Lilac Girls is the story of three women in three very different situations during World War II. Caroline Ferriday, a socialite and former stage actress, volunteers for the French Consulate in New York City, where she donates her time and money to sending care packages to orphans in France and tries to acquire visas for French citizens fleeing the war. Kasia Kuzmerick works for the Resistance in Poland and is arrested along with her sister, Zuzanna, and mother, Halina; they are transported to Ravensbrück, Hitler’s only concentration camp for women. Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor who is freshly out of medical school and accepts a prestigious job as a doctor at Ravensbrück, which she believes is a re-education camp.
The lives of these women weave together in a powerful and tragic story. Herta stifles her misgivings about working at Ravensbrück for what she believes to be the good of Germany and the Reich, while Kasia becomes one of what would later be known as the “Rabbits,” a group of women who were subjected to experimental surgeries at the hands of the Herta and the camp’s medical staff. Caroline’s work with orphans takes her to France, and after the war, she helps bring the Polish Rabbits to the United States for medical care.
Lilac Girls is a gripping work of historical fiction that is based on true characters and events; Caroline Ferriday was indeed a New York socialite who championed Ravensbrück survivors and thought of herself as the godmother of the Rabbits. Herta Oberheuser was a real doctor at Ravensbrück who stood trial for war crimes in the Nuremberg Doctors Trial; she was sentenced to twenty years in prison, but her sentence was later reduced to five years. The character of Kasia Kuzmercik is based on one of the actual Rabbits, Nina Ivanska. Don’t miss Martha Hall Kelly’s author’s notes at the end of the book; she extensively researched the lives of Caroline, Herta, and Ravensbrück prisoners and her work took her from Caroline’s family home in Connecticut to Poland and Germany. You can read more about Caroline and the Rabbits here.