It’s not difficult these days to find a novel that takes place during World War II. But it’s refreshing to read a WWII novel with a bit of a different twist. Though fiction, The Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly, features real-life New York philanthropist Caroline Ferriday, whose heroic story needs to be told.
Caroline Ferriday was a fledgling actress who found her niche working at the French Embassy in New York City. Her work took an important turn as Hitler’s armies became more powerful, and it looked as if France was going to fall. Her role was to assist the French people who had fled to the United States to either return to their families in France or bring their loved ones to the United States. Her work became even more important when the Germans overthrew Poland and the war escalated.
Kasia Kuzmerick was a young Polish girl who watched her country fall into pieces around her. Feeling helpless, she became involved in the resistance movement, couriering messages back and forth. She was eventually caught in the act, and she, along with her family, is captured and sent to Ravensbruck, an all-women concentration camp in northern Germany. Ravensbruck is notorious for the medical experiments conducted on many of the women. Referred to as the Ravensbruck rabbits, they were mutilated and purposely infected with bacteria so that the new antibacterial drugs called sulfonamides could be tested on them. They were mostly refused subsequent medical care, leaving many permanently disfigured.
One of the German doctors working on these experiments was young Herta Oberheuser, who became involved as a means of using her medical degree and making something of herself in the new Reich. Oberheuser is not a fictional character. She routinely performed horrific surgeries on young women as part of the experiments.
The story of strength and optimism and ability to overcome horrific circumstances is as compelling as a story can get. At the same time, the contrast between good and evil (Ferriday and Oberheuser) takes your breath away, especially knowing the the circumstances and the stories are all too true.
I highly recommend this book.