Thursday, April 7, 2016
This debut novel by Martha Hall Kelly is an exquisitely heartrending read. I know no other way than this oxymoron to describe it. She expertly weaves a novelization of the true story of a group of Polish young women who were held in Ravensbruck during WWII. The story centers around Kasia Kuzmerick, who was held there, Herta Oberheuser, who became one of the doctors performing experimental surgeries and Caroline Ferriday, the woman responsible for bringing over 70 of the women of Ravensbruck to the United States for corrective surgeries, dental work, etc.
The story begins in 1939 on the eve of the war, with Caroline who holds a post at the French Consulate in the Rockefeller building on Fifth Avenue, New York City. This volunteer position is a labor of love for Caroline. She is head of family assistance for the French Consulate and as such, is charged with unraveling visa issues and other crimps in the refugee status of wealthy citizens that have fled the political uneasiness in France. She also has a special place in her heart for the French children who were orphaned during the war.
Hitler has just declared war on Poland. Kasia is the daughter of the postmaster in Lublin. We watch the progress of German troops across Poland and see Kasia, her mother Halina and her sister Zuzanna herded onto trains for the trip to Ravensbruck.
It is there that we see Herta turn from an idealistic young doctor to an emotionally frozen demon of a surgeon. Herta was raised in a normal middle class German home. That being one that mostly did not associate with Jews. Although she has no disdain for them really, she has been raised on the Hitler anti-Jew propaganda, reading in her schoolbooks about the selfish traits of Jews and how they will take everything from Germany. She is not a bad young woman at this point. She has studied for the medical profession and earned her white coat. She is almost a doctor. Herta does come with her own set of personal demons as a result of working in the butcher shop of her Onkle Heinz. She is naive about the war. She believes the reeducation camps are nice places where Polish (Jewish) citizens are treated fairly. Upon seeing an ad for a doctor at Ravensbruck, she applies for the job knowing that it would bring a better salary for her and her mother and father to live on. Her father has cancer and has become unable to work. Her mother has to stay home to take care of him. She is hired and packs her suitcase to move to Ravensbruck, coming home only rarely on holidays.
Ms. Kelly writes with such a natural conversational tone that you feel you are reading the diaries of these young women. This is the life that the Poles, Jewish and otherwise, were conscripted to with the advance of Hitler and his anti-Semitic rhetoric and domination of Poland.
Ravensbruck was Hitler's only all female concentration camp. It was there that experimental surgeries were performed on hundreds of women such as these that the author writes about in Lilac Girls. Some of the women from Ravensbruck survived the horror of it to be released at the end of the war. Their lives after the war were made so much better by Caroline Ferriday. The title for the book comes from the Lilac gardens of Caroline at her home in Connecticut. There is a story about that also, which I will let you read.
If you have read Holocaust novels before this, or seen documentaries, you may think you have seen and read enough of that horrible chapter in man's history. I would suggest that you read this book. It tells a story that you may not have heard or read about. We know of Auschwitz, Dachau or Treblinka, one of the killing centers. But the women of Ravensbruck have a story worth hearing and Martha Hall Kelly has written it well. The author spent ten years in research and five years writing this book. It is definitely a labor of love!
I give Lilac Girls five stars!
I received a complimentary e-book copy of this novel from Random House Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review. These words are my opinion.
If you would like to know more about Ravensbruck please check out this link Jewish Virtual Library/Ravensbruck
To read more about Martha Hall Kelly and her research and writing visit Martha Hall Kelly, The Journey