Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly
*spoiler alert* This is sort of a mild alert, this review does go into details of the plot of the book. However, I'm pretty sure you could read this all and not have your reading of the book affected - all of the details I discuss are factual occurrences you could read about anyway.
I went into this book knowing it would be about WWII concentration camps and the medical experiments Nazi doctors performed on inmates. Lilac Girls is based on the true story of New York Broadway actress and socialite, Caroline Ferriday, who became the champion of a group of Polish concentration camp survivors who had been experimented on in Ravensbruck.
You try to prepare yourself before reading anything like this, but when you're actually immersed in a recounting of all that was done, all that was suffered, all that was justified, it really is sickening. I think this book should come with a trigger warning for anyone who is human.
To begin, I believe the author did a tremendous job of creating such strong, interesting characters, each so different from the others: Caroline is warm and independent, stifling under her society role and trying to do good in whatever way she can; Kasia tough and lost, barely able to breathe under all her guilt and suffering; and Herta, proud and cold. From the beginning I disliked Herta, but I was curious as to her place in the story. It was obvious she would become one of the doctors at the concentration camp, but what would be her story? Would something break through her frosty exterior, would she be a secret saviour to the women she was ordered to hurt?
I read the book without first reading about the lives of these women, as they are each of them real people who lived and suffered through extraordinary conditions. I've since read up on the subject. Not such uplifting stuff, my friends.
I did find it was interesting to read about the three different women leading three different lives as the juxtaposition makes the horror so much more real. Caroline is worried about her love life and skating at Rockefeller, while Kasia is watching people she loved being butchered, while Herta is going through very convoluted justifications for performing lethal injections on healthy people. Truly, what humans are capable of inflicting on other humans is monstrous; this book is testament to that.
It was so difficult to read about all the atrocities heaped on the prisoners at Ravensbruck, even just the tiny indignities they had to endure over and over again. The small ways those women maintained their humanity and humour - like wearing a piece of string around a finger to remember a ring and a marriage - is heartbreaking. I mourned with Kasia over the disappearance of her mother, especially since it happened without notice. How horrific to have the one person who loved you the most disappear and you know, you just know, that she is dead, and yet there is no closure without confirmation. And Regina's dignity in going to her death had me in tears. Again, how they find ways to maintain their humanity, the ways they resist, even in defeat. "Long live Poland!"
The women who were used for medical experimentation were nicknamed "Rabbits" because they were used liked rodents for scientific experiments, and because they rarely had all their functioning limbs afterwards and would have to hop around on crutches. Herta would place metal, wood and other debris reminiscent of battlefield wounds as she created massive infections, and then later would test different treatments on the women. It is safe to say their actual health was never what anyone was worried about, and when the Allies were cracking down on Ravensbruck, all Rabbits were meant to be gotten rid of, so there was no evidence of the crimes. The survivors seemed to have escaped through sheer luck, and were released to live their lives out in a Poland that was by no means free.
I was and continue to be awed by the strength of these women after the horrors they endured. Caroline continued her good works after the war, and when the plight of these women came to her attention, she pulled strings and hustled like she did in order to arrange to bring the women over to receive the medical attention they never properly got in Poland. This was at the end of 1958, which means that most of them were suffering with debilitating injuries and shrapnel in their legs for more than 15 years! What Caroline did was amazing, and that these women survived and were able to create new lives for themselves is even more amazing.
Lilac Girls is an unblinking look into one of the most hideous chapters of humanity, and yet it ends on such a hopeful note. Which is nice, because it is based on a true story, and if something can spread hope through this tragic world that despite everything, there are people willing to do the right thing no matter the cost, well, then that is a good thing. Recommended for lovers of war novels and dramas that are not going to hold any punches.