Unspeakable Horrors, Unsung Heroism – WWII history you might not know (Manhattan & Connecticut; Lublin, Poland; Fürstenberg, Germany; Paris, France, 1939-1959): “It’s not so much you should remember the name. We should be living every day with the standard he set,” says The Washington Post’s Geoff Edgers about “the greatest reporter of our time,” David Halberstam, unknown or forgotten these days. I cite this because Lilac Girls was inspired by a real life WWII humanitarian most of us probably never heard of. Thanks to Martha Hall Kelly’s ten-year effort to bring Caroline Woolsey Ferriday to life, the standard she set – her philanthropic legacy, compassion, doggedness, and resourcefulness – is now out there to inspire.
Chances are you might also not know about the plight of over 200,000 dislocated children in France cared for in mansions converted to orphanages; what went on inside the Ravensbrück concentration camp – the only camp solely for women, intended for 7,000 but rose to 45,000 “living skeletons” by 1945 – far less infamous but equally sickening; and that of the six million Poles who perished during the Holocaust, three million were non-Jewish.
Which makes Lilac Girls a remarkable novel among a bumper crop of remarkable Holocaust novels capturing us of late. A novel of stark contrasts: A heartwarming do-gooder’s story of tremendous generosity, advocacy, and benevolence to aid and comfort WWII orphans and Ravensbrück survivors pitted against monstrous, cold-bloodedness perpetrated by Hitler and his evil followers. It’s a testament to the author’s rendering that we come away celebrating humanity at its most exceptional rather than have our spirits broken.
One reason the novel is so compelling is that all the important characters are based on real historical figures. It’s unusual for so many novelistic characters to come from history. In the hands of this skilled writer, these characters engage us so authentically they come alive, palpably. In so doing, they convincingly make their stories even more unbelievable.
Contributing to this is the author’s tight, revealing dialogue. Though her debut novel, Kelly’s clearly brought her top-notch advertising copywriting skills with her penning dialogue that’s engaging, cinematic, and spot-on in imparting the personalities, beliefs, and prejudices of three females – all drawn from history – our narrators.
Since this is fiction, we can’t be sure everything we read about them is 100% true but it doesn’t matter. Kelly’s extensive research (take a look at her fascinating, detailed website after you’ve read the novel) and talent enables us to step into the shoes of these three women, giving us three perspectives to examine the war and a realistic sense of what it might been like to live through an insane era we’ll never really be able to grasp entirely. Who could?
Contrary to today, back then everyone knew someone affected by the war. If you’ve ever wondered why your grandparents or parents never spoke of the horrors, Lilac Girls answers why. Would we have found the super-human strength and courage to endure the torture in the camp like the survivors did? How would we have gone on afterwards? Would we have sustained Caroline’s “positivity” selflessly for twenty years in spite of personal losses and longings? Are these ponderings why we can’t get enough of Holocaust novels?
The three female narrators who help us to understand are:
Caroline Ferriday: A former actress whose New York high-society “set” mingled with the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys yet she’s not the stereotype of her uppity, self-indulgent friends. Rather, a delightful carbon copy of her endearing mother, who latches onto “charitable opportunities in the way some eyed a plate of pastries.” Both are Francophiles (her mother owned an apartment in Paris; also a summer house in Bethlehem, Connecticut, now an historic landmark you can visit like the author did), so her mother’s connections got her a meaningful position (volunteer) at the French Consulate assisting French families in the U.S. and orphans in France. The moment war breaks out in 1939 when Hitler invades Poland which happens in Chapter 1 (chapters superbly chronicle the enormity of Hitler’s aggressions), Caroline jumps in to assuage the chaos on both sides of the Atlantic. As war deepens, so does Caroline’s involvement.
At thirty-seven, when we meet her, she’s the only one of the three who brings us some respite – a romance – with delicious prose like her opening line: “If I’d known I was about to meet the man who’d shatter me like bone china on terra cotta, I would have slept in.” She charms us, certainly not what we’re expecting! We’re grateful for this balance in a novel of this magnitude. Her love affair with Paul Rodierre, an “achingly beautiful” married French actor with a “Cheshire Cat smile” is, in keeping with the novel’s authenticity, based on a true relationship; only the man is fictitious. The early stages of their playful liaison enable flirty, sharp-witted, self-deprecating humor, but once war explodes the lighter-heartedness darkens as Paul feels compelled to return to France to find his estranged wife, Rena, whose father is Jewish.
Kasia Kuzmerick: Inspired by the real Nina Ivanska, from Lublin, Poland. At sixteen, she joins the resistance movement. Kasia will change the way you think of organizations like the Girl Scouts. We meet her when “Poland no longer exists as a country.” These brave teenagers played a significant role in Poland’s active underground. We learn a great deal about the victimization of Polish women during the Nazi regime through Kasia and her best friend Nadia (whose grandfather was Jewish); Matka, her mother (a former nurse and artist); and her sister, Zuzanna, inspired by Nina’s real sister, Krystyna (also a nurse). That’s because all end up at Ravensbrück.(After Hitler, the Soviets oppressed the Poles until 1989. Lilac Girls brings your closer to this country’s repression more than I’d ever appreciated.)
Dr. Herta Oberheüser: While far fewer pages are consumed by one of the only female doctors at Ravensbrück, her psychopathology up-close is still mightily hideous and heinous. A fervent German nationalist who craved respect and power in a society that treated women as inferior to men, she applied for a position as a medical doctor at the concentration camp under the guise it was a women’s “reeducation camp” for prisoners. Though she had good reason to escape her home in Düsseldorf, Germany, needed the money, and a former classmate, Fritz Fischer, worked there, she disgusts us regardless. Early on, when it was obvious what “not for the squeamish” really meant, she could have left. Instead, she not only willingly participated in the cruelty to the bitter end, but was proud to earn the War Merit Cross, a distinction she shares with Adolph Eichmann and Albert Speer.
Lilac Girls abounds with strikingly contrary images. For instance, Ravensbrück was built in Fürstenberg, a resort town described as “a scene from a Black Forest box.” Yet inside: a “special kind of terror we would grow used to.” Herta sees the camp as a “place of superior value.” She says: “how nice to see immature linden trees, the hallowed “tree of lovers” in German folklore, planted at regular intervals along the road.” When in fact that farcically named Beauty Road was satanic. The absurdity of calling notices mailed to families whose loved ones were wiped out at the camp “comfort cards” versus the “comfort boxes” Caroline painstakingly and lovingly pieced together (from former, exquisite costumes she saved) and went to great lengths to send to the orphans is repulsive. What to say of the guards enjoying music amidst barbed wire buzzing?
So you might be thinking: How could Lilac Girls possibly lift us up with all the chilling ugliness? Kelly wisely lets the lives of these three women play out after the war. That answer comes in the unfolding and the ending, when the title becomes clear. The contrasts are stunning.