Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It is natural that such an earth-shaking event, a piece of history that revealed the deep capacity for evil that lies within human nature, would inspire a seemingly bottomless well of responsive art. As a lover of historical fiction, I have read a fair few books about World War II and about the Holocaust specifically, but have found myself avoiding them more recently. It’s a hard, heavy subject to read about, and as I travel through life’s peaks and valleys there are times when I am less able to stomach these topics. When my trusted friend emphatically recommended Lilac Girls, I dove into it without hesitation, sensitivity be damned. It was difficult, but it wasn’t a mistake.
Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls begins in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, and follows the journeys of three women: Caroline Ferriday, a former actress working for the French consulate in New York; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager increasingly drawn into the Polish resistance movement; and Herta Oberheuser, a young German woman freshly out of medical school. When Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the infamous Nazi concentration camp for women, the three women are unknowingly sent on a converging path that will challenge and change them forever.
Lilac Girls, though not without issues, is an unforgettable book — and a desperately important one. Historical significance aside, it is a nuanced portrait of womanhood that crosses borders of both age, geography, and levels of privilege. Lilac Girls is the rare novel that acknowledges that women contain multitudes: resilience, romance, and rage, silliness, sadness, stoicism, and stubbornness. It forces the reader to reckon with the fact that women have been agents in the oppression of other women while acknowledging the limits placed on them throughout history.
In addition to its masterful handling of women’s stories, Lilac Girls is historically significant. Like her protagonist, Caroline Ferriday, Martha Hall Kelly fights to tell the stories of those that history would like to forget. Prior to reading this novel, I had never heard of the “rabbits” of Ravensbrück and knew little to nothing about the oppression of Poland by Germany. It’s easy to fall into a trap of complacency and believe that our American education tells the whole story when it comes to historical events. Books like this one challenge the reader’s worldview and shatter that complacency, and for that reason, they are deeply important.
Another aspect that sets Lilac Girls apart from other novels set in its time period is its handling of the “after”. Many Holocaust focused novels end with liberation but Lilac Girls unflinchingly delves into the long-term effects of the traumas inflicted on the victims — and the perpetrators. It also references mental health and psychology with a refreshingly modern transparency while remaining historically accurate, something that is rarely seen in historical fiction works.
There were small things about the novel that I didn’t like. The writing seemed overwrought at times, and though it was impeccably researched the near-constant historical references to small things like styles of clothing in Caroline’s chapters became distracting because I kept having to stop to look things up. I can appreciate the author wanting to show her dedication to her research, but I think the novel would have been just as good without the very specific details on jackets and housewares and other things of that sort. However, none of that should put someone off reading the book. It’s too important and too good to give much consideration to those small nitpicks.
As the saying goes, those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. This is why books like Lilac Girls are written and why they must be read. Today we remember. Today we refuse to forget. Click here to read the about the Ravensbrück Rabbits to ensure their story is never forgotten.
“While in Ravensbrück they had been sustained by the determination to let the world know what had happened. But war and the effects of war are too clamorous for the individual voice, however strong the message and pure the accent. And the Lapins [Rabbits], as they came to be known, were unable to make an effective claim on the world consciousness.” -Norman Cousins, 1959