I was a very young teenager when my mother took me to see the documentary movie Mein Kampf. I’ve never been able to erase those visuals, black and white photographs of concentration camp victims. That was my mother’s point: We must never forget.
Perhaps for that reason, though I choose to read a lot of history and historical novels, I’m never thrilled to encounter Nazi horror up close on the pages I’m reading. I don’t wish to experience it again.
I picked up Lilac Girls on the recommendation of a good friend.
I made it through the early segments – the invasion of Poland, Caroline Ferriday’s work with refugees in New York City, the early violence against Jews in Germany. I set the book down when the narrative placed the German female doctor – Herta Oberheuser – in Ravensbrück. I didn’t want to go there.
When I told my friend, she said to keep reading, that it would be worth it.
And it was. Through the horror, in spite of the appalling devastation and loss, this is a story about redemption. And it is a true story, fleshed out with the author’s narrative of the main characters’ internal thoughts and reactions.
Through tracing the actions (and probable thoughts) of real characters New York socialite Caroline Ferriday and Herta Oberheuser, then weaving them with the narrative of the fictional polish teenager Kasia Kuzmerick, the author plunges us into the horror of the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp for Women.
Fast forward the narrative to the mid-fifties, after the war is over. I was unaware this story was real until I began to read about the role of Norman Cousins, editor of The Saturday Review. My family subscribed to that magazine, and through my early adulthood, I did, as well.
At that point I set down the book again and began chasing links online – yes, true story, impacted by people I “knew,” though not personally. Caroline Ferriday enlisted the help of Norman Cousins and his platform to raise funds to bring thirty five of the Ravensbrück survivors to the US for whatever corrective surgery was possible. In so doing, she was continuing a family legacy of political and charitable activism. Since the publication of Lilac Girls, author Martha Hall Kelly has released two additional books, chronicling the role of Caroline Ferriday’s ancestors during WWI (Lost Roses) and the Civil War (Sunflower Sisters). I highly recommend all three books.