Martha Hall Kelly’s “Lilac Girls,” the first novel this 59-year-old advertising copywriter ever tapped out on her laptop, was published by Ballantine Books last April, and shot to the New York Times bestseller lists. “Lilac Girls” might sound like a grim read, but this 473-page tale — centered on three women from separate worlds brought together by the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp — is a book you cannot put down. Seriously. This is a “cancel all social plans, honey, I’m staying home until I finish ‘Lilac Girls.’”
Oh, and, interestingly enough, it’s a Holocaust without Jews. They’re on hand only as background characters. In a recent phone conversation, Ms. Kelly told me Jews made up only 10 percent of Ravensbrück inmates. This particular “ladies only” detainment center, in the bucolic foothills of Bavaria, was composed primarily of Catholic Polish girls arrested for their work in the underground. The S.S. rolled up its sleeves and invariably did an overkill job of everything (pun intended, of course), and in the snatch of a single alleged perpetrator, also swept up everyone else in the vicinity. The unlucky young teenager Kasia Kusmerick, from a town on the outskirts of Warsaw, undertook a simple undercover mission for a boy she loved. When the authorities came for her at the theater where she worked, they also grabbed her sister, two female co-workers, and her blessed mother coming to deliver a sandwich.
All were jammed into a cattle-car train to Ravensbrück, where a team of doctors, spurred on by the deranged Himmler, had a surgical experiment to run. The second featured character in “Lilac Girls” is Herta Oberheuser, a young doctor thrilled to get her start with some big-name medicos. Herta is far from evil, only dimwitted on a humanitarian scale, like so many of her countryfolk, besotted with a mad Führer’s dream.
Every year, new books roll off the press with theories about how the Third Reich could have happened. We somehow grasp how true evil manifests itself at the topmost layers, but how does that yield a whole population — from train workers to crematorium shovelers to young doctors — ignoring all warnings of immorality and becoming evil enablers? Arguably the best answer was provided by philosopher Hannah Arendt in her diagnosis of “the banality of evil” in her 1950s book “Eichmann in Jerusalem.”
So is Herta evil? No, just smart and ambitious and, like all banalities of that period, or any period for that matter, willing to place all blame outside herself and onto all of the Other, the nonmembers of her own Teutonic tribe. For Herta, a tormenting and permanently disabling surgery on Polish girls from the “criminal classes” is justified if it might conceivably help her countrymen at the front. Or any German of the future. A German of pure blood.
Down deep, a faint heartbeat flutters on Herta’s EKG: She develops a fondness for a Polish prisoner nurse named Halina Kusmerick, our protagonist Kasia’s mother, and this friendship places this ubermom in even graver danger than mere incarceration at Ravensbrück.
Finally, we follow the ups and downs and loves and losses of another true heroine (all three of the main characters are based on real people). Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite who, along with her equally stouthearted and kind mother, raises funds for French orphans and even sells her family’s Civil War–era silver to rescue war refugees encountered through her work with the French consulate. Just as Berlin falls to the Allies, she discovers the harrowing trials of the survivors of Ravensbrück, women given the cruel sobriquet of “rabbits” because of gangrene-inducing operations on their legs that caused them to hobble about the camp. It became her mission to track down those who’d lived to tell the tale, most of them in Poland, where postwar Soviet control posed a dual problem: There was no leaving Poland, and West Germany’s embargo of Communist states cut off reparations to survivors. Caroline gets Kasia and many other Polish rabbits to the States for medical attention and time to heal at her country house with its roses and lilacs and, finally, to receive those long-overdue reparations.
Ms. Kelly is a native New Englander, now living in Atlanta and spending lots of summer days at her home in Chilmark. She first discovered the virtually unknown story of the girls of Ravensbrück in an article in Victoria Magazine about Caroline Ferriday’s beauteous lilac gardens at the Bellamy-Ferriday House & Garden in Bethehem, Conn. From there, she jumped into the story whole hog, plunging into all the archival material she could get her hands on about Caroline Ferriday, who died in 1990, and the Holocaust itself. Research took her to Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, and Ravensbrück, where she notes that while she herself stayed stouthearted and on message, her travel companion, her 17-year-old son, was brought to tears.
Ms. Kelly will read and sign copies of “Lilac Girls” at Bunch of Grapes on August 2 at 7 pm, and at Noepe Literary Center in Edgartown on August 4 at 4:30 pm. For more information, visit marthahallkelly.com.