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Book Review : Lilac Girls: A Novel

Lilac Girls: A Novel

For readers of The Nightingale and Sarah’s Key, inspired by the life of a real World War II heroine, this remarkable debut novel reveals the power of unsung women to change history in their quest for love, freedom, and second chances.

“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” – Joseph Campbell

“Happy? Anyone can be happy. What is the purpose of that?” – Bob Dylan

I have a confession to make. All my life I have had an obsession with sadness. Some reasons why make more sense than others, but who can really say why we have these sorts of attractions. Every time I am in Washington, D.C. I take the time to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum and every time I come to a section called the Tower of Faces where pictures of victims line the wall from floor to ceiling, I stop and cry for a moment. The pictures do not depict ruined lives or frail concentration camp residents. These pictures show the victims at a time when they were still full of vitality and warmth.

While none of us is masters of our universe, capable of controlling events to our benefit, we do get the opportunity to choose how we live with suffering – both ours and that of others. As Victor Frankl argued in Man’s Search for Meaning, our circumstances only partially control our reactions; we also maintain the free will to shape our psychology no matter the situation. Our measure is taken when we respond to the situations we would rather not find ourselves in.

Lilac Girls is the true story of three women during the Second World War: Caroline Ferriday, Kasia Kuzmerick (not a real person, but based on real events), and Herta Oberhauser. Ferriday is a New Yorker working at the French consulate, Kuzmerick is a courier of the Polish resistance, and Oberhauser is a concentration camp doctor. While Kuzmerick is sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, Oberhauser is there as a doctor to perform experiments on some of the prisoners. The experiments conducted in Ravensbruck are sickening: bones were broken or removed, women were given wounds that were then subjected to infection, limbs were removed without anaesthetic, and children were murdered and then their organs were harvested. The experiments were instigated after a friend of Hitler’s died and Hitler believed a doctor was at fault for not treating gangrene with antibiotics. The experiments were meant to prove whether this was really the case.

Ravensbruck, a camp solely housing women, was relatively unknown for a period of time after the War. Since it was in Poland and liberated by the Soviet Union, information about the camp was not available to be disseminated in the West. When Ferriday became aware of the medical experiments, she took to the cause of finding justice for the victims. In 1958, she flew 35 victims to the United States for treatment, convinced the Germans to pay for the treatment, and help the survivors find some sense of peace in their later lives.

A memorial for victims of the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. (Nina Volare)

The book also brings a fourth woman into view: Dorothea Blitz, a guard at Ravensbruck. Blitz volunteered to work at Ravensbruck because she disliked being a maid and her cruelty allowed her to advance through the ranks. What is most astonishing is not simply the cruelty she displayed, but the amount of pleasure that Blitz seemed to derive from it. She was executed after the war. Herta Oberhauser seems to have gotten off pretty lightly from her crimes – serving only a few years in prison, although thanks to Ferriday, her medical license was revoked. Nothing about the background of these women suggests the sadistic behaviour they displayed in the camps. In the case of Oberhauser, one wonders how she functioned at all after the War. With the medical knowledge she had, she must have been acutely aware of the pain and suffering she inflicted.

Ms Kelly became aware of the story of Ravensbruck because of her love of lilacs. Ferriday’s home in Connecticut has a beautiful lilac garden, which the author visited. Lilacs are an extremely durable flower, living up to 1,000 years and they also have a pleasant, sweet odour that is reminiscent of springtime – a fitting symbol for the survivors of horrors featured in the book.

If you believe your purpose in this world is to find happiness, perhaps you will bristle at the reading of the horrors of the Holocaust. But, if, like me, you believe our purpose is much higher and involves shared experiences and the giving of ourselves to others, you will become a better person for reading and reflecting on this material. Ms Kelly is working on a prequel to Lilac Girls, which we will anticipate and it also seems a foregone conclusion that we will be able to see Lilac Girls: The Movie within the next few years.

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