Lilac Girls is loosely based on the real life stories of Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite and philanthropist, and ambitious Ravensbrück doctor Herta Oberheuser. Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager working for the Underground, is a fictional character but based on a real woman.
“It’s just a thing, Kasia. Don’t waste your energy on the hate. That will kill you sure as anything. Focus on keeping your strength. You’re resourceful. Find a way to outsmart them.”
Caroline is a wealthy, single woman who volunteers at the French consulate at the onset of World War II. Aryan ideal Herta recently graduated medical school and takes a job at a women’s re-educational camp because the pay is better than anything she can find at home. And Kasia is a young girl who joins to Polish underground to impress her boyfriend but she botches a mission which gets herself, her mother and her sister sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Herta, whose re-educational camp turns out to be Ravensbrück, is initially hesitant to select women to be killed and other to be sent to work with the plan to slowly starve them to death but she gets on board quickly. She befriends, as much as a Nazi doctor can, Kasia’s mother (matka) and gives her a job at the clinic. Matka uses her position to help her daughters and the other women in the camp but she is found out and disappears. Shortly after Matka disappears Kasia and her sister, along with dozens of other women, are experimented on by Dr. Oberheuser; they are nicknamed “the rabbits” by their camp mates and several are left permanently disfigured while others die from infection. It is a horrible, inhumane story and it is so bizarre to hear both the victim and the criminal’s side of the story. Eventually Kasia, her sister and several other rabbits are liberated from the camp at the end of the war and Dr. Oberheuser is sent to trial for her war crimes.
During the war Caroline, whose married French beau was also sent to a camp, doesn’t have a very interesting story line and I struggled with why she was included since I did not know until the author’s note at the end that Caroline was a real woman. However, after the war her character arc becomes the most interesting and I am anxious to read more about the Ravensbrück Rabbits and their impressive American benefactor.
Overall this is an amazing, haunting book and the stories weave beautifully together; unlike many World War II novels Hall Kelly’s narrative spans decades and delves into the aftermath of the war for the three women. Most people who have done Quick Questions with a Cannonballer talk about how much harder it is to write a 5 Star review than it is to write a 1 Star review and that is definitely the case here. There is a lot to unpack and any review I write will fall short of this amazing story. I recommend anyone who enjoys books about World War II or strong female characters to pick this one up.
Happy Thanksgiving Cannonballers! I am thankful I hit my CBR10 goal (just now!) with a book I loved!