Lilac Girls

This story, based on a true story from WWII, is a fantastic novel by Martha Hall Kelly. She has the wonderful back story of having learned a bit about someone’s life during and after WWII, then dug deeper and learned more, and ultimately wrote a very good story based on those women’s actual lives. It is a strong reminder of the horrors and evils of the Nazi occupation, the terror it caused around the globe, how different people reacted to the uprising, and how many people played small parts in the larger war. It brings to life some wonderful characters and serves as an important reminder of the terrible things that millions of normal people endured only 75 years ago.

The book is told from three perspectives — a wealthy woman Caroline in New York City, a peasant Kasia in Poland, and a medical doctor Herta in Germany. They initially live separate lives, but of course end up crossing paths. Each is profoundly affected by the German aggression in the late 1930s and early 1940s, causing the first two characters outrage and fear, and the latter a job opportunity to serve her country. Caroline and Herta are based on real people, while Kasia is a blend of true stories.

Caroline is a wealthy upper-class woman who spent years performing on broadway and then works for a French charity. She helps assemble care packages for orphans, and then after the war learns of a group of Polish women who were operated on inhumanely, and focuses her energies on helping them fifteen years after their ordeal. Kasia is a peasant in a small Polish town, a teenager pining for a boy who has strong family attachments. She is taken away to a concentration camp, where she endures horrible treatment and watches friends die from Nazi evil. She is one of a group who has experimental surgery done on her, without her consent, that includes infesting legs with gangrene and implanting metal, rocks, and other items to see how humans respond. It is truly inhumane, and the other women in the camp, when they learn what happened to this group, bond together and help those women along as best they can. The doctor, Herta, grows up in Germany and is given the opportunity to be a doctor — which matters a lot to her, as one of few female doctors — at a camp. She is horrified when she discovers they are exterminating women who are either too elderly or incapable of working, but ultimately takes on the powerful position and conducts these heinous experiments. Towards the end of the war, as it is clear Germany will lose the war, she is advised by her boss to hide and run away because of what she has done. She is so blinded to the crimes against humanity that she doesn’t understand why she would need to hide. Ultimately, she does face those crimes in a war court, and is sentenced to prison.

The novel is well-written, and brings the pains and joys of their experiences to life. I listened to the audio book and really enjoyed it. There is some frustration with character behaviors, but it felt like real life, in that people often do what seems to be against their own interest, or they simply can’t get out of their own way. My big takeaway is that millions of lives were affected by WWII — and that millions of lives are affected to a lesser extent by national and international policies, even today. This novel does a good job putting faces and names to broad policies, and our social contract would be more humane today if we were able to take the same approach.