Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly: How WWII Affected Three Different Women

by Mk

in Authors,Cross Cultural,Events,Fiction,Giveaway,Historical,Women

Lilac GirlsWe’re starting our giveaway for the Fool for Books Giveaway Hop a day early. And since it’s Spring, it seems appropriate to feature a novel with a flower in the title for our giveaway. When I read the publisher’s description for Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, I knew immediately that I wanted to read it. It’s inspired by a real unsung heroine of World War II but it’s fiction. It centers around the lives of three very different women whose lives touch four very different countries…women whose lives would seem the least likely to intersect yet do. It also provides a strong reminder to those of us who didn’t live through that time of what it was actually like, no matter where you lived in the world. Given the current political situation in the U.S. and elsewhere, I think it’s good to have that kind of reminder.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana in The Life of Reason, 1905

“When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.
—Winston Churchill to the British House of Commons, May 2, 1935, after the Stresa Conference, in which Britain, France and Italy agreed—futilely—to maintain the independence of Austria. Please note: Both of these quotes come from the Winston Churchill Museum web site.

New York, France, Poland, and Germany – and three women – socialite Caroline Ferriday, teenager Kasia Kuzmerick, and physician Herta Oberheuser. Before Hitler came to power if someone had asked what these three women and these four countries had to do with each other, I’m sure it would have puzzled anyone trying to answer that question.

Caroline FerridayCaroline Ferriday lives a comfortable life with her mother in the U.S., even though the Great Depression means they aren’t quite as wealthy as they once were. She must economize like everyone else, just not quite as much. Still, Caroline doesn’t have to earn a livelihood like so many people. She instead volunteers her time to help orphans in France, orchestrating various fundraising and gathering donated items to help provide a better life for the orphans. It’s a cause she’s passionate about and she loves her work with the French consulate in Manhattan. She also seems to be falling for a French actor who’s taken Broadway by storm. Unfortunately he’s married to a woman still living in Paris. She wishes life could be a bit simpler – but she has no clue how complicated her life is about to get.

Kasia Kuzmerick lives in Poland, and she doesn’t have to wait long to begin to feel the effects of the Nazis even though most people have no clue what’s in store for them. She’s seen the way the German soldiers treat people and how scared everyone is. You never know who will be targeted next. And it feels like the rest of the world has no idea what is happening – surely if they did then they would put a stop to it. As conditions get worse, and more people begin disappearing, some of Kasia’s friends begin working for the underground. Although she knows it’s incredibly dangerous, she soon realizes that doing nothing is even more dangerous. And so she decides she has to act – a decision that will not just affect her life but the lives of her family as well – and could mean the death of them all.

Herta Oberheuser lives in Berlin. She had excellent marks all the way through medical school, and she’s no stranger to the way women who want to become physicians are treated by men in the field, especially if they have the audacity to strive to become a surgeon like she did. She knows she can run circles around most of them, yet she’s relegated to menial tasks if she can even get work at all. It’s ridiculous. She knows she can prove herself as a surgeon if she can just get a break, but that’s the problem. How is she going to get anyone to let her prove herself? It’s not just a matter of pride – it’s a matter of survival at this point. Then she sees an ad that looks like a gift from the gods, an ad for a government medical position. She has no idea what the work will be but she’s desperate. If she had known power-hungry Nazi officials would rule her completely, and if she had known what she would actually be working on at Ravensbruck, an all-female concentration camp, would she still have taken the job? FYI: Herta was a real doctor at Ravensbruck and she stood trial at Nuremberg.

When France becomes vulnerable to the Nazi sweep across Europe, Caroline’s work with the orphans becomes subsumed in the massive refugee influx from France. The stories they tell make the war seem only too real to this sheltered New Yorker. When Caroline’s lover returns to Paris to help his estranged wife escape, only to be caught up in the French resistance movement, Caroline becomes frantic with worry. When he goes missing, she realizes she has to do something – but what?

When Kasia is caught red-handed by Nazi soldiers, she, along with the other females in her family, is sent to Ravensbruck in Germany. There her mother, an ex-nurse, is assigned to work with Herta and does her best to keep her children safe. But no prisoner is ever safe at Ravensbruck, no matter what position they hold, as she soon finds out. When she disappears, Kasia and her sister are both taken to the hospital to become medical guinea pigs in experiments conducted by Herta and abusive medical staff Herta has no control over. Those girls become known as the Lapins, the rabbits. What will Herta do when she discovers not only what became of the assistant she’d grown to like at least on some level but that these two experimented upon young women are that assistant’s daughters?

Does compassion still exist in a horrific war? If so, what will happen to those who act compassionately even though they know that such people usually are killed if caught?

Three women with three very different backgrounds, growing up in three very different countries. They are all on a course that will intersect in a war that will go down as the most horrific in modern history. What will become of them and of those they care about? Caroline and Kasia are both characters it’s easy to feel sympathy for. They may do foolish things at times but no more foolish than anyone else does, and they both have admirable qualities.

You might think the same would not be true of Herta; however, you’d be wrong. Let’s just say that, if nothing else, she serves as a valuable lesson about the slippery slope people tread when the brainwashing propaganda they’ve heard for years leads to an untenable situation. By the time people like Herta realize where their path has led, they’re in over their heads. Fascism doesn’t happen overnight anywhere. It’s like a creeping crud that gradually eats away at the goodness in a country…it has to be stopped early before it’s become malignant. As we can intuit from what Churchill said, you can’t wait until it’s grown powerful to stop it because by then it’s too late.

So what do lilacs have to do with anything? Caroline Ferriday was a real person and she absolutely loved lilacs. Martha Hill Kelly was inspired to write Lilac Girls after reading an article about Caroline and her lilac garden in Victoria magazine, and then visiting her Connecticut home. In Caroline’s home is a picture of the women whose cause she championed, the Lapins of Ravensbruck.

The video below about Ravensbruck gives a good accounting of the area, why the camp was situated just outside of such a lovely resort town, and the progression of what occurred there. FYI: Kasia and her family, who were part German and part Polish, wore political prisoner red triangles. (The video includes a picture of Herta and documentation on the experiments she conducted just after the 25 minute mark.)

I won’t lie. Lilac Girls was hard for me to read at a couple of places. I tend to climb right into the book with the characters and that’s not always a good thing, especially when reading about man’s inhumanity to man. I had to set it aside a couple of times to get some perspective; however, these women’s stories were so compelling that it kept pulling me back in. I had to find out what happened to them, no matter what. Martha Hall Kelly doesn’t pull any punches with Lilac Girls. These are three very real women, with good and not-so-good character traits. I think those are the best kind of characters, the ones who feel the most real…and that makes for the most powerful stories. I’m really glad we can offer this novel in our giveaway. One of you is going to be a very happy camper when you win it!


Author Events & Book Signings:
April 6, 2016 in New York City (Launch Party) at The Corner Bookstore, 1313 Madison Ave. (@93rd St.)
April 24, 2016 in Greenwich, Connecticut at Diane’s Books, 8A Grigg St.
April 28, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia at the Atlanta History Center for a Margaret Mitchell House Lecture (tickets required)
May 11, 2016 in New York City at the Anne Frank Center (tickets required)
May 15, 2016 in Chicago at Temple Beth Israel (event co-sponsored by The Book Stall)
June 16, 2016 in Litchfield, Connecticut at the Oliver Wolcott Library


Can’t wait to read it? Lilac Girls will be published on April 5, 2016; however, you can pre-order it now from your favorite online bookseller. Just click the link below and you can have it to read the minute it’s published.

I’d love to get your comments on Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly, and/or this review.


Fool for Books Giveaway Hop

Our Giveaway:
One lucky reader will win an ARC (advance readers copy) of Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Martha Hall Kelly March 31, 2016 at 4:42 pm

When I was writing Lilac Girls I never allowed myself to hope readers like you might connect so deeply with the story, but it’s lovely now to see that coming true! Thank you for this incredible review. It’s just wonderful that you are helping make sure these women won’t be forgotten.


Bette Lee Crosby April 3, 2016 at 11:32 am

I love this era and find WW2 stories so fascinating. Thank you for such an interesting review.


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