Lilac Girls

Written by Martha Hall Kelly
Review by Jo Ann Butler

It might seem that New York socialite Caroline Ferriday, German doctor Herta Oberheuser, and Polish teenager Kasia Kuzmerick have nothing in common. However, when Adolf Hitler invades Poland in September 1939, their lives change forever. Caroline works for the French consulate, pulling strings to admit refugees to the U.S., selling the family silver for relief packages, and hoping that her Parisian lover can survive the Nazi occupation of France.

Kasia ferries information for the Polish resistance until her entire family is swept up by the Nazis. The women are sent to the new concentration camp at Ravensbrück, where the infirm are executed. Kasia and her sisters are assigned to work, barely surviving on starvation rations, and their half-German mother is recruited by Herta to work in the hospital.

Herta follows a dark path when she becomes a doctor at Ravensbrück. She tells herself it is only a job, even while performing lethal injections and assisting in medical experiments on prisoners. Kasia and her sisters suffer horrific mutilation under the guise of science. The “Rabbits” which manage to survive, so-called for their experimental roles and limping gaits, are sheltered from the Nazis by other prisoners.

Lilac Girls follows the intertwined threads of these women’s lives. It’s a long, sometimes uneven read. Kasia and Herta’s storylines are intimate and appalling, and will keep you transfixed. By contrast, Caroline’s presence seems near purposeless until after the war, when she finally encounters Kasia. That moment is worth waiting for.