By Martha Hall Kelly
Since World War II ended more than seventy years ago, memories of it are fading from living minds, what with the last of the longest lived survivors nearing the end. The horrors of total world war are not something people can afford to forget, nor the terrors of authoritarian rule, scapegoating, and racism. Fortunately, you can read about all this in history books and personal chronicles. You can experience the suffering of the war and the oppression and murdering by the Nazis on a more personal basis through the pages of historical novels and memoirs. Here, too, in these volumes you can learn about people, persecutors, victims, and rescuers, who sometimes get lost in formal histories.
And therein lies the virtue of Martha Hall Kelly’s novelistic treatment of life in Ravensbrück, a Nazi concentration camp imprisoning women (the majority Polish, classified as political prisoners) exclusively, and where the Nazis conducted medical experiments secretly on healthy prisoners. These experiments, involving the efficacy of sulfonamides (the first antibiotics) in treating battlefield wounds in which subjects were operated on to introduce objects and infectious bacteria, resulted in the crippling of scores of women and the deaths of some from infection or by execution. When the war ended, these women, who were Polish, were left to fend for themselves, as the West German government would not pay for their rehabilitation. Then, in stepped socialite and former actress Caroline Ferriday. A francophile who had been collecting and shipping items to orphanages before and during the war, she took on the task of having these women, thirty five in total, all Polish, brought to the U.S. for treatment. Further, she helped force the West German government to compensate these women. You’d think all this would have earned Caroline Ferriday a page on Wikipedia, but no.
Kelly’s telling features Caroline Ferriday, Kasia, a composite character representing the Polish women, and the real Huerta Oberheuser, the female camp doctor who conducted the experiments and also participated in prison executions. Kelly tells the story by switching from character to character, until the end when the women and Ferriday meet up and Kasia confronts Oberheuser long after the war. Most chapters end with a cliffhanger to keep readers moving forward at a quick clip. While Kelly’s style is somewhat featureless, the incidents prove so dramatic, and often emotional, that they speak for themselves and move readers without authorial fireworks.
Lilac Girls puts the horrors of authoritarian government and the twin concepts of super race and racism on full display. That people can treat each other savagely and murderously is no secret. But that there are people with enough compassion and drive to step in as saviors, that’s inspirational and holds some hope for us humans. w/c