“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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!
Martha Hall Kelly is a native New Englander but has become nomadic, splitting her 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.