by MARTHA HALL KELLY
RANDOM HOUSE-BALLANTINE | 487 pages
Genre: HISTORICAL FICTION | HOLOCAUST
Source: ARC e-book from EDELWEISS
Don’t be fooled by the lovely cover photo. This book will be rough on the emotions.
Author Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel was inspired by two real life women who represent the yin and yang of the Nazi era – New York socialite Caroline Ferriday and Dr. Herta Oberheuser of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp for women.
Kelly spent nearly 10 years researching the background story for Lilac Girls and based on war crimes tribunal reports, survivor interviews and family records, the fictional Kasia Kuzmerick emerged to tell her story about life before, during and after the Germany invasion of her native Poland. The three narrators alternate chapters and present the war from three vastly different perspectives.
America, still reeling from WWI, wanted no part of unrest building in Europe. It’s 1939 and a frantic wave of immigrants arrives daily in US ports hoping for safety. Most are sent back; often to their deaths. Caroline Ferriday, a retired stage actress, has found volunteer work at the French Consulate assisting wealthy refugees obtain documentation to stay stateside. The Ferriday’s are Francophiles and have a vacation home in Paris. Caroline is aghast that America has turned a blind eye to those in need and hosts fundraising galas to help French orphans. Her generous spirit is admirable but her lack of understanding what the children need goes without saying.
Meanwhile, Herta Oberheuser has received her medical degree in Dusseldorf, Germany and has found that gender bias prevents her from furthering her education as a surgeon. While working well beneath her education, Herta spots an advertisement that will change her future:
I picked up The Journal of Medicine and noticed a classified ad for a doctor needed at a reeducation camp for women. . .near the resort town of Fürstenberg on Lake Schwedt. There were many such camps at the time, mostly for the work-shy and minor criminals. [It] had an appealing name. Ravensbrück.
Herta’s naivety upon arrived at Ravensbrück is abruptly shocked. She adapted quickly to become a sinister criminal but left me thinking of so many in that time period that swallowed the party line – what makes a person become incapable of seeing the humanity in others? In the end, one has to wonder if those perpetrators of such horrific crimes could ever receive adequate justice.
Kasia Kuzmerick’s carefree childhood ends when Hitler declared war on Poland in 1939. Kasia and friends are spying on Jewish refugees hiding in a potato field when German bombers arrive and massacre everyone. The horror motivates Kasia to join the underground movement; a step that ultimately costs her dearly. One misstep and Kasia along with her mother and sisters are captured and sent to Ravensbrück. Kasia and her sister, Zuzanna, were selected for medical experimentation surgery by Dr. Herta Oberheuser. The mutilated women were known in the camp as “Rabbits”.
The author softens the story with Caroline’s adventures in love and luxury but it is hard to look away from Ravensbrück with its inhumanity, pain and death. Caroline’s post-war efforts on behalf of the Rabbits is much stronger than her initial foray into war-time charity with her homemade gifts for the children. Her relationship with her married love interest felt oddly out of place weighed up against the horrors of the concentration camps; it did not occur in real life.
The strongest part of the story lies with the Ravensbrück inmates for their efforts to survive. The stories of the compassion and friendships they showed toward one another and the attempts to “normalize” their lives with little things like hair ribbons and lace collars is heartbreaking. The post-war lives of Kasia and Zuzanna illuminates how long-term trauma of malnutrition, torture, PTSD and disease has changed the arc of their futures.
It was difficult to rate the book. I gave it high marks for several reasons. The author’s research exposed the depth of depravity exhibited by the Nazi doctor’s and camp guards. As unsettling as the subject is, it happened; and stepping away from our creature comforts into that unimaginable horror reminds us that it could happen again – anywhere. The book reminds us that charity begins at home, suppressed hatred is corrosive, and that discrimination of “others” does not make a society stronger.
As a debut work, Kelly did a remarkable job of exposing a little known horror of the Holocaust and the generosity of the Americans for the surviving Rabbits.
Post-War Photo of Surviving Ravensbrück Rabbits living in America