The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is the story of three women in WW2, one American philanthropic socialite, one young Polish concentration camp prisoner and one ambitious German camp doctor. The American and German women are fictionalized portrayals of real historical figures, while the Polish woman is based on multiple women’s stories. It is a true story in the sense that the events the author portrays really took place and this makes the already compelling read impossible to look away from. The fictionalized nature of the retelling brings these people to life in a way that a dry text never would. In this way, the author has done a service to these women.
Hall captures the story of a young Polish girl who is a peripheral member of the Polish underground and is suddenly arrested, along with those around her, and transported to Ravensbruck concentration camp for women. She has never heard of a camp before but is fortunate enough to speak German and French (and not be Jewish) which helps her survive. She is also with family and friends when she is taken, so her community is with her, which both helps and hurts as she has people to rely on and people to lose.
In the camp she encounters a German female doctor, whose ambitions, inculcated racism, and commitment to the Reich quickly overcame any humanitarian feelings she initially had over mass murder and live experimentation. In her quest for glory, and nursing a grudge against others who do not give her credit based on her gender, she willingly joins a doctor who is choosing “rabbits” to experiment on, without anesthesia, supposedly in order to test the effectiveness of a specific class of antibiotics on casualties of war. Her callousness and ability to ignore the pain she is causing to people in front of her for the sake of invisible German soldiers is astonishing.
The American woman comes into the story because of her aid work with French orphans during and after the war. She comes across the story of these women and lobbies to provide them medical assistance and worldwide recognition for the horrors they endured.
This is simultaneously the story of the great evil and great compassion humans are able to show one another. The contrast between the German doctor and American philanthropist aptly shows the range of human interaction and how we can directly affect the lives of others for better or for worse. It is a story of amazing survival in the face of unspeakable horrors, humanized by the fictionalized retelling which lets you really get to know the characters. I also like that it shows prose snapshots of events from pre-war all the way through post-Nuremburg trial events so you felt like you got as much of the entire story as it is possible to tell. I loved that in many instances, Kelly uses direct words from their first person accounts in order to give the characters authentic motives for their behavior.
I recently read Night, by Elie Weisel, and was so struck by the biographical horrors he relates that I was unable to write a review because it felt disrespectful to his words and experiences. You should read that book, but that’s all I feel capable of saying about it. Kelly’s retelling of true events in Lilac Girls provides humanity and kindness and she treats the subject with the respect it deserves, but also gives it a handle that makes it easier to address. The fictionalized account makes it a bit easier to read and talk about, without degrading or dehumanizing any of the real people portrayed in the story. She handles an amazingly hard subject in the German doctor without detracting from the doctor’s own humanity – something a lot of authors writing about Nazis cannot do. This portrayal is important, because it is easy to demonize the people who committed these atrocities, easy to forget that it was regular people who were part of the German extermination campaigns – Hall does not let you forget it. It is discomforting and disturbing in a healthy, honest way to recognize yourself even in the darkest characters in her book, while you are encouraged and inspired to emulate the brightest. She brings a historical truth to light in a way that makes you ask, “How did I never know this before?”