Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home

Lilac Girls

By Martha Hall Kelly
Ballantine Books 2017

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. It brings to novelistic life the true story of Caroline Ferriday, an American socialite who helped bring to the United States Polish survivors of the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. The author gives fictional names to two of these women, in the book the sisters Kasia and Zuzanna Kuzmerick, but leaves for all to see the real name of the Nazi woman doctor who worked at Ravensbruck, Herta Oberheuser. Told in three voices, that of Caroline, Kasia and Herta, the alternating chapters end on cliff-hangers, leading the reader on, compulsively. I am squeamish, yet I admire the author’s insistence on showing exactly what went on in that camp, in the medical experiments conducted on the inmates by Dr. Oberheuser and her fellow traitors to the medical profession. It is quite a feat to make such an unsympathetic character into someone we want to read about. Yet Kelly has done this remarkably well. She shows how Oberheuser just went along, not so much “obeying orders” (which was the usual defense at the Nuremburg trials) as numbing her conscience by degrees. It is no accident, perhaps, that Kelly first shows this gradual acquiescence to evil in her portrayal of Oberheuser honing her surgical skills in a butcher’s shop at the beginning of the war. A former journalist, Kelly based the book on interviews with survivors in Poland, France and Germany, as well as the United States and on two memoirs she found in Caroline Ferriday’s archives. Caroline had submitted these memoirs to publishers. They were rejected on the grounds that they were of no interest to the public. Seventy years after these terrible events, we know that these stories must be told. We must never forget.

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