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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

An outstanding novel, based on a true story and history of World War II.  As much as I have read about WWII, I did not know or had long forgotten the business of the Nazi medical experiments, particularly in concentration camps and of the Polish women, known as rabbits who became the subject of these atrocities  at Ravensbruck, Hitler's only major concentration camp for women.  This is the author's first novel and a very worth while read. This story of the Ravensbruck prisoners in Nazi Germany "is a story that begged to be told but only with the insight that a novel can provide"  so goes the commentary at the end of the book, a dialogue between the author and Lynn Cullen, another best selling author. 

The novel is 476 pages, published in 2017.  There is a supplemental section after the novel of Author's notes and then the reading guide as well as many photographs of the research, trips to Germany, actual photos of the Rabbits, Caroline Ferriday, her remarkable lilacs, Lublin Poland, etc.   It is written as the stories of three women, whose lives intersect, beginning in 1939 with Caroline Ferriday, a former Broadway actress and liaison to the French consulate.  Kasia Kuzmerick
Back Cover
is a Polish teenager who becomes involved in the Polish  underground Nazi resistance movement in Poland.  Herta Oberheuser is a young doctor seeking full time employment  who will become instrumental in the experiments.   There are plenty of other characters, Caroline's mother, her boss Roger at the consulate, Paul who becomes her French lover, his wife Rena,  in Poland Zuzanna Kasia's sister, her mother, her father, Pietrik and camp workers, and more.

Author';s notes first page.
The first page of the book "If I'd known I was about to meet the man who'd shatter me like bone china on terra cotta, I would have slept in."  Sometimes books with the interwoven stories of distinct characters do not tie it all together, or become tiresome flipping among the characters,  but not so in Lilac Girls where the author writes masterfully keeping connections and not  diminishing the story line. The author comments on page 492, "writing in first person, it's so easy to get immersed in the characters, good and bad.  So, yes it was a wonderful relief, after living with some of the terrible things that happened in the camp to switch back to write about Caroline's life in New York City." 

Being of Polish ancestry I was especially drawn into the nightmare of the stories.  I learned on page 207 that  "kroliki" in Polish means medical guinea pigs.  This caught my eye because my maternal grandfather's  half brother's last name was Krolicki.  The writing is excellent and originally  descriptive throughout the novel, as on page 460, " She and her strong-willed sister Kasia were as different as chalk and cheese"  Never heard that comparison before. 

Page 163, in Ravensbruck,  "As the days grew shorter, Zuzanna warned us to keep our spirits up, for sadness was often a more potent killer than disease.  Some just gave up, stopped eating and died."   

I give this book a hearty 5 stars *****.  I understand the author is working on a prequel now.

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