Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly, author; Cassandra Campbell, Kathleen Gati, Kathryn Kana, narrators
There are some books that are meant to be read, and this cries out to be one of them. Although there may be a need to have more knowledge about what happened to the Jews at Hitler’s women’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück, which is a difficult task since most of them were systematically starved and murdered, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive (jwa.org), this book serves a different and important purpose. It is unique because it covers the Holocaust, mainly known for the brutal murder of Jews in an effort to make them extinct, without covering them or diminishing their importance in the process. Rather it exposes another horrific story, the experience of the rabbits, a little known chapter of the Holocaust which affected victims from many walks of life and backgrounds. These victims who were rounded up and arrested as political prisoners, some of whom may also have been Jewish, were gypsies, lesbians, members of the underground and anyone else considered deviant and unsuitable by Hitler’s standards. Barely mentioning Hitler or antisemitism, the author explores the awful tragedy of the Holocaust as she concentrates on the young Poles and a category of victims that came to be known as the rabbits. These victims were rounded up and taken to Ravensbrück and then surgically and systematically experimented upon. Basing her story on some very real people, the author clearly demonstrates that there was simply no end to the human depravity or the excuses made in order to commit and justify heinous behavior which impacted all enemies of Hitler, and that category was far broader than the one more habitually covered.
It is 1939, in Poland. It is a bucolic scene that the reader watches as three best friends loll in the grass chatting. Suddenly, their peaceful idyll is disturbed by German planes as they begin to bomb Lublin and light up the sky with explosions. Kasia Kuzmerick’s life, and that of her friends, is about to turn upside down. They run home to check on the safety of their family and friends. Meanwhile, in New York, Caroline Ferriday is running a gala fundraiser for the French Consulate. She lives in the world of the rich and famous, fairly unbothered by any outside struggles. For her, lights are now aglow for a different reason as music plays for the pleasure of the guests. In Dusseldorf, Germany, very late at night, the lights go on at the home of the Jewish Dr. Katz, Dr. Herta Oberheuser is knocking on the door while her father waits in the shadows. He is German, and he is very ill, but he refuses to see any other doctor or even consult with his daughter. He wants only Dr. Katz. Although the doctor is forbidden to treat Aryans, he does not turn him away. Herta recognizes the doctor’s daughter who was once a medical student with her. Of course, now, she is no longer. Herta does not want to be in this house. She is afraid of what people will think if they find out. She is also jealous of their possessions. Although she sometimes seems conflicted in her feelings, she believes in Hitler and agrees with his effort to improve Germany for the German people.
It is almost impossible to stop reading this book, once begun, but it is also very difficult to continue reading it, at times. The graphic descriptions of the brutality carried out at Ravensbrück, were almost too horrifying as the author portrayed the experiences very realistically with a prose that placed the reader squarely in the center of the maelstrom. This book is about “the rabbits”. It features Kasia, one of the victims, Herta, one of the surgeons who participated in the commission of the atrocities performed on “the rabbits”, and Caroline, a woman who volunteered her time and worked tirelessly to help the Polish “rabbits” after the war ended when she first learned about them.
The German doctors, who conducted experiments on human beings and performed atrocious surgeries, believed that they were nothing less than patriots. The reader will have to determine for themselves if that description is appropriate or if perhaps there is a better word that more aptly describes those demonic followers of Hitler who altered, scarred and/or ended the lives of their victims. Hitler’s policies were designed to break down their victims and those policies harmed the survivors not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well, ever after. Regarding the Holocaust, the reader will discover that there was always a new variation of extreme cruelty that was unimaginable for normal human beings, but seemed to be commonplace for Hitler’s followers.
As the author moved the story from place to place, Poland, Germany, and America and from character to character as she developed not only their lives, but also the background of the camp and its purpose, she constantly contrasted the day to day lives of the Polish prisoners with Caroline’s life at her country house and job in New York City, and with the lives of the Germans in control, the doctors and the guards. The contrast from one to another was glaring and the nature of their experiences was completely dissimilar as they each developed into authentic individuals with whom the reader could readily identify and recognize, often experiencing strong emotional reactions to the victims and their oppressors, feeling the humiliation and the shame, the fear and the pain, the brutality and violence. Hitler’s henchmen were nothing more than sadists, but so were many of the greedy, selfish Germans who stole from the victims, moved into their homes, turned a blind eye to the atrocious behavior of Hitler’s thugs, thereby allowing them to gain in power, strength and number. The extraordinary suffering of the camp inmates made their survival nothing short of miraculous. The lack of opposition by the Germans was nothing short of despicable.
For me, the weakest part of the story was the romance and quasi affair between Caroline and Paul Robierre (a man made up out of whole cloth), a French actor who attended her gala and stepped in for the speaker who had canceled. She knew that he was married when she became involved with him which made her subsequent indignation about the way things ultimately turned out seem immature and false. Though very philanthropic, the author made her flightiness and haughtiness overshadow her compassion, in importance, and I thought that didn’t do justice to all of the good she accomplished, even as her genteel life seemed to continue without interruption, regardless of the war. This book provoked so many thoughts that I was compelled to research the camp and the fates of many of the real characters featured in the book. For that reason alone, it is a worthy read for it keeps the memory of evil alive and hopefully, that will prevent it from reoccurring. However, the most important reason to read it is because it shines a light on a subject not previously widely known. The world needs to face and deal with the atrocities, head on, in order to stop them. There have been far too many cover-ups. Many Germans who claimed ignorance willingly complied with Hitler’s draconian rules, pretending they had no other choice. Even after the world knew what crimes against humanity had been committed, many Americans, Poles, Russians, Italians, Germans and more, continued to support a madman because it benefited themselves and because antisemitism was in fashion. It may still be.
What sane person would imagine people being set upon by dogs, being experimented upon by fiends, or starved and worked to death? Apparently, there were many. It wasn’t just the torture or the murders or the humiliation, that was so troubling, it was the knowledge that some that participated actually enjoyed it, that some wanted the spoils it provided, and that some actually believed it was for the cause of greater Germany and their own, at any price. It was because many ignored Hitler’s brutality in order to benefit from the plight of the victims, or perhaps, just to save themselves, that Hitler succeeded.
I have both the print and audio addition of the book. The print copy is an ARC. The narrators were first rate absolutely enhancing the experience of reading the book as they captured the spirit of the personality, attitude and accent of each character portrayed, bringing them to life.