Despite the spate of novels recently published dealing with the topic of WWII, the subject matter never gets boring. There are so many facets to the war that each book can easily tackle a new concept to explore. In Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly the author utilizes the lives of three intersecting characters to explore the Holocaust, two based on real people and one a fictionalized version representing true events.
Caroline Ferriday is a New York socialite devoting her life to helping the orphans in France. Working full time as a volunteer at the French Embassy in New York City, she assisted individuals in securing visas in order to escape France before the war began. In German occupied Lublin, Poland, Kasha Kuzmerick and various friends and family members get swept up as political prisoners. Sent to Ravensbruck, Kashia and her sister Zuzanna, end up the subjects for a medical laboratory experiment involving battle wounds, which leaves Kashia with a permanent limp. The surgery is performed by Herta Oberheuser, one of the few female doctors in Germany, who was recruited to work at this Women’s Concentration Camp and assigned to perform the operations which permanently maimed or killed the Polish “Rabbits”. Her attitude is fascinating as Herta convinces herself that working for the Nazis is a positive position which furthers the aims of the Fatherland. Yet before the Allies take control, she is involved in a plot to hunt down and murder these covertly hidden patients in order to remove the evidence of her actions. Even at the Nuremberg Trials, Dr Oberheuser still refuses to accept blame for her inhumane behaviors and resents her prison sentence.
The Lilac Girls also explores the after effects of WWII, both immediately following the war and ten years later. Unfortunately, society wanted to move forward and forget the atrocities, but luckily there were many philanthropic individuals ready to help the afflicted integrate back into a somewhat normal life. While this was possible in parts of Europe and the United States, the countries taken over by the Soviet Union, including Poland, went from one oppressive state to another. Caroline, with her connections, is able to find a way to coordinate medical treatment for the “Rabbits” in the United States and encourages the bitter Kashia to find closure.
Alternating between the three female characters, Kelly integrates fiction with information from historical documents to create a realistic scenario. It is heartwarming that women such as Caroline and her mother were able to use their influence for the public good with a focus on those suffering abroad. At the same time, one wonders how Herta could reconcile her actions with her conscience. There is evidence that her outward bravado covered a guilty heart when her visit with a psychiatrist revealed a predisposition for self mutilation (cutting her arm). The fictional sisters were an astute representation of the Polish girls who survived the “Rabbit” experience. While it was heart wrenching to read about their treatment in Ravensbruck, it is a reminder that war can bring out the evil in people, especially when dealing with prisoners of war who are viewed as subhuman. This is definitely not a book for those with sensitive stomachs.
I have several confessions to make. First, I did not necessarily read the chapters in order. Kelly often left a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter and then jumped to one of the other women, but I was impatient and skipped over to the continuation of that particular plot point, then went back to pick up the storyline. I also thought the entire book dragged at times. I didn’t mind the fictional romance for Caroline, but for a book close to 500 pages, I thought some of the irrelevant details could have been eliminated. There was plenty of subject matter without adding fluff. The most compelling part of the book was the girls’ daily trials in Ravensbruck which were both difficult to read and, at the same time, hard to put down. While the therapeutic visit to the United States was anticlimactic, the concluding chapters seemed a fitting way to wrap up the loose ends. I appreciated all the specifics in the author’s note which indicated the amount of research (including interviews and traveling to the various locales) necessary to blend real events with her imaginings, although to get further details about the inspiration for this book you need to go to Martha Hall Kelly’s website. Ultimately, the entire reading experience was worthwhile, especially since I learned something new about the Holocaust. Four stars.
A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
If you are looking for an HEA (Happily Ever After) story, then you need to look elsewhere. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys takes place towards the end of World War II in winter of 1945 and any tale involving the Holocaust and the savageness of war is not a feel good read. Yet, during the most adverse conditions, despite the despicable actions surrounding each individual’s struggle for survival, there is love, compassion, and even humor amongst the tragic events.
Salt to the Sea has four narrators who each give us rotating glimpses of their thoughts and actions as a means of advancing the plot. Three are in an incongruous entourage of refugees on their way across East Prussia to the Baltic Sea to catch a ship to Kiel in order to escape the advancing Russians and the marauding Germans, both likely to kill on sight. The fourth is a German Soldier preparing a ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, for departure. How their lives intersect is the basis of this story. The youngest of the four is Emilia (Shame is a Hunter), a Pole who was sent to safety by her father and then betrayed. Then there is nineteen year old Joana (Guilt is a Hunter), a trained nurse from Lithuania whose guilt ridden need to help others leads her to befriend a wandering boy in search of his dead grandmother. Finally there is the young Prussian artist, Florian Beck (Fate is a Hunter), who has a secret hidden in his backpack which must be preserved no matter what the cost. Somehow Emilia attaches herself to Florian who she views as her savior after he rescues her from some savage thugs. Although Florian wants to travel alone, he finds himself tagging along with the others, all moving in the same direction. Ingrid, whose blindness allows her to hear hidden sounds, a grandfatherly cobbler they refer to as the “Shoe Poet”, and Eva, a Viking Giantess, round out the pack. The fourth narrator is Alfred Frick (Fear is a Hunter), a foolish young man who creates mental letters to a girl called Hannelore referring to himself as a war hero. Yet instead of courageous deeds, the inept German soldier is sent to scrub toilets, a job which better suits his talents. Each of the four carries a secret which is revealed as the events unfold. Their lives intersect at the Port of Gotenhofen leading to an exciting climax which is guaranteed to mesmerize the reader.
Whenever I think I have a handle on WWII, (for God’s sake I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Schindler’s List as well as a myriad of other books, both fiction and nonfiction), I realize there is always something new to learn. I’m glad that Sepetys wrote this book as it explores a subject which is not common knowledge. Truths such as these must be quickly told as time is running out. How many eyewitnesses are left to share their stories? History will soon be relegated to the distant past as we continue to forgot the lessons Iearned by our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents. Even in the US, there are still white supremacists and other radicals who wait for their chance to annihilate the enemy. The identity of this enemy depends upon the speaker, but those of us who know how easy it would be to repeat history, are terrified by the rhetoric and violence we see throughout the world.
The story of the maritime evacuation, Operation Hannibal, which despite its rescue intent resulted in the death of over 25,000 people, mainly retreating women and children, is a secret that must be revealed. Neither the Russians whose uboats torpedoed the Wilhelm Gustloff, nor the Germans who were facilitating the refugees escape, wanted to admit their culpability in the death of over 90% of the 10,000 fleeing passengers, so the truth remained hidden. Yet there are survivors who have a tale to tell and storytellers, such as Sepetys who had the wherewithal and connections (her father’s cousin had a ticket to board the fatal ship but miraculously missed the launching), that are willing to share these horrors from the past. Over three years of research, including interviews with eyewitnesses and their families, allowed the author to create a realistic scenario as a background for the fictional trek towards freedom. While this book is written for teens (the extremely short chapters and young main characters will be a draw for the YA crowd), adults will also be fascinated by this historical saga with a new angle about the atrocities of war.
Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.