By Chet Yarbrough
By: Martha Hall Kelly
Narrated by: Cassandra Campbell, Kathleen Gati, Kathrin Kana, Martha Hall Kelly
“Lilac Girls” is a long historical novel. Some may be tempted to quit but may be drawn back by its message to the future. It is a reminder of WWII. It is a warning to our present and future. Martha Hall Kelly’s extensive research on the Ravensbrück concentration camp offers relevance to Uighur re-education camps, Taliban repression, Russian/Ukraine atrocities, and the consequence of human isolation and incarceration.
Kelly’s book is about Ravensbrück rabbits, young women experimented on by Germany’s Nazi leaders.
The Ravensbrück concentration camp evolves into a chamber of horrors. It is managed by Nazi physicians and followers who purposely create damaged human bodies to test drugs and medical treatment for war wounds. A number of healthy young women have their bodies mutilated to test the efficacy of drugs and surgery to repair damaged limbs. They become known as the Ravensbrück rabbits
Ravensbrück is in northern Germany. The concentration camp was created exclusively for women. At its peak it housed 132,000 women, of which an estimated 48,500 were Poles, 28,000 Russians, 24,000 Germans, 8,000 French and a few other nationalities. Their incarceration is for reasons ranging from resistance to Nazi governance to disbelief in the false notion of race purity.
Kelly contrasts New York’ socialite living in the 1930s through the 1950s with European and war veteran survival. The author begins her story with the rise of Hitler, and Germany’s invasion of Poland, France, and Russia. As the German invasion of Russia portends defeat of Germany, Kelly unravels the atrocity of the Ravensbrück concentration camp, the ignominious defeat of France, the unjust western and Russian split of Poland after the war, the subjugation of Poland to Russia, and the rise of the U.S.S.R.
It is the intimacies of living that give Kelly’s book weight. For the romantic, there is some romance. For the historian, there are the revelations of Ravensbrück, for the futurist, there is the warning of the risks of human isolation and confinement based on race, religion, or ethnicity.
Uighur re-education camp in China.
Many countries, including the United States, have made the mistake of isolating and confining human beings based on race, religion, or ethnicity. This is the first step that may lead to Ravensbrück’ atrocity.
Kelly shows there is no redemption, either for victims or perpetrators. At the end of her novel, what happened to the primary victims of Ravensbrück stays with those who survived. The primary victim loses her mother in the camp. Her life after the war leaves her crippled emotionally and physically because she was one of the Ravensbrück rabbits.
Herta Oberheuser (1911-1978, died at age 66, physician at Ravensbruck concentration camp.)
As Germany nears defeat, the doctor who manages surgery tries to murder the women who were mutilated because they are witnesses to Ravensbrück atrocities.
She is convicted at Nuremberg. She serves 5 years of a 20-year sentence. Her ambition seduced her into atrocity at Ravensbrück. Her wish to be a surgeon, when there are few women surgeons in Germany, outweighed the guilt of her actions. After serving her sentence in prison, she starts a medical practice. She is tracked down by a primary victim of her surgical mutilation. Kelly writes about the rise and fall of Herta Oberheuser. With her exposure by a victim of Oberheuser’s surgical work at Ravensbrück, her medical license is revoked. Ms. Oberheuser dies in obscurity.
There is no redemption for atrocity. All human beings in the Russia/Ukrainian war, as well as the rest of the world, need to remember the lessons of WWII.