The cover of “Lilac Girls” (2017), showing three young women dressed in mid-20th century style, suggests they are chatting as they stroll about … but what is the topic of their conversation? Romance? Adventure? Where to have tea? Readers do not have to delve very far into this novel before learning the characters within have much more critical things to deal with.
Martha Hall Kelly’s breakout novel spans 20 years in the darkest period of modern European history, those from 1939 to 1959, from the point of view of three young women. The stories of these women, whose lives were irreparably changed by the cataclysm of the Nazi regime, are woven through the book. Caroline Ferriday is a wealthy socialite, volunteering in New York City at the French Consulate, when her work becomes frenetic as she struggles to help French refugees. Kasia Kuzmerick is a teenager in Lublin, Poland, with boyfriend problems, when a careless delivery—her first for the underground—results in her and her mother being crammed onto a train headed to the East German concentration camp of Ravensbrück. Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor from Dusseldorf, who begins as a counselor at a camp run by the female wing of the Nazi Party and accepts a position as the only female doctor at Ravensbrück.
Within the novel, Caroline’s involvement as an American working to aid those fleeing from Europe becomes the positive energy of the book that holds it together. As you might imagine, the stories of Kasia, as a prisoner in the camp, and Herta, as a doctor there who is required to act as directed, involve horrors that are sometimes difficult to read.
Kelly reports in her Author’s Note that her book is based on real people. As a New Englander, she once visited the Connecticut home of Caroline Ferriday’s family and found a treasure trove of information about Caroline’s work, which extended long after the war. She learned that this socialite volunteer became an advocate for a group of young women, the real Kasia being one, who were experimentally and brutally operated on during the years they were confined in Ravensbrück camp. Ms. Ferriday worked unceasingly to make the post-war lives of the women, labeled “Rabbits,” better by raising money and arranging to bring them to the United States for medical treatment, respite care, and even some sightseeing.
“Lilac Girls” is a prime example of the kind of beautifully crafted and important historical novel that sheds light on a time, however disturbing, that we should not forget.
Editor’s note: Betty Hafner is the author of “Not Exactly Love: A Memoir.”