Book Review: 'Lilac Girls' Remembers Untold WWII Stories

Book Review: 'Lilac Girls' Remembers Untold WWII Stories

The book sheds light on the role of different types of women during WWII.

A story of three female protagonists living in New York, Poland and Germany during World War II are interwoven to depict perseverance, strength and redemption.

The existence of such a story seems surprising, especially given the breadth of historical accounts of the Second World War. More so, stores are overwhelmingly told from the male perspective, unlike Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls.

The book focuses on real-life activist Caroline Ferriday, a volunteer for New York City’s French consulate, and Nazi surgeon Herta Oberheuser, who performed experimental operations on Polish women in Ravensbrück concentration camp.

Additionally, the book includes the perspective of fictional character Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish Catholic teenager deported to Ravensbrück not long after Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. According to Kelly, Kuzmerick is based on two real-life “Rabbits” who were experimented on during the war while imprisoned in Ravensbrück.

I. Caroline Ferriday

Ferriday’s story, while being the least engaging of the three, indicates her perseverance in providing aid to French orphans during the war and in the postwar era, aid to the “Rabbits.” Ferriday provides hope to those affected by Nazi wartime occupation by donating her time, money, home and clothing items throughout the book.

By doing so, women and children, alike, live better lives despite the unfortunate circumstances that they find themselves. More so, even once the French consulate must shut its doors on families after Vichy France becomes a Nazi puppet state, Ferriday provides her own relief items.

Nonetheless, what makes Ferriday’s story arguably the least engaging of the three is the overwhelming focus on her relationship with French actor Paul Rodierre. While Rodierre’s character is based on a real relationship of Ferriday’s, the focus at certain moments is too great on him. As the novel progresses, her story arc revolves around their affair and her bitterness regarding the obstacles in place that prevent them from being together time-and-time again.

II. Kasia Kuzmerick

When Kuzmerick story begins in 1939, she is 16-years-old and the youngest perspective shown in the book. Despite her youth, she is determined to join the Polish underground forces fighting against Nazi occupation. Her actions inevitably result in herself, her sister and her friend’s sister being deported to Ravensbrück, where they are told political criminals can work and eventually be re-integrated into public life.

Shortly after their arrival, though, she realizes that their stay is not temporary, and the actions taken by the guards and surgeons are done in an effort to study them and, in most cases, ultimately murder them.

Kuzmerick’s story is the most compelling of the three because her character, though fictional, exudes great strength and bravery. Despite being young, she is forced to act as a comfort to her friend’s sister, who is several years her junior. What is more, her eventual separation from her mother and threat of losing her sister make her determined to release the names of guards in Ravensbrück to the general public.

By doing so, she helps bring the guards to justice and later, show that despite the horrors that she witnessed, she can compartmentalize her pain so that others do not have to experience similar atrocities.

III. Herta Oberheuser

When considering the stories of the three women, Oberheuser’s narrative is both the most complex, while also being the least flushed out. Despite being an aspiring surgeon, she recognizes that she is unable to truly study or work in her desired field during the era.

So, in an effort to combat the sexism prevalent in the field of medicine, she answers an ad that results in her arrival at Ravensbrück. There, of 50 doctors, she is the only woman, and her internal dialogue stresses her aggravation when male counterparts do not refer to her by her professional title, and instead as “Frau Oberheuser.”

It is unsurprising that of the three characters, Oberheuser is the easiest to despise, especially given her propensity for articulating antisemitic sentiment. Also, her willingness to operate on the “Rabbits” and later, lack of remorse for her actions easily turns one’s stomach.

Even so, Oberheuser is the character who is given the least amount of attention, yet could benefit from greater focus in terms of her postwar experience. Without revealing too much, the aspect of Oberheuser’s story where Kelly falls short is the lack of address in how the doctor transitions from her high-ranking role to eventually a life of relative freedom.

Despite likely not wanting to give a full voice to a doctor complicit with the horrors of Nazi Germany, the overwhelming plot holes were jarring. More so, a closer look into her “motives” could have allowed for insight into minds similar to Oberheuser’s without offering any justification.

Overall, the women in the story are remarkable outlets into the real-life circumstances of figures during World War II. Although the characters are layered, and certain layers overshadow other more important characteristics, the book sheds light on the role of women during the war, which is refreshing from the homogenized selection of readings on the era.

Cover Image Credit: Ariana Puzzo

Popular Right Now

18 Times Kate Middleton Was Actually All Of Us In College, Beside The Princess Thing

Every girl has to go through her clueless college stage before she reaches Duchess status.

Kate Middleton is basically a household name by now, and how could this not be the case when she has the gorgeous hair, kind smile, and incredible fashion sense. With her constantly in the spotlight looking so put together, we sometimes forget that the Duchess was actually all of us in college!

Here are 18 times that Kate proved she was just like all of us.

1. Going all out in the name of school spirit

There is nothing like breaking out the war paint and screaming for your home team. Like Kate, we all love to get a little messy and make some memories with our friends.

2. Hanging out with the roomies

Some people may not get lucky in this area but for those who are best friends with their roommates, they understand the love. It's a dream come true for everyone who has always wanted to live with their best friends. It's like a sleepover that never ends.

3. Dressing up cute on the first day of school...

You got to make a good first impression on your way to school. Whether it's during your 7 A.M or 4 P.M., it's always best to dress to impress.

4. ...and wearing yoga pants for the rest of the year

And this goes all the way until the last week of school when you don't bother getting out of bed to wear pants at all.

5. Going grocery shopping and throwing in cookies, ice-cream, and every type of Pringles because your mom isn't there to say no

You'll probably regret that in a few months when the Freshman Fifteen kicks in.

6. Walking for miles from your car to your dorm carrying groceries

We can't park by the apartment for a solid five minutes to carry our groceries up to the kitchen or we will risk a ticket, but we can walk a few miles carrying food that gets heavier, and heavier, and heavier with every step.

7. Going out for a night on the town on a Friday night

Dancing, laughter, and fun? Everyone in college has been to a party or two. It's a classic part of the college experience. Sometimes you just need a distraction from all the essays and tests.

8. Being so late to class you threw on whatever your hands grabbed next

We've all been there. Our alarm doesn't go off, we press snooze a few too many times, or forget to even set an alarm and next thing you know we are running around the dorm room like Taz from Looney Toons. You throw on whatever, then run to class.

Unfortunately 9/10 times our outfits don't turn out. Although, Kate can certainly pull off this look, no matter how mismatched.

9. Pretending your walking to the same building as the cute boy you met so you have the excuse to keep talking to him

I am very guilty of doing this. Although I missed my class, at least I got to talk to the really cute boy who has class at 9:45 in the STEM building. It was worth it.

10. Sitting on the floor or standing because you're a poor college student who can't afford chairs or tables

Eating on the floor? Always. Being a college kid is tough and sometimes you have to sacrifice some things to obtain the others. Such as choosing chocolate milk and Halo Top over vegetables and hair conditioner.

Judging by Kate's beautiful locks, she chose the conditioner.

Probably the vegetables too.

We should just all follow her example.

11. Going on cute date with the boy you followed to class-turned-boyfriend

Now my short-lived romance may not have extended farther than us talking and walking to his class, but Kate and William obviously had a better ending. Nevertheless, college is the place to grow and date and possibly find the one.

12. Keeping your hair long and growing because you can't afford to get it cut

Don't trust your roommate. No matter how many times she begs you to let her cut it. Don't.

13. Turning 21 and getting dressed up and going out with your best friends

While this one probably doesn't apply to Kate, since you can drink at age 18 in most countries, all my people in the United States know the sweet freedom of turning 21. It's an iconic time in a students life and marks a huge milestone as well.

14. Passing out flyers for some type of movement or protest

Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger - which is why college is the time to stand up for what you believe in. May that be RedforEd, Planned Parenthood, anti-Abortion, Trump, the Wall, pizza bagels, it's all an exercise of the first amendment.

15. Ranting to your friends about the professor that just "doesn't understand you"

You know your thinking about that professor right now as you read this. And you know that that's your reaction whenever they give you a bad grade or say something you disagree with at the tiniest degree.

16. Getting glammed-up for those senior photos

Pick out your best outfit and make sure it's a good hair day because everyone will be viewing these photos forever... and in Kate's place that is more than true. Luckily she looks as gorgeous as ever. Does she ever have a bad hair day?

17. Walking out of your last class knowing you'll never have to write a single paper again

And purposefully not thinking about how you will be going into the real world in less than a few days.

18. When you've graduated and realized you have no idea what you're going to do with your life

Maybe a prince will be right around the corner to sweep you off your feet so you won't have to figure your life out.
Cover Image Credit: Laura Warshauer

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

The Football World Loses One Of Its Finest Players

Bart Starr passed away and NFL players, coaches, and fans all mourn the loss of the Packer legend, but his life and career will live on in hearts of Packer nation forever.


Bart Starr passed away at the age of 85 in Birmingham, Alabama. The NFL lost a great player. The Green Bay Packers lost a hero. And, the world lost a true gentleman. Starr's legacy has surpassed his accomplishments on the gridiron. He inspired not only his peers but the generations that have come after him. He is — and always — will be remembered as a Hall of Famer, a champion, and a Packer.

Bart Starr was a Packers legend. Starr led Green Bay to six division titles and five world championships. As the quarterback of Vince Lombardi's offense, he kept the machine going and executed the plays like no other. His mastery of the position was a large part of the Packers success in the 1960s. Starr was also the perfect teammate for the perfect team. His leadership put him in command of the Packers. Starr's time in Green Bay will not be forgotten by former players, coaches, and the fans.

Bart Starr's resume is rivaled by few in NFL history. He played in 10 postseason games and won 9 of them. He led the Packers to victory in Super Bowls I and II and won the MVP award in both games. He was the MVP of the league in 1966 and was named to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1960s. The Packers retired his number 15 and Starr has been inducted into the Packers and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

After his playing days, Starr would become the head coach of the Packers. He could not repeat the success he had on the field from the 1960s teams. His coaching years do not take away from his legacy as one of the all-time great Packers. Starr was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.

One of Starr's last visits to Lambeau field was on a cold November night in 2015. Starr and his wife attended a ceremony in which the Packers retired Brett Favre's jersey number. Starr was the perfect personification of what it meant to be a Packer. His most heroic moment came in the 1967 NFL Championship Game. The Ice Bowl came down to a third and goal in Lambeau Field's south endzone against the Dallas Cowboys. Starr came to the sidelines and bravely told Vince Lombardi that he can sneak it in for a game-winning touchdown. Lombardi then replied, "Run it, and let's get the hell out of here." Starr ran a quarterback sneak for the game-winner and the Packers were off to Super Bowl II. Without Starr, Green Bay would not have won a second straight Super Bowl. His leadership in big game moments will live with Packers fans for a lifetime.

Vince Lombardi: A Football Life - The Ice Bowl

Starr leaves behind his wife Cherry, his son, and three granddaughters. Packers fans will have a tight grip on the memories Bart Starr and the 60s teams created. Starr left behind a template for being a Green Bay Packer. He also left a template for being a good man and a gentleman of the game of football. He was a competitor and a leader. Packer nation mourns for the loss of one of the finest human beings the game has seen.

Related Content

Facebook Comments