Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls

Lilac Girls is a WWII novel with a different perspective.

My initial interest in WWII stories started when I discovered Anne Frank’s diary, back in high school. In my twenties, I continued to read many novels set in this period. But in recent years, I have not felt drawn to this era — until I came across Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly.

In many ways Lilac Girls is similar to other WWII fiction in its account of Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager’s harrowing prison sentence at the Ravensbruck concentration camp. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Caroline Ferriday is a New York socialite desperate for news of her French lover, who returned to Paris on the brink of Nazi occupation and failed to return. These two women’s stories are sufficiently engaging for me to finish reading Lilac Girls. In particular, Kasia’s voice, which oscillates from guilt, anger, resentment and terror, pulls me into her world.

But I wouldn’t be blogging about Lilac Girls in absence of Herta Oberheuser’s point of view. In reading fiction, or true historical WWII accounts, I’m horrified at the brutality of the perpetrators — especially the doctors of death who experimented on prisoners and killed them.  The senseless cruelty is beyond comprehension. How could these doctors live with their crimes? Did they have no conscience? It is even more difficult to imagine women capable of such cold-blooded crimes. The other WWII novels I have read did not explore the psychology of these villains.  Lilac Girls presents some insight into the mind of  a female Nazi doctor at Ravensbruck.

Herta, a young woman desperate to escape poverty and sexual abuse accepts a job as a doctor at what she believes to be a benign re-education camp for female political prisoners. When the truth daunts on Herta, she justifies her stay by insisting that her survival depended on this employment.  Overtime Herta systematically shuts down her windows of empathy until she sees Kasia and the other prisoners as expendable ‘rabbits’ in her sulphonamide experiments. It would be easy to cast Herta as a monster, but her friendship with Kasia’s mother makes it difficult to forget she is still human. Yet Martha Hall Kelly does not excuse Herta’s cruelty, not does she provide a sweet, idealistic ending where Herta atones for her crimes. No, Herta remains in denial to the end. Lilac Girls offers a plausible perspective on a woman who did not seek evil but ultimately committed atrocities.


This blurb of ‘Lilac Girls,’ is taken from Penguin Random House:

New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.
An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.

For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.

The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.

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