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Book Review: The Lilac Girls

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Book Review: The Lilac Girls

 

By Diane McCurdy

Caroline is a Manhattan socialite, a former Broadway actress who comes from old money. She volunteers at the French consulate. The time is 1939 right before Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Kasia is a middle class Polish teenager, who needing to impress her current boyfriend and lured by a spirit of adventure and patriotism,  becomes a courier for the Polish underground. She is caught and arrested but she inadvertently implicates not only her sister but her mother as well. Oh , the guilt. Herta is a German doctor who is ambitious and desperate to escape the clutches of an incestuous relative. She answers a newspaper ad for a position at a women’s re-education camp at the notorious Ravensbrock. Initially repulsed by her duties, she hardens and becomes involved in some particularly heinous experiments. The lives of these three ladies will connect as they tell their stories in alternating chapters in the The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

The pivotal narrative occurrence centers around events that transpired at Ravensbruck. Reinhard Heydrich was one of Hitler’s generals and one of the engineers of the Holocaust. He was injured in a coup organized by the Czech partisans. One of his doctors wanted to give him a sulfa drug which was new at the time and other didn’t. He eventually died of sepsis. The incident spurred a quest to determine the efficacy of newer drugs. Prisoners at the Ravensbruck had artificial wounds inflicted on them that simulated battle injuries. Nerves, tendons, muscles were severed and bacteria, glass, metal other foreign objects were inserted and then various drugs were administered and their effect measured. These women were called the “Ravensbruck Rabbits” Herta is the experimenter, Kasia is one of her victims and Caroline becomes the fixer who extracts justice. 

Everyone is appalled by the horror of the experiments on these women. My mind drifted to the other rabbits, the fuzzy ones, languishing in labs today with tubes, probes and caustic materials inserted into their bodies when much of what we learn from them can be duplicated with tissue samples and extrapolations on computers. Perhaps someday they, too, will be freed from torment.

This a a debut book by author, Martha Hall Kelly and some of her literary techniques are naive but she is an engrossing storyteller. The Lilac Girls is a blend of fact and fiction in present day nomenclature it would be said to have been “inspired” by true events. Herta is indeed a historical figure and Kasia was modeled after an actual Ravensbruck rabbit. Caroline was a real New Yorker. The lilacs grew in her garden.