Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
Best for: Those looking for a bit of inspiration in tough times; those who want to learn more about a group of WWII women (the Rabbits) who haven’t received a lot of coverage.
In a nutshell: Three women’s lives intertwine – Caroline, a retired US broadway star who volunteers at the French Consulate in NYC, Kasia, a Polish teen who is just starting to assist the resistance, and Herta, a German Doctor who experiments on young girls in a concentration camp.
“To make things worse, Washington tightened visa restrictions, and it became almost impossible to enter the United States from Europe.”
“A new thing the Nazis had forced upon us was patriotic music, played via loud-speaker outside the theater.”
“It’s just a thing, Kasia. Don’t waste your energy on the hate. That will kill you sure as anything. Focus on keeping your strength. You’re resourceful. Find a way to outsmart them.”
“The county doesn’t want more foreigners.” — “Foreigners? Half the country just got here a generation ago. How can you just let people die?”
Why I chose it:
I’m not sure why I originally purchased it, but I brought it with me when I moved. I decided to read it now partly because of the horrendous actions the US government is taking against refugees seeking asylum. I thought there might be some parallels, and there definitely are.
That whole idea of ‘never again’ seems to ring hollow these days. It’s distressing how a book set nearly 80 years in the past can resonate with the current state of the world. And yet, here we are.
Note: There are some minor spoilers below, but this is a novelization of real events, so it’s more history than spoilers. Also, this review is LONG.
First, let’s start with the fear I had: that the depiction of the Nazi doctor Herta (who really existed) would attempt to bring the readers to, if not an understanding of her perspective, then at least an explanation for her actions. But nope. Herta is evil in the scariest way: she’s not extraordinary. She doesn’t bark orders or dream up new ways to kill people. She is not pleased with her first task, of ‘expediting’ the deaths of those at the ‘reeducation’ (read: concentration) camp who were ‘too ill.’ She loves Germany, and sees nothing wrong with what Hitler is doing. She doesn’t try to get away from her tasks, which includes the horrific sulfonamide experiments on teenage girls.
Ms. Hall Kelly’s depiction of Herta shows that there are no excuses for participating in such activities, and that even if there are parts of your personality that are perfectly pleasant and normal, you can still do evil things. Even more so than in “All the Light We Cannot See,” the author here is effective in avoiding the trope that you have to be a monster to do monstrous things. Herta is a human. A horrible human, but she’s still a human. Nazis weren’t animals; they were people who made the active choice to harm other humans; to view them as less than.
I share this somewhat spoiler-y (there is no redemption arc for Herta) information so that those who might find any book that tries to find the good in the Nazis repugnant needn’t worry that this is one of them.
The style of this book is quite effective – each of the three women featured speak from their own perspective in alternating chapters. In the first part, it’s a simple 1 / 2 / 3 pattern; in the second part it mostly sticks to that; by the third and final part, Herta is featured less as we focus on the post-war lives of Caroline and Kasia. Many chapters end in cliffhangers, which can get a bit old, but for the most part it worked well.
I appreciated a couple of things about how Caroline was portrayed (keeping in mind that she is a real person): that she was still living her life even against the backdrop of the horrors of war, and that part of her life involved helping people she didn’t know and might never meet. There is a romantic entanglement that shows that the world does not stop when bad things happen, even if perhaps we feel it should. Caroline does a lot, working at the consulate, selling possessions to fund care packages for orphans in France and then fighting on behalf of the Rabbits years after WWII is over. I don’t know if she could have done more, but there are certainly others who were doing less. She cares about people who have been harmed, even when some of her countrymen think we should all move on.
Finally, Kasia. Kasia is the one character who isn’t 100% real, although she is based mostly off of a real Rabbit. The Rabbits were Polish political prisoners at a concentration camp who were operated on in horrendous ways (by Herta, and by others). Over ten years after the end of the war, many still had challenges getting quality medical care, as Poland went from Nazi control to Communist control when the war ended.
Kasia changes the most in this book, from a 15-year-old whose biggest issue is that the boy she likes seems to be into her best friend, to someone having an understandably difficult tie adjusting to what the Nazis did to her, her family, her friends, and her country. She survives six years in the ‘reeducation’ camp, and at one point wonders how ordinary life could be as challenging. She is not perfect; she is spirited, scared, and filled with guilt as she blames herself for getting her family in the position they find themselves in. It is heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful.
As I said in the beginning, this book reminds me of what is going on in the US regarding immigration. I’m going to quote the book at length here because I think this is important.
Mr.s Mikelsky held Jagoda [her baby girl] tight.
“Give it to me,” the prisoner-guard said.
Mrs. Mikelsky only held tighter.
“She’s a good baby,” I said to the guard.
The guard pulled harder at the child. Would they tear her in two?
“It can’t be helped,” the guard said. “Don’t make a scene.”
“Just take it,” Binz said with a save of her crop.
The guard who had come with Binz held Mrs. Mikelsky from behind while the first guard pried Jagoda from her mother’s arms.”
The guard hiked the baby higher on her shoulder and walked back through the incoming crowd.
Mrs. Mikelsky crumbled to the floor like a burning piece of paper as she watched her baby be taken away.”
First, notice the guards always refer to the little girl as “it?” She’s not a human baby, she’s a thing to them. Hopefully you can see why this stood out to me. ICE agents might claim to just be following orders, but what they are doing to people is inhumane and disgusting, and somehow it’s just … happening. Some members of the US Congress are speaking out, but US citizens haven’t taken to the streets, haven’t shut down all of the detention facilities. We could argue that we’re exhausted because every day, the US President or his minions do something more horrendous than the day before. And that’s true. We must pick our battles. But preventing children from being torn from their parents arms, and all of them being locked into cages? That seems to be a damn good battle.