hall Kelly – Bookish1028

  3. Kathy Lauren says:

    Hi, I read the Lilac Girls a few months ago…it was gut wrenching… propaganda is something we all need to be aware of, especially now..

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Martie says:

    Nice review. I was so bummed when I didn’t receive an ARC for this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have this book sitting on my shelf and have been trying to read it for some time but just have not gotten to it. I love historical fiction especially about this time period and reading this makes me want to read it more. Does that sound strange? Such a sad story but very important story to be told.


  6. Joan Kerns says:

    Listening to Lilac Girls on a CD really brings it to life. The readers for each of the 3 women are excellent and their portrayal is absolutely real. Loved the book although it was really hard to listen to at times. Congratulations on a marvelous 1st book. I look forward to reading many more by this author, Martha Hall Kelly.


    • I must try to listen to an audiobook Joan. I fear that if I do I’ll miss some salient points for my review. When I read on my Kindle I can highlight things and quotes that I want to include in my review. Maybe listening to a book is just the change I need to get myself out of my reading slump!


  7. Great review. I just loved this book when I read it.


  8. Excellent review. I will definitely be reading it now. Thank you!


  9. twogalsandabook says:

    Part of the reason that (sadly) this and so many of the other atrocities were possible and perpetrated by otherwise “normal” people, is that for years, literally, the German population was brainwashed constantly through everything they had contact with– radio, newspapers, “public service announcements” on movie intermissions, billboards, signs– literally everyday, that the Jews (and others, like those of color) were sub- human. The Nazi’s had “experts”, doctors, scientists repeatedly report “studies” and “research” supposedly backing this up. After a time, they came to believe it. It really isn’t that surprising that the population fell for it– countries all over (including the USA) employ similar tactics all the time to get us to believe what they want. For instance, look at what the general public believed for years about the Bay of Pigs, and when any “whistleblower” would try to tell the truth, they were labelled a “conspiracy theorist”. It wasn’t until the U.S. government declassified documents revealing that the “nuts” were right and the government lied all along. Or take cigarettes– have you seen the old ads the tobacco companies used to pay for, and they were on t.v., radio, and in the papers daily, saying things like “9 out of 10 doctors say you should smoke XYZ brand of cigarettes for your health” or “98% of dentists recommend ABC cigarettes as the best brand for dental health”? The same tactics (propaganda and brainwashing) that the Nazis used to get the general public accustomed to seeing a particular people brutalized and dehumanized. After so long of being taught that these “others” are not “quite human” the reasoning became, “well, it can’t be quite so bad if they are mistreated then”. Of course, not everyone fell for the propaganda, and those were the ones that tried to help the Jews and others. The most effective brainwashing was done to the children– they started them on the program in the school system– and that was why so many of the soldiers, or other Nazi party workers were young. From a young age they were taught that the Jews were like “rodents” (and that is a quote), and with their whole belief system and world view shaped by that wicked, messed up system they had no conscience in harming what they were convinced into believing what was a bane to society. It is very sad. But even sadder is the fact that those in this country had hailed Mr. Hitler as a great man, a visionary leader and Mein Kumpf was on the New York Times best seller list, in which he laid out everything– his vision for the future and his country, and everyone missed it. Instead he was lauded– so I guess, in a lot of ways, that the rest of the populations of the free world were just as blind as the Germans that were deceived.


    • Fictionophile says:

      Thank you so much for your educational and informative comment. I deeply appreciate your time and interest in my blog post.


  10. carhicks says:

    Wonderful review. This was a great book to read, yet very difficult at the same time. I did not know about the “rabbits” until I read this book. One of the best 2016 books I read.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Good review. I was bummed when NetGalley denied my request for this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fictionophile says:

      Yes, it sucks when you get turned down. This happened to me only this week. I REALLY wanted “Local girl missing” by Claire Douglas. So disappointed…

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Meredith Preble says:

    An incredible journey of such cruelty, and insanity carried out by so many people. Thank you for this story of one brave woman trying to help right a terrible wrong. She is a heroine. A story that is a must to read. Hopefully this wont ever happen again.


  13. Emma says:

    This sounds powerful and heartbreaking and a hard read. Really great review.


  14. skyecaitlin says:

    Lynne; this is a very excellent review about a time frame we all need to understand and integrate into our lives to ascertain something so horrible never, ever occurs again. Thank you so very much for writing this and reviewing this wonderfully courageous author.


  15. FictionFan says:

    Great review of what sounds like a very powerful book – thanks!


  16. gkdewolfe says:

    ABSOLUTELY EXCELLENT……bought my copy Saturday!! Great writing Lynne, as usual


  17. Betty says:

    Wonderful review of a really great novel!


  18. Dorothy Gracie says:

    This sounds like the type of book that may be very difficult to read at times, but one that you are so glad you did–and one that will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Definitely will add this to my To Read list. I very much enjoy historical novels that delve into the human condition and also switch voices so this seems right up my alley.


  19. Christine says:

    Fabulous review, Lynne. Wonderful job with the photographs!


  20. fredreeca says:

    Loved this book. One of the bests this year for me


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