“Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly


LILAC GIRLS, Martha Hall Kelly

Review by Carol J. Biedrzycki

Lilac Girls is the story of strong women whose lives were driven by World War II.  Two are real life historic figures.  Caroline Ferriday was a generous American humanitarian who worked tirelessly to help those being oppressed in Europe during the war.  Herta Oberheuser was a German doctor who pledged loyalty to the Nazi party to gain economic security and prestige.  Kasia Kuzmerick, one of the victims of medical experimentation at Ravensbrück, is a composite character who suffered physical and emotional abuse.  Ms. Ferriday was responsible for bringing them together.  Lilac Girls is their story.

The personal backgrounds and motives of the Lilac Girls are a unique snapshot of the much written about Nazi occupation of Europe.  The stories of the three women are told through the eyes of Caroline, Herta and Kasia.  Each of the narrators has a unique voice that took me on a voyage with ports-of-call in the United States, Germany, and Poland.

Society’s expectations for women in 1939 were stereotypical and narrow.  A woman married and stayed at home to look after the children while her husband worked and brought in a weekly wage. A single woman was pitied and she usually did work which involved some form of service such as working as a waitress, cooking, and housekeeping.  No matter how well or how hard they worked, a man was always the boss.  Women did as they were told.

Societal norms in Nazi-occupied Europe didn’t budge when it came to giving women a fair chance.   Women were targets for sexual abuse and discrimination with no recourse short of suicide.  None of the Lilac Girls could live within society’s expectations and be happy.   Because they were women they had to take risks to survive and fulfill their personal goals.

I am of Polish decent.  I have deceased relatives who were political prisoners in Nazi-occupied Poland.  Besides learning about the difficulties experienced by Europeans trying to immigrate to the United States I was entrenched in the details of the plight of the Polish people who were much like my relatives who never talked about their experiences.

I bought Lilac Girls because I liked the cover photo.  It jumped into my hands and turned out to be a profound reading experience.  Martha Hall Kelly spent ten years researching this book and it shows.  When I started reading it I couldn’t put it down.  When I finished reading it I had to share it with my reading friends.  Everyone has thanked me for letting them know about Lilac Girls.

Carol Biedrzycki, an avid life-long reader, is a recently retired Executive Director of a non-profit in Austin.  She is spending the summer in Montague working at the Book Nook.

Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, August 6.  Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.