Lilac Girls is the debut novel from Martha Hall Kelly. An epic, page turner spanning two continents, and twenty years in the lives of three striking women.
CW: extremely graphic violence, surgical procedures, and severe physical and psychological torture.
Caroline Ferriday (who was a real New York socialite), works at the French Consulate in New York. When the war breaks out, her office is inundated with requests for visas, for orphan support, for any type of financial aid. And by the time France is invaded, her office is all but shut down, leaving Caroline to sell her family's silver to continue her aid to the devastated country.
Kasia Kuzmerick is lying in a field, watching the refugees wake when the German army overruns her hometown of Lubia, Poland. She follows some of her friends into their volunteering for the underground resistance movement, always watching, ever careful, knowing that one misstep will begin her one way trip to the camps.
Herta Oberheuser is a new doctor, working as a dermatologist, as that is one of the few postings suitable for a woman doctor in Germany at the beginning of the war. Unable to support her ailing family of the small salary afforded to her, she takes a new position at Ravensbrück, not knowing just what her responsibilities would be.
Kasia is discovered on a mission to help the resistance, and is sent to Ravensbrück, along with her sister and mother. (They play fairly important roles throughout Kasia's portion of the book.) Herta Oberheuser is one of the lead surgeons at Ravensbrück, performing horrific surgeries on a group of girls that later become called the Ravensbrück Rabbits. A decade after the end of the war, Caroline brings the Rabbits to the US, helping them get the medical care that they were denied during and after the war in Communist Poland.
The stories of the three women intertwine in the book, rotating between the three chapter by chapter. The horrors on the war are laid out before you, in an almost lyrical way. Deeply disturbing and graphic violence is presented in a way that draws you closer to the characters, almost sucking you into their world. The vivid descriptions of scenes put you into New York's high society parties, into a German concentration camp, and into post war recovering Poland.
I highly enjoyed Lilac Girls, the story is historical fiction, but it is deeply rooted in truth. Caroline Ferriday was an actual person, one deeply active in the war efforts for France. Kasia and Herta are compilations of several different women, but the voices of them are rooted in facts. Horrible medical procedures were carried out on the Ravensbrück Rabbits, under the guise of "research" to help German soldiers recover from battlefield injuries. After the war, the surviving Rabbits were brought to the US (with great help by Caroline Ferriday), where they received modern medical care, counseling, and toured the country.
I'd highly recommend Lilac Girls to fans of historical fiction, people who like WW II history, people who like stories with female protagonists...Mostly people in general, the Holocaust is being forgotten by people, because we don't have direct ties to it any longer, and it's something that needs to be remembered, lest it happen again.