Lilac Girls does not start out with lilacs. Instead, Martha Hall Kelly introduces three women, not connected to each other initially, and traces their involvement in World War II and their lives after the war. Herta Oberhauser is an aspiring doctor in Germany facing limitations because of her gender. She gets her chance to practice medicine—in the service of the Third Reich. Caroline Ferriday of New York City works with humanitarian relief for French families through the French consulate. Her previous career as an actress on Broadway and her family’s high-society connections prove helpful to her efforts. Both of these women are actual historical figures.
The third woman is a fictional teenager in Poland who is a composite of everyday Europeans who were subject at home to the abuses of the Third Reich due to the cruelty of Nazi occupation forces as well as limitations on rations and activities. Some of them worked for the Resistance in spite of threats and fears of arrest, concentration camps, and death. Kasia Kuzmerick’s journey is the one that most drew me in, but the stories of all three women take us deep into increasingly moving and even harrowing experiences of World War II. Suspense builds as we figure out with the characters the motivations and machinations that move people to acts both despicable and heroic.
The aftermath of the war is also explored. Broken lives and broken trust are not easy to fix, and some damage is irreparable. Herta, Caroline, and Kasia all have to navigate the rebuilding of their lives and the roadblocks to recovery. With the war reverberating through their lives, as we go from Ravensbrűck concentration camp to Lublin in Poland to a Connecticut estate and back again to Europe, these women and those close to them do move forward, seeking love, justice, and peace.
Another deeply moving book that traces disparate lives during the years leading up to World War II and then converging is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, reviewed here. The Zion Covenant series by Bodie and Brock Thoene presents a deep dive into World War II with a variety of characters from journalists to pilots; some characters are or become Christian so there is a spiritual element to their stories. You can find all these historical fiction works and more at your Virginia Beach Public Library.
Review by Lynn