Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Walking up to the main entrance of the Majdanek Concentration Camp, it looks like something out of Star Wars or Planet of the Apes. Little do you know what you are about to encounter once you step in.

The horror of the experience is captured in objects- the bins of shoes, the ovens, the shower heads in the gas chambers with their impossibly low ceilings. Despite a bright summer day in Poland, barely any light sneaks through the cracks in the wall.

One thought continued to fill my head: “these are your people.” 

I was 14-years-old when I last visited Poland, and through researching books and customs, I’ve tried to get back to that initial feeling of truly connecting with my heritage-even if it means uncovering some of the worst, most traumatic moments in Polish history.

Thus enters, Lilac Girls, a book which shifts between multiple perspectives in the heart of WWII. The setting of Lublin, Poland was especially moving, as it is close to my mother’s hometown (and, in my opinion, the most beautiful city in the world). The lives of these three women intersect in ways we wouldn’t anticipate.

We meet:

  • Kasia Kuzmerick, our Lublin-based Polish concentration camp survivor
  • Herta Oberheuser, a Nazi surgeon who take a position in Ravensbrück, the camp where Kasia is held captive
  • Caroline Ferriday, a New York-based socialite drawn to the cause of aiding the French, who becomes an unlikely ally of the women in Poland who were victims of the Ravensbrück “rabbit” experiments

Note: Both Herta Oberheuser and Caroline Ferriday are real, historical figures written into the story.

The palpable fear of the women in Ravensbrück, and the brainwashing of some Germans to believe that certain groups of people were considered sub-human create a depth in this piece not present in other WWII novels.

I used to get so angry in history classes, hearing of the obvious blind eye the United States turned on the suffering of so many people during the Holocaust. To get a view into the world of Caroline Ferriday eased some of this long-held tension.

I also appreciate that Ms. Kelly didn’t shy away from the realities of the state of Communist Poland, which didn’t end until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  While the USA celebrated the ending of WWII, Poland was not a post-liberation paradise of freed people.

I feel lucky to read historical fiction, that puts words into the experiences of these people, both good and bad. May we all take the injustices of people, the horrific experiments, and especially resilience, and learn from it- apply it to the injustices of the many people in the US today.

Source: Glen Ellyn Public Library

Further Reading:

  • The author’s website has an amazing collection of stories and photographs that bring the novel to life even more. I recommend checking it out after reading.
  • Next review coming up- Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly!

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