Martha Hall Kelly has created a powerful and flawless novel that transports readers to World War II Poland and New York City. Her experience as a journalist comes out in this novel through her in-depth research of World War II Poland, France, New York City, and Germany. Her main characters are based on real people who Martha came across in her research. They almost seem to come right out of the book and live their horrific and sad, but sometimes beautiful, lives right in front of you. This book is a powerful reminder that the eloquent and motivational leaders of the world are not always the best choice.
Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite who works in the French Consulate’s Office, has taken on the cause of sending aid to French orphans affected by Hitler’s war. Her persistent fundraising leads her to a new love interest, but like everything else in her life, it’s complicated. Little does she know that her relentless caring will also lead her right to some of the most heroic and lucky survivors of WWII Poland and Germany.
Kasia and Zuzanna Kuzmerick are sisters living with the rest of their family in Poland. Zuzanna is a medical student, Kasia is a teenager, their father is the Postmaster in their hometown of Lublin, Poland. Kasia ends up arrested shortly after Germany invades Poland for assisting her friend in the youth underground, along with her mother and Zuzanna. They are sent to the all-female Ravensbruck concentration camp where they end up in a group know as the “Rabbits”. Their time in the camp scars their lives forever – in love, in life, and in family.
Herta Oberheuser is a patriotic German medical student who feels little sympathy when her father’s Jewish doctor is arrested and deported and his possessions are put out into the street for any German to help themselves to. Herta’s experience growing up in 1930’s Germany shows the reader that Germans, especially women, were exploited as well. When she sees an ad for a government doctor’s position, she sees a way to advance herself and her medical career. Herta is disheartened when she realizes that Hitler does not approve of female doctors and that the position is in Ravensbruck “re-education” center for women. Her colleague Fritz shows her their procedure for lethal injection for the terminally ill and elderly. Appalled at first, Herta’s misguided patriotism and desire to be in the medical field get her through her time as the notorious doctor of Ravensbruck.
These women from different countries experience the same war differently. However, all feel the rippling effects of Hitler’s war even after Hitler is dead and the war is over. Anger, bitterness, and inability to love make it hard to adjust to life outside of Ravensbruck. Poland, who suffered under Hitler during the war, now deal with communism after the war. However, Caroline, Kasia, and Zuzanna will find a way to right the wrongs from the war, even if the world is tired of hearing about it. It seems the world in the 1940’s is in a hurry to forget the atrocities of war; hopefully it is not so forgotten that it repeats itself.
Lilac Girls is a book that once I started, I could not put it down. Kasia’s story is heart-breaking and emotional. Her perspective is told so well that I felt her emotion as I read the book. So much so that as Kasia become more and more hardened throughout the book, I found Caroline much harder to take. Caroline is caring and determined to help out during the war, but she is a privileged New York socialite who doesn’t know the meaning of suffering. Her naive spirit seems rattled, however, when she visits an orphanage in France, giving the reader a heartbreaking glimpse into the trickle down effect of war.
The most disheartened character was Herta. She wants to be a doctor, just like Zuzanna does. However, in Hitler’s Germany, German women were seen as necessary only in producing more of his pure race. There was no room for female doctors, which as a female reader in 2017 makes me want to say, “Go get him Herta! Prove Hitler wrong!”At a summer camp, she witnesses her friend being raped by German boys, which was accepted at the time. She becomes defiant at this point and refuses to let this happen to her. She was going to be an ambitious pioneer for women in the medical field and accepts a government “doctor” position. However, Ravensbruck policies wore at her spirit and tamped down her feminism, making her callous. Her patriotism clouds her humanity and she justifies her medical experiments on women as furthering medical knowledge for Germans. As a reader, I felt that Herta’s character became the saddest. Even when Kasia finds her family practice in post-war Germany, I felt for Herta.
If you are looking for a well-written book that gives you a real-life glimpse into war and post-war life for women, this is your book. Rising up out of the ashes, healing and moving on after trauma, and seeking retribution for those the world wants to forget about are the themes in this well-written and thought out novel. An absolute must read!