Written in three different point of views, Lilac Girls follows three women, one American, one Polish, and a German, during and after world War II. From the cover you get the impression that these three women will somehow come together, but for 80% of the book you can’t figure out how they could possibly have anything in common. Yet Kelly does a masterful job weaving the strands together in the end.
In the addendum we learn that Caroline Ferriday was a real person who volunteered to work at the French consulate in New York during the early days of war. Caroline is 37 when the book begins, a former Broadway actress, and wealthy socialite. She meets and is smitten by Paul Rordierre a fictional character, who is a star of French film and stage. Paul remains Caroline’s love interest throughout the book, although his on and off again marriage to a Jewish woman complicates their relationship.
Caroline’s father died when she was eleven, she was apparently involved with a drunkard for ten years before dumping him, and she’s willing to spend her own money to assist French orphans. Just as her romance with Paul is getting hot, Caroline’s former boyfriend pops in at the most inopportune time; interrupting their tryst. As rumblings begin in 1940 of a likely German offensive into France and Belgium, Paul deicides to return to his wife, leaving Caroline broken-hearted..
France falls in June 1940 and despite her ceaseless efforts Caroline can no longer send supplies to her “adopted” French orphans. The consulate is shutdown. From secret intelligence she learns that Paul has been arrested and that his wife has disappeared somewhere in the concentration camp system in Germany.
The focus then shifts to Kasia although we keep in contact with Caroline searching for Paul. Kasia is a Polish girl living in Lublin when Germany crushes Poland in September 1939. Kasia volunteers for courier work for the developing Polish underground and gets caught by the SS. Her mother, boyfriend, and sister, Zuzanna are also arrested. They endure a long, crowded train ride to Ravensbruck, the Nazi’s main internment camp for female political prisoners from occupied nations, as well as German criminals.
On arrival at the camp the women are stripped naked, deloused, shaved, subjected to Gyn exams, and have any rings stolen. They are given a thin shift and a pair of wooden clogs which will have to suffice for clothing for the next six years. The healthy are assigned work, the infirm are liquidated, and anyone who becomes ill and is caught by the nasty female guards is shot. Eventually the camp contains 40,000 women. More than 130,000 passed through the camp at one time or another during the war. In all 50,000 perished and only 15,000 remained when the camp was liberated in 1945. Kelly’s description of camp horror is graphic and frightening.
Enter the third Lilac Girl, Herta, also a real person. She has graduated from a German medical school just as the war begins. Nazi ideology prevents her from becoming a surgeon since elite positions are reserved for men. A woman’s role was to produce Aryan cannon fodder for the Reich. She tries dermatology but is unable to support her parents on the miserly salary. Herta is a victim of sexual abuse by her uncle and at first draws our sympathy.
Herta answers an advertisement for a surgeon, only to discover the post is at Ravensbruck concentration camp. As the only female physician in the camp she is subjected to, if not outright abuse, serious harassment. She befriends Susanna and Kasia’s mother, who trained as a nurse and is also an excellent artist, who is commissioned to draw portraits of the guards. This allows the mother to sneak additional rations to her children. But the friendship is against the strict racial rules and it’s obvious it will end badly.
Sympathy for Herta evaporates quicker than a wet foot print on an August day. The Nazis begin a program of experimental surgery, testing surgical techniques and the efficacy of antibiotics by performing horrendous operations on camp prisoners, including Kasia and Susanna. Many of the guinea pigs had multiple surgeries performed on their legs, including insertion of glass and splinters. They became known as rabbits, both because they were the subject of these experimental surgeries and because most of them had to hop around crippled, if they survived. As the war winds down, with Germany obviously losing, the surgeons who perform these experiments, including Herta, realize they face likely war crimes trials and want to exterminate the rabbits and get rid of the evidence. Kasia and her sister hide in attics and latrines.
The last section of the book deals with the rabbits’ attempts to escape, the retribution delivered to the doctors who performed the sick experiments, and how the characters deal with the brutal aftermath of war, which for Poland meant trading one monster for another.
The mistakes caught by this old European history major are minor. The Luftwaffe did not begin bombing England until after France fell. In fact, there was very little bombing of anybody’s cities, both sides fearing reprisals until the battle of Britain which began in earnest in August 1940. Operation Wacht am Rhein, known by Americans as the Battle of the Bulge, began in December 1944 and not in the heat of summer. The British army had no women “paratroopers” although they did drop female SOE agents into France to assist the French resistance.
The ending is heartwarming leaving you with a broad smile—humanity triumphant over the worst adversity. I give Lilac Girls a solid A-. My only other criticism would be that some of the chapters involving Caroline and her social life could have been edited a bit and the historical military errors could have been avoided. But once you start, block out several evenings, because you will be engrossed. It’s often an ad gimmick to say a book’s characters are “unforgettable.” But these women truly are.