Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is the harrowing tale of three women during World War II and their interweaving stories that take place over the course of more than a decade. It is based off of real people, real stories, though the dialogue has been fabricated by the author. The women in this story are Caroline, a New York socialite, Kasia, a Polish teenager, and Herta, a young German doctor. Caroline Ferriday and Herta Oberheuser were real people while Kasia (and her sister Zuzanna) were created by and based off of women who had been imprisoned in Ravensbruck, like Kasia and Zuzanna.
I devoured this book in about two days when I finally sat down to actually read it. I bought it last year and on multiple occasions I was tempted to just declutter it and now that I’ve read it I am so glad that I didn’t.
The period of time that this book is based off of, World War II, is one of my favorite parts of history to learn about. And although I am so passionate about learning about it, reading of the atrocities that occurred to so many people just never gets easier. This story was no exception. It was heart wrenching and painful and beautiful all at once, I found myself experiencing every emotion as I turned the pages, I truly couldn’t read this fast enough.
From here onwards contains spoilers… But, before you go (if you don’t want to see the spoilers) if you haven’t gotten a copy of this book, I urge you to pick one up and read it. It’s a stunning story that I won’t soon forget and I will be recommending it to absolutely everyone from here on out. If you’re interested in picking up a copy of your own, here are some links:
Caroline, from the beginning, was a striking heroine. She is headstrong and passionate and oh boy do I wish I could have met her in real life. As a side note, the second book that Kelly wrote is a prequel about Caroline’s mother called Lose Roses and I am so excited to get my hands on this book soon! And though I found her storyline with Paul to be somewhat interesting, I couldn’t help but just want to go back to hearing more about the work she was doing. I really loved how the romance aspects of this book didn’t overpower the other messages. It was incredibly realistically written.
Herta was a complicated character. I wanted to hate her, I really did but I couldn’t help but find bits of sympathy hidden in my disgust for her actions. She was so disillusioned to the horrible work she was doing, so passionate to be doing the work of the Reich and Hitler. It gives me chills just thinking about how people could believe that these murders and experiments were just. The small parts of her inner turmoil that were shown, with the cutting, helped to humanize her and I felt empathy in those moments, she felt like she was doing her job and yet felt not right. Her suicide attempt was one part of the book that I had to skip but I saw it coming from a mile away. She knew she was in the wrong and I think deep down she realized that she could’ve backed out when she first had to administer the lethal injections. She chose to keep working even after feeling initial disgust and for that I feel no sympathy.
And finally, Kasia. She was such a painful character to read. So young and naive to be caught up in such turmoil and disaster. Her mindset so stuck in her ways that it was obvious that despite her older self saying that she wasn’t damaged, she was truly hurt psychologically by Ravensbruck. Her inability to let things go and to want to change and fix things, it just broke my heart. Seeing her fall apart slowly despite so many things going right was incredibly difficult to read and I just wanted to reach into the book and grab her, shake her, and take her to a therapist. I think that seeing what she was going through after being liberated was something that needed to be seen. Recovery from any sort of traumatic event is difficult and the fact that Kasia was trying to just return to a normal life is absolutely evidence that sometimes you really can’t do that. Everyone suffers and recovers in their own way but everyone needs help and everyone should try and accept help.
The ending was pretty open and I didn’t mind that. Not every story needs to be wrapped up with a pretty bow and this was definitely one of those stories. Though I would have appreciated knowing what the hell Paul wrote in his letters, Caroline. But that’s beside the point.
I truly could not recommend this book enough. And I’m totally on that post reading a great book high and just want to shout from the rooftops about this book but I was truly wowed by this book.
So please, please, please, buy this book and read it and learn these stories. There are few things I push more than learning about our past, learning about the bad that happened in this world because how else are we supposed to prevent ourselves from doing something this bad again.
PS… This post contains affiliate links!