A delicate balance in historical fiction

  • Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly (Ballantine Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Ravensbrück and the medical experimentation there are among the lesser known atrocities of WWII. Kelly’s book tells of the female doctor charged with doing these experiments and an American socialite who supported the Free French and brought the “rabbits” of Ravensbrück to the US in 1958.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: New York, Paris, Poland, Germany
  • Time: 1939 – 59
  • Read this for a skilled portrayal of the horrific and little-told events of Ravensbrück during WWII.

Caroline Ferriday was an exotic creature in New York on the brink of WWII. A socialite and former actress, she was a true francophile, volunteering her efforts to aid French citizens seeking entry to the US and orphaned children sheltered in French convents. In Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly aptly captures her vivacity and generosity of spirit, as well as the differences between her and many of the other upper-class young women in New York at that time.

The selflessness of Ferriday is contrasted in the other real women portrayed in Lilac Girls. The Ravensbrück labor camp was a model facility for the Nazis. Primarily populated by Polish political prisoners, it quickly became a showpiece for the Red Cross and the laboratory for horrific experimentation into the effects of untreated wounds and infections. Herta Oberheuser was completing her medical training as the war broke out and was the only woman doctor assigned to the medical staff at Ravensbrück. Initially assigned to minor ailments, she wanted to use her surgical training. Already set apart from the male doctors, she was the perfect choice for a clandestine project to infect and maim healthy young women to simulate battlefield infections and wounds. Over 70 young Polish women became test “rabbits”, intentionally untreated and reinfected to see the course these injuries and illness would take.

Herta Oberheuser was joined in her mistreatment of prisoners by a sadistic matron-like figure and an assistant out to get her. Wherever possible, Kelly has used actual names and information, made possible by the extenisve recorkeeping of the Nazi regime. After the war, Dr. Oberhauser was one of few women brought before the Nuremberg tribunal. Found guilty, she excaped execution and was imprisoned, only to be released after about 5 years.

Although the names of many of the “rabbits” are known, Kelly chose to create fictional women and in doing so provides rich backstories and intricate relationships among the sisters she has highlighted. The complex mix between real and fictional characters begs the reader to search out more about the people and Ravensbrück.

There is a vast continuum of titles that fall under the historical fiction genre. Historical figures make cameo appearances in fictional stories, and well-reasearched narratives have augmented dialogue to move actual events forward. In telling the stories of Ravensbrück and of the hardships of the Free French, Martha Hall Kelly has broadened the understanding of those beyond the Jews who were subjugated and often killed by the Nazis. If fault lies in the telling of the story, it is the conflation of Caroline Ferriday’s deeds with a love story involving her with a fictional French actor. This thread is a major element in the novel though it does not seem to have any historical basis. It does enrich the reader’s connection to Caroline and provides a view into what did occur in France during and immediately after the war. I would have preferred to see Caroline’s strength shown on her own.

Many readers I know have no interest in reading any more books, fiction or nonfiction, on the Holocaust. Though the events portrayed are horrific, there is benefit to reading the lesser-known stories. Martha Hall Kelly has done a great service by bringing to light the tragedy of Ravensbrück. And Caroline Ferriday should not be relegated only to archives.