Sunday, April 10, 2016

Not Just Another War Novel: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Why did I request one more novel set during war? I had read two books set during WWII and one during WWI in the last two months! But the novel was a "wish it were available" request--which was granted me. I asked for it! And was glad I did.

Lilac Girls is Martha Hall Kelly's first novel. When she learned about the experimental surgery inflicted on female inmates at Ravensbruck she began researching. The product is a whopping big novel that begins in 1939 and ends with a war crimes tribunal in 1959.

Based on real people and events, the story is told through the voices of three very different women brought together by the war.

Caroline Ferriday is a retired actress and philanthropist comfortable hobnobbing with New York City high society. At the start of the war she is working for the French Consulate and embarking on a love affair with a French actor. Her life is irrevocably changed when her lover returns to France while Caroline continues the battle at home to help war victims.

In Poland, German/Polish Kasia becomes involved with the resistance, locally lead by Pietrik Bakoski. Her sister Zuzanna is studying medicine; their father works in the post office and their nurse mother is an artist. Kasia is apprehended, arrested, and with her sister and mother is sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women.

Herta Oberheuser desperately wants to practice surgery and takes a job at Ravensbruck, unaware of what she will be asked to do. She justifies her work as her patriotic duty. Dr Oberheuser is instructed to perform experimental surgery on Kasia and other girls which leaves them crippled and gives them the nickname 'Rabbits', both for their hopping gait and their use as lab animals. After the war, Caroline learns of the Rabbits and works to bring justice and healing into their lives.

Caroline's story is an excellent foil to the horrors, privation, and starvation of Europeans during the war. Hall notes the clothes, jewels, food, and lifestyle of the rich. An amazing party set in 1942 New York has movie stars and American 'royalty'. Caroline solicits funds to bring the Rabbits to America for medical treatment. The party goers are tired of hearing about the war.

Kelly's extensive research spanning ten years is interesting to read about on her blog.

I appreciated that the book addressed the fate of Poland and its citizens and also allowed us to understand how Herta could do what she did. Bringing the story of the Rabbits to attention alone makes the book worth reading. In a subtle way the story also touches on modern concerns of immigration and American response to refugees of war. Kelly lets readers know that boat loads of European refugees were turned away. Our isolationism meant a slow response to Hitler's military take over of Poland, France, and most of Europe. We villianize Hitler and sing the praises of our Citizen Soldiers but forget our inaction early in the war enable Hitler's military conquest.

Hall is now working on a prequel to Lilac Girls.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Lilac Girls
Martha Hall Kelly
Random House
Publication April 5, 2016
$26.00 hard cover

But I have a special reason to like the book. For Pietrik Bakoski's surname is phonetically like my married name Bekofske. I have found multiple spellings in genealogical records: Pikarski, Pinkoske, Pikorsky, Pinkowski, Bekeski, Pekoski, Pekovski to name a few. "P" and "B" are phonetically similar. So is v and f. The sky, ski, and ske endings are related to translations into Polish, German or Russian.

My husband's German ancestor Christoff was living in Poland when he married Polish Carolina Reinke; they moved to Volhynia in modern day Ukraine. Political strife was behind the families immigration eastward, looking for a safe haven. Then as tensions between Germany and Russia increased, persecution of the Germans in Russia increased.

The family tried to immigrate to America in 1909. The youngest daughter had an eye infection and all but one daughter, whose husband was already in America, returned to Germany. Later sons Gustaf and Herman did immigrate to America. One brother became Bekofske and the other Pekoske. After WWII Christoff, Carolina and the three daughters were in East Germany and their American family lost contact with them. As Russian Germans it is likely they were removed to Siberia or a concentration camp.

My Beckers ancestors were also German Russians who left Volhynia like the Bekofskes.


  1. In Polish language Bekowski will be only form used for a male, when is female it will always be Bekowska. And that's the correct spelling of the name. Pietrik is made up name by the author, it's either Piotr, nick name Piotrek or in the villages people will change to Pietrek.