Usually I shy away from war stories.
Too often, I find they are written as entertainment, like any other fiction, with enhanced heroes and baddies and a guided narrative that tells you how to think and feel, peppered with examples of man’s inhumanity to man, with lashings of mass murder, rape and torture and without any wonder that people should behave in this way at all. I don’t want to be entertained by violence.
There are exceptions, of course, but these are by extraordinary writers who handle war with great care and purpose. And the purpose should not be gratuitous entertainment, not even solely “lest we forget” (which is better served by non-fiction). It is to explain and help us come to some understanding. If an author is going to have a character do horrendous things, there must be some insight into their psychology other than the fact they were at war and everyone behaved that way. Lesser writers should leave well alone.
And so to Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly, who gets two out of three characters spot on, but doesn’t begin to reveal the third. It’s a book about Polish children subjected to horrific abuse in Nazi concentration camp, a tall order for a first novel and the kind of book I usually avoid at all costs, but given to me with strong recommendation.
The cover has three women walking companionably arm in arm. Wrong! The three women who tell the story do not, at any time or in any sense, walk arm in arm.
- Caroline is a New York socialite, a rich do-gooder who, despite the silver spoon in her mouth, is a terrific heroine. She sticks her oar in every way she can from the comfort of home with relentless energy and helps the unfortunates of Europe with a clear moral purpose. I love to think that such people existed, and yes – she is based on a true character. Kelly invented a lover for her, which was unconvincing and detracted from her story.
- Kasia is a rabbit. A Polish child captured with her sister, friend and mother and sent to Ravensbruck where the girls are experimented on like rabbits, their legs cut open and infected with tetanus and gangrene, rubbed with dirt and broken glass to test the efficacy of sulfa drugs. This is a true crime, though Kasia is a composite character.
- Herta joins the story early and we rather like her, a young German medical student from an educated home who is ambiguous in her humanity, but appears liberal and ambitious. She worries about boys, her father’s health, money. She practices surgery on the meat in her uncle’s butchery and to earn her school fees she allows his weekly rape. “There was curious comfort in the sameness of it.” Really? She progresses from working in a clinic with children who suck their thumbs to her first murder at Ravensbruck relatively quickly, because she needs the money and wants a more advanced job. Then she befriends Kaisa’s mum, but tortures Kaisa and the other “rabbits” anyway. This is beyond comprehension.
In the author’s notes, Kelly asks “How could she have done what she did and especially to other women?” I think, without any insight into this problem, Kelly should not have given this character a voice.
The doctor’s character aside, the novel does service in illuminating this episode and the fact that it is so widely read and discussed is testament to the serious research behind the novel.
Lest we forget.