Book Review: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly



Thank you to NetGalley and Random House Ballantine for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. It’s always appreciated!

This is a beautiful, unsettling and exquisitely written book. Lovingly researched and inspired by the true story of the Ravensbrück “lapins” (Rabbits) and their “godmother”, Caroline Ferriday.

Ravensbrück was a women-only concentration camp run by the Nazis during World War II. Having just finished Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, I have a grotesque knowledge of the innumerable cruelties inflicted by women upon other women during the war, and had planned to learn more about Ravensbrück by reading the highly lauded If This Is A Woman: Inside Ravensbruck: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women (still do). But I got my first taste of what life was like inside the camp from Lilac Girls, and oh, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

I’d never heard of Caroline until reading Lilac Girls (<— click to pre-order, seriously, you should), but raced to find out more information about her once I realized that she did live, and that she did do such wonderful things for the survivors of Ravensbrück. These were women who were forced to undergo medical experiments while imprisoned at the camp. Ravaged, infected with bacteria, sterilized and tortured, these women – those who were not murdered by the Nazis – ended up being known as the Rabbits, and were brought to the United States for treatment by Ferriday in the 1950s.

In Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly tells not only Caroline’s story, but also that of (I believe, fictional) Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager working for the Resistance who ends up in the death camp, and German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, who accepts a position at Ravensbrück in order to further her medical career, which has been stymied by Hitler’s position on women in male-dominated environments.

Initially, Caroline’s tale did not thrill me, nor did Herta’s. I felt anxious to get back to Kasia, anxious to learn what happened to her, to her mother and sister, to her friends and her love. I felt repelled by having to be inside Herta’s brain, watching with dawning horror as she lost what shred of humanity she had left, becoming riddled with rot. And yet, soon, I was drawn into each of the stories with equal fervor.

I wanted to know about Caroline’s work, about her quiet, steadfast love for Paul, about Kasia’s suffering and unwavering aching love for her family, about Herta’s (vile) thoughts and actions, watching her justify and excuse herself, even as she attempted to hide. The banality of evil. Doing her duty. Just doing her duty. It became so real to me through Lilac Girls, how these people became what they did, how they had the soul excised from their bodies like a troublesome splinter. How the survivors rose, like flames, to return to their old lives… but how could they? How could they ever truly forget? The blackness remains in their bellies, like a tumour. I remember reading a quote once from a Holocaust survivor, who said they felt they had died in Auschwitz, but no one knew it. They had come back, but never truly come back. It’s beyond heartrending. It’s unfathomable, that much pain, like a tsunami, destroying cities and hearts and bodies.

Martha Hall Kelly has captured that pain, that sisterhood in suffering, that thread of love that no one – not even the Nazis – could break, the help that people gave, the millions of dead disappeared gone, the reunions and the reunions that never were and never could be. The true essence of what it means to lose everything, and then try to claw your way back.

There are certain books about the Holocaust that haunt me ceaselessly (The devastating A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead being the most relentless), and I know that Lilac Girls will be one of them.

An absolute triumph.

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