By Lynn Willoughby
Lilac Girls – Martha Halle Kelly
This debut novel shows us the pre-WWII life of Caroline, a New York socialite who volunteers at the French Consulate. In contrast, a young woman working for the Polish Underground Resistance Movement is trying to survive Hitler’s invasion of her homeland. Kasia knows people disappear every day, never to be heard from again. Then her worst fear becomes reality.
Kasia, her mother “Matka” and her sister Zuzanna are sent to Ravensbruck – the concentration camp infamous for its horrific medical experiments on women.
This historical novel spans two decades – from 1939 through 1959, with the horrors of Ravensbruck in Part One, and survivors who try to live a kind of life again in Part Two, and the kindness, courage and goodness of people who help survivors is highlighted in Part Three.
This was a difficult read when the author describes the harsh conditions in Ravensbruck. The inmates are on a starvation diet, they suffer daily physical abuse, they must deal with dysentery, lice and typhus, the unrelenting cold in winter, and be harnessed like beasts to work on the road. But what is even more gruesome are the medical experiments – carried out under the guise of helping German field surgeons.
There are moments of tenderness and love, sacrifice and friendship. And it is post war that we see Caroline Ferriday’s war – her real life effort to help survivors and to make sure the world is aware of the horrors that took place at Ravensbruck. There were parts of this book where Caroline’s life of parties and charity balls became tedious and almost obscene with that what happening in Europe. I did not especially like Kasia or Caroline but this is an important novel as it brings to light the notorious Herta Oberheuser and a new meaning to the word evil.
I believe Kelly’s research was extensive and I had no idea that several of the characters were real people. The author’s notes were deeply moving and very distressing and sent me to Google to do more reading and reach a better understanding of what it meant to be Polish. Despised by the Nazis, forced to live under Stalin’s communist fist after the war – one wonders how they survived at all. This truly is an “amazing story of character, courage, redemption and resilience.”