Monday, April 17, 2017

The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

I want to talk to you about a book that is sometimes so horrifically sad I almost gave up on it several times, and it is with some hesitancy that I recommend it to you. While it is a really good and important book, I feel somehow responsible for recommending reading experiences of this sort. The book has a disarmingly sweet title, Lilac Girls; it is very well researched and based on historical figures. There are three central narrators: Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite and liaison to the French Consulate; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager; and Herta Oberheuser a young German doctor. The story begins in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Kasia becomes involved in the Polish underground as a courier, which eventually leads to her arrest along with the arrests of her sister Zuzanna and her mother. After being introduced to Kasia and her girlfriends in the Polish town of Lublin, very soon the action switches to Ravensbruck, the German concentration camp for women, allegedly a re-education center where women are to be corrected and repatriated.

In fact, the conditions at Ravensbruck are deplorable from the beginning.  Beneath a fa├žade of pretty flower boxes and rows of linden trees, the sadistic woman guards with their ferocious Alsatian guard-dogs do as they please with the women prisoners. Herta Oberheuser is an ambitious and bright young doctor, but in spite of Hitler’s claim that men and women professionals will be equally respected, Gerta is sent to Ravenbruck almost as a punishment, and she vows on her first day there that she will be gone by sunup. Instead she decides to wow her male bosses and to show them she is the most accomplished doctor at the camp. 

Without dwelling too long on the horrendous experiments carried out at Ravenbruck, let me say simply that in attempting to mimic traumatic battlefield injuries, many of the women and young girls were operated on, without sulfonamide drugs and with intentionally introduced foreign objects and bacteria during the surgeries, and then simply observed to see how many would die and just how some recover in spite of the horrible infections in the wounds. The women who are operated on in this barbaric way are called rabbits, both because of the way they hop and and limp around the camp after the operations and because they are treated as experimental animals. 

The novel covers twenty years in the lives of the women who survive the camp and of Herta who is eventually the only woman doctor who is tried for war crimes at Nuremberg. Carolyn Ferriday becomes a champion for the rabbits both during the war and in its aftermath. Kelly, the author, talks in an afterward about her many years of research in writing Lilac Girls. 
I moved from Connecticut to Atlanta in 2009 and began writing at first sitting in the concrete and chain link dog kennel behind our home, hoping it would evoke what it was like to be imprisoned, to feel what the Ravensbruck Ladies felt. But as I read more firsthand accounts of the women’s stories, I realized I didn’t need to sit in a cage in order to feel their story. They brought me there all too well. The terrifying uncertainty. The rip of losing their friends and mothers and sisters. The starvation. I found myself eating constantly, trying to eat for them. 
Fortunately, the last section of the book is about the lives of these women after the war when Caroline brings a group of them to the U.S. for restorative surgery and to treat the after-effects of their experimental surgeries. And while the entire novel is tough on the reader, the bravery and camaraderie of the women is inspirational. And while there are incredible hardships for the women, there are also times of laughter and dancing and deep love. 

Some of the women are able to forgive and move on after the war, others not. In a conversation between Kasia and her older sister Zuzanna (both part of the experimental surgeries).
“At least now Herta Oberheuser is in a cold cell eating beans from a can,” I said.
“You might think about a letting it go Kasi.”
“I’ll never forgive them, if that’s what you’re saying.”
“It only hurts you to hold on to the hate.”
My sister seldom bothered me, but her positivity could be irritating. How could I forgive? Some days the hate was the only thing that got me through.

While I am grateful to have read this incredible story of courage and sacrifice, it is not likely I will pick this book up again. I recommend it to you as an excellent historically based novel, but also a ‘Handle with care’ injunction.