Simply put, Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly was one of the best books I’ve ever read. It touched my soul, and broke my heart, all at the same time. Told in a straightforward fashion, the heart of the book takes place in Germany’s Ravensbruck reeducation (i.e. concentration) camp that had the distinction of only housing female prisoners. After the Nazis invaded Poland they rounded up the citizens and sent the female prisoners there. The highest number of inmates were Polish although there were a good number of other nationalities represented.
Kasia, Zuzanne and their mother were three of the prisoners. Kasia, at only 16 years old, had done some work for the Polish underground before being caught. She was followed back to her job and, along with her mother and sister, was arrested and sent to the camp. Lucky at first, at being able to stay together, they later told of the hunger and horrible humiliation they went through every day.
Herta Oberheuser was a 25 year old doctor, but as a female she was relegated to becoming a dermatologist instead of a practicing surgeon despite her training. Herta was very unhappy doing “nonsense” work for which she was paid little but she believed in the Reich and would have helped the cause in any way she could. This included accepting a job in the Ravensbruck camp after responding to an ad in a medical journal.
The elderly and pregnant women were removed first. “No babies are allowed to be born in the camps,” and the elderly weren’t strong enough to be of much use, so they were given lethal injections and killed. A while later all the women were assembled and a list of ten names were read off, with Kasia and Zuzanna being two of the names on the list. They were taken to the infirmary and given injections. When they awoke, each ran a high fever and were barely conscious. Their bandaged legs were throbbing in terrible pain.
Ultimately, seventy five to eighty five women went through this procedure. They were called the “Rabbits” because following their surgeries they hopped due to being unable to put pressure on their feet. These women, who were healthy prior to the surgery, never fully recovered from their ordeal.
Caroline Ferriday, who lived in Connecticut and came from a wealthy New York City family, worked for the French Consulate during the war helping to feed and clothe orphaned children. She led a great effort to have the “Rabbits’” story told and was able to raise money for 35 of the surviving women to come to the United States for reconstructive surgery.
This is a wonderful and inspirational book that painfully illustrates the cost of human tragedy.
Meredith has been an avid reader since childhood and loves to talk about books. A bit of a Luddite, she has only recently become acquainted with E-Reading and online book reviews. She finds exposure to such a wide audience of opinion on books fascinating.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Ballantine Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.