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Lilac Girls: A Novel Summary & Study Guide

Martha Hall kelly
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Lilac Girls: A Novel Summary & Study Guide Description

Lilac Girls: A Novel Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on Lilac Girls: A Novel by Martha Hall kelly.

The following version of the novel was used to create this study guide: Kelly, Martha Hall. Lilac Girls. Penguin Random House, 2016. Version 1.

Martha Hall Kelly’s novel, Lilac Girls begins at the start of World War II with the perspective of her first protagonist, Caroline Ferriday. Every chapter of Lilac Girls switches between the perspectives of three characters: Caroline, Kasia and Herta. An employee of the French Consulate, Caroline lives with her mother in Manhattan. Charity runs through Caroline’s blood, as her grandmother Woolsey served as a nurse on the Gettysburg battlefield. The charity closest to Caroline’s heart is the French Families Fund she has organized, a group dedicated to sending donations of coats, dried foods and diapers to French orphanages. In addition to her attraction to charity, Caroline is also drawn to all things French and Parisian, making her defenseless when it comes to the charms of French men. When a guest speaker cancels on Caroline’s charity gala and the actor Paul Rodierre must fill in, she comes face-to-face with the most tempting Frenchman of all. Bathed in musk and pine and endowed with a knack for giving expert pours of Champagne, Paul seems to have everything Caroline is looking for in her 37-year-old single life, except for one tiny detail: he is married.

Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler has invaded Poland, where the second protagonist of Lilac Girls, Kasia, lives with her family. At 16 years old, Kasia does not have time to think about war, as she is too busy experiencing crushes, boys and school dances. The chief object of her affection is Pietrik Bakowski, a neighborhood boy who shyly hints of his interest in Kasia; hints that are subsequently shared and decoded with her best friend, Nadia. Even before it’s German invasion, Poland already crackles with anti-semitism, as Nadia—partly Jewish—regularly has rocks and stones thrown at her by neighborhood schoolboys. Kasia’s world—and her teenage preoccupations—are turned upside down when Nazis invade her town of Lublin. Kasia’s family members, Zuzanna, Papa and Matka, must band together to stay brave as their entire way of life is shaken. One night, the family buries their valuables in the backyard, even though keeping things from the Reich is an action punishable by death.

Herta Oberhauser, the third protagonist of the Lilac Girls, worships the Reich. As a medical student in Dusseldorf, Herta strives to use her work to bring honor to Germany. Her speech and thoughts are littered with anti-Semitism, as she finds herself falling into the trap of German propaganda, believing that Jews are stealing jobs from “hardworking Germans” (38). As Herta goes about her life, however, continuing her medical studies and caring for her sick father while Hitler’s power grows, it becomes clear that she faces her own set of prejudices, not so different from those of the Jews. As a woman, Herta is not taken seriously within the Reich. When she attends Camp Blossom, a German summer camp that uses lack of adult supervision to encourage young Aryan men and women to procreate, Herta watches her friend, Pippi get raped in an abandoned camp cabin. Herta decides to chop her long, blonde German hair off, throwing the pieces into the river, as an attempt to avoid male attention at camp. Her plan works, and she makes it home, “happily without a fertilized egg” (51), but cannot shake the sexist values of the camp when she returns home to Dusseldorf. Her function in society is to produce healthy German children, not to succeed in the medical profession. Her country buys into this German propaganda as well, and Herta finds herself unable to get work as a physician, despite having graduated second in her class at medical school. Desperate for money, she is forced to take up extra shifts at her Uncle Heinz’s meat market, where she uses her medical training and steady surgical hands to craft a lamb intestine condom for her uncle to slip on himself before he rapes her regularly in the walk-in freezer.

Caroline grows closer with Paul Rodierre, although ever-conscious of his estranged wife, Rena, in France, Caroline makes sure not to cross the fine line between friendship and romance that she walks with Paul. Her friends warn her of the dangers of pursuing an affair with a married man as Betty, Caroline’s dearest girlfriend, tells her, “once a reputation’s tarnished, there’s no polishing it” (54). One night, however, cognac and the crackle of a warm fire blur the lines between friendship and romance, and Paul and Caroline confess their feelings for each other. Despite his affections for Caroline, Paul has a deeper affection for his home country, and he tells Caroline he must leave New York for France. She understands and lets him go, unsure if she will ever see him again.

Herta’s situation has grown desperate as the bills pile up and her chances of working as a female doctor shrink. Starved for work, she answers an advertisement seeking a doctor for a women’s reeducation camp in the country. When Herta takes the train to the camp, it becomes clear that the camp is not so much a reeducation camp as it is a concentration camp by the name of Ravensbrück. Her colleague, Fritz, explains her duties: she will be responsible for lethally injecting and terminating the lives of female prisoners, in addition to other hellish responsibilities that will unfold later. Her conscience wavers as she considers staying, but eventually, desensitization and the thought of her family’s need for money forces Herta to stay at Ravensbrück.

In Poland, Kasia starts working for the underground. Led by Pietrik, the Polish underground delivers secret newspapers, packages and information around Lublin, while operating under Nazi noses. The thrill of working for the underground as an enemy spy excites Kasia, but one day she makes an error on a mission to deliver a package, and she is spotted by the SS. Soldiers arrest Kasia, Pietrik, her sister, Zuzanna, and even Kasia’s mother, Halina, who sees her children’s arrest and asks the soldiers to take her as well. The group is separated and Kasia, Matka and Zuzanna are put on a bus crowded with other Polish women and bound for Germany. The women are treated like animals on the train: given only one bucket for defecation between them and called a variety of racial slurs by vicious SS guards. Eventually, they reach their destination, Ravensbrück, and the women are made to strip and give up their belongings. Their heads are shaved and they are given a number, a mess kit and an assignment for hard labor. The girls originally believe that their stay at the camp will only be temporary, but as months pass and seasons change, they realize how wrong they were. One Christmas, during a head count known as Apell, Mrs. Mikelsky, Kasia’s math teacher, is attacked by the jaws of one of the guard dogs. Kasia is made to write her teacher’s number on her body and drag the lifeless corpse to a stack of bodies. She can feel herself breaking.

Herta, meanwhile, sees a different side of camp. As head doctor of Ravensbrück, she enjoys healthy, rich meals and a warm bed free of lice. Her work is stacking up, so she seeks the help of Halina, Kasia’s mother. A talented artist, Halina first gets Herta’s attention when she is commissioned to draw the portraits of the camp guards. The two develop a friendship as Herta sits to have her own portrait drawn, and Halina reveals that she used to be a nurse, herself. Herta recruits her to help in the infirmary, and Halina starts to take on more responsibilities. Halina teaches Herta the foxtrot, a traditional Polish dance, and helps Herta fill out condolence cards for the families of women killed at the camp. One day, a gas explosion injures a guard at camp and Herta and Halina rush to the scene. Halina takes no time in professionally stitching up the guard and cleaning the wound, as Herta looks on with medical admiration. Eventually, their budding friendship draws disapproval from several SS soldiers and, one day, Halina disappears, leaving Herta to infer that her friend is dead. Herta weeps, deeply grieved over the loss, and finding herself friendless again at Ravensbrück.

Kasia tries to make life at the camp fairly normal, as she tries to keep elements of childhood alive in the barracks, inventing a game called “Beauty Road,” in which the girls discuss what they would take down their final walk to the shooting wall. One day, however, all normalcy is shattered for Kasia and Zuzanna as their names are called and they are ordered to report to the infirmary. Kasia searches for her Matka in the medical building, but she cannot find her. Kasia, Zuzanna and several other girls are locked in a waiting room, stripped and shaved. One by one, the girls are taken by a nurse, knocked out and wheeled into an operating room. When Kasia, herself, is taken, crying out for her Matka the entire way, she awakens hours later with a heavy plaster cast on her leg, incredible pain and an unquenchable thirst. Her mother is still nowhere in sight, but the other girls in the recovery room have casts on their legs as well. Her sister, Zuzanna, clutches her belly on the bed next to Kasia, moaning. Some girls, like Pietrik’s 15-year old sister, Luiza, do not survive the operation. Kasia watches Dr. Herta Obehauser enter the recovery room and select the weakest girls to be wheeled out. Kasia’s leg is operated on by Dr. Oberhauser three more times, each time the incisions getting deeper and more painful, as if the doctor is trying to bring her to the brink of death and back again. One day, the cast is removed and Kasia props herself up in the operating room to see the rotting, smelly, black mass her leg has become from the doctor’s operations. Weeks pass as the women, nicknamed the Rabbits because of their status as laboratory rabbits and the painful hop the woman adopt to keep weight off their operated legs, recover in the hospital, trying to keep themselves busy with stories and glimpses of the outside world through the window. Eventually, they are released, as Dr. Oberhauser cruelly drags them outside, throwing a crutch after Kasia as she struggles to walk back to the barracks in the snow.

When Kasia’s friend Regina, also a Rabbit, is called to the firing wall one day, Kasia takes desperate measures and composes a letter to her father in secret urine ink, visible only when the letter is held up to heat. She writes that if her father correctly reads and understands the letter, he should send back a spool of red thread.

As Hitler has taken France, Caroline has been left with no updates from Paul. Her funds have grown limited as the French consulate is shut down, but French orphanages write to her every day, desperate for donations. Caroline sells her grandmother’s silver to afford the postage necessary to send donated care packages abroad. Caroline gets more creative in her means of securing funds, even cheating at a charity bridge game to secure that the winnings are donated to her French Families Fund. She even cuts up costumes from her days as an actress and fashions them into coats and mittens for orphanages.

As the last Christmas that Ravensbrück will ever see descends upon the camp, Herta notices that the traditional Christian elements of the holiday have been replaced by symbols of Nazi pride, as Hitler urges the country away from religion and closer to nationalistic pride. She stresses over the holiday season, worrying that when Germany loses the war, her involvement in the surgical Rabbit operations will send her to prison, or worse, the gallows. She decides to crack down on exterminating the Rabbits, a goal that eventually seems impossible as the camp’s overcrowding has helped the Rabbits blend into the sea of prisoners. The girls swap numbers with each other, avoiding detection.

One day, the camp electrician visits the barracks, singing of news headlines in French. He tells the girls that the Americans have invaded and help is on the way, as Soviet troops soon plan to liberate Ravensbrück. Kasia receives a Christmas package from her Papa; the contents of which include a poppy-seed cake, toothpaste and a spool of red thread.

Kasia’s moment of hopefulness is brief, however, for one night she and Zuzanna are summoned outside for a head count. Dr. Oberhauser is there with a clipboard checking the legs of the girls. They shiver as Dr. Oberhauser looks at their legs and adds their names to the clipboard. Both girls hold hands, preparing to go to the firing wall together even though rumors swirl that Swedish Red Cross ambulances are parked at the gates of the camp, threatening to ram the doors. When the lights in camp suddenly go out, sweeping up the camp in inky blackness, Kasia seizes her opportunity to escape with Zuzanna and the two make a break for the ambulances. The nurse controlling the ambulance boarding asks Kasia if she is French, as the ambulance has been instructed to only transport French prisoners. Kasia improvises, speaking a line from a French textbook she had in school to prove herself. The nurse relents and the ambulance drives on, bringing the girls to safety in Sweden, where they regain their strength on Swedish food until they are strong enough to return to Poland.

Having received word that Germany has lost the war, Herta leaves the camp on foot, walking home towards Dusseldorf with a sea of migrating Germans. She tries to think of the food her Mutti will cook her when she arrives home, stomach growling at the thought, but home is not quite what Herta expected. Chaos has rattled the German streets as no house is safe from looting and pillaging. When Herta arrives at home, she finds her mother gone and only her mother’s boyfriend, Gunther, living in the house. Gunther makes Herta uneasy, as he tells Herta that the Americans are looking for Herta, accusing her of committing “crimes against humanity.” She takes a bath only to have the door broken down by American soldiers who have come to arrest her. Desperate, she unsuccessfully tries to slit her wrists, but is carried out by the Americans.

Meanwhile, as America liberates Paris from the Germans, Caroline receives word from Paul that he is safely at the Hotel Lutetia and she leaves immediately on a ship to find him. She learns that his wife, Rena, has died in a concentration camp and Paul has suffered severely from typhus and a bout of pneumonia. His good looks remain, but his body has been severely weakened and Caroline must nurse him back to health. Old feelings rush back to her as she cares for Paul, and eventually he asks her to move in with him, permanently. She accepts, rushing home to pack her suitcase, but is due for a nasty surprise when she returns to Paul’s apartment to find that Rena has come back. Left for dead at the concentration camp, Rena escaped into the forest and found the cabin of a German family who nursed her to health. Eventually she was taken to a hospital when Soviet soldiers invaded and then found her way to Paul’s doorstep. She tells Caroline that on the day she was deported, she gave birth to Paul’s child—a child he does not know exists—and dropped the child at an orphanage on Easter Sunday four years ago. She asks Caroline to recover the child and she asks Caroline to give Paul up. Caroline obliges to both of the requests, choosing charity instead of heartbreak. She uses her connections in French orphanages to track down the child, using only the details of the child’s birthdate to identify her. At Orphelinat Saint-Phillippe, she is startled by the sight of a young girl with dark hair and almond eyes: a perfect replica of Paul. The orphanage tells her the girl’s name is Pascaline, a French name that means “born on Easter.” The girl is reunited with her birth parents and Caroline slips out of Paul’s life.

The Nuremburg trials begin for Herta and she shows little repentance for her actions, defending her crimes by claiming that they were for the good of Germany. She is sentenced to 20 years in prison, a lucky sentence considering the death sentences that many of her medical comrades have received, including Dr. Gebhardt, who hangs at the gallows. She cannot imagine the idea of a life without medicine and she begins a letter-writing campaign to mayors throughout Germany.

Meanwhile, Zuzanna and Kasia have been given clearance to return to Poland and they find their own set of surprises when the door to their old house swings open. Their father has taken a lover, Marthe, and he looks older than Kasia remembers. Although the war for the rest of the world has ended, Soviet occupation of Poland has just dragged the war on for Polish families. The Red Army has given Polish residents strict curfews, deadlines and rules to govern their lifestyle. Every day, Kasia searches the list of missing citizens to see if Pietrik or Nadia have returned to her, and every day she is disappointed. Her sister gets a job at the hospital and slowly things start to return to normal for the family, despite the aching silence of Matka’s absence. Kasia starts to take nursing classes in town, caring for wounded Red Army soldiers. One day, she cleans the dirty face of a Red Army soldier to find a familiar face below: Pietrik’s. Although both carry significant baggage and Pietrik’s soul seems darker, the original childhood love they once had still exists between them. They marry in her father’s postal office, the only space where they can get away from the watchful eyes of Soviet soldiers. Shortly after, Kasia gives birth to a daughter, Halina.

Caroline and her mother return to New York, where they throw themselves into the world of charity, the post-war country now even more desperate for donations. Letters from Paul are rare, however, Caroline has found a new attachment close to her heart: the charity for the Ravensbrück Rabbits. Caroline learns of the horror stories of the women operated on at the camp, and she starts a private donation fund for the girls. One night, as she puts the finishing touches on a gala for her charity, she is startled when she sees Paul’s name on a placecard, accompanied by the name Leena Rodierre. Caroline assumes Leena is his wife, and her heart sinks when the couple arrives and she sees how achingly beautiful Paul’s new young wife is. Her assumption proves to be wrong, however, as she learns that Leena is actually Pascaline, Paul’s daughter. Even ten years later, sparks still fly between Caroline and Paul at the gala as he tells her that Rena left him years earlier. He invites her to Paris and she considers going.

Ten years after Ravensbrück, Kasia is not healing. She is still haunted by the unanswered question of what exactly happened to her mother at the camp and it strains her relationships. She and Pietrik sleep in different beds and when she sees how much her daughter likes painting—as much as her own mother liked painting—she snaps and breaks the paintbrushes. Zuzanna’s life post-camp, too, feels hopeless. Overworked and underpaid at the hospital, Zuzanna still cannot call Poland home again, as Soviet occupation of the city has tainted everything. Both women need help, desperately.

Caroline runs a story in The Saturday Review about the Ravensbrück Rabbits, effectively pulling the heartstrings of America. Thousands of people send in donations for the women, and Caroline gather up enough money to bring the Rabbits to America for reconstructive surgeries and a chance at normalcy. She flies to Poland where she meets Kasia and Zuzanna and hears their heartbreaking stories, Kasia’s leg like a gutted fish and Zuzanna’s womb inhospitable, as she was sterilized at camp. Zuzanna is due for another startling revelation as Caroline’ medical board examines her: she has gastic cancer. Originally, Zuzanna’s condition prevents her from flying to New York, but authorities make an exception and the girls fly to New York. Kasia’s leg is reconstructed, as decade-old shrapnel is removed from her leg, planted there by Dr. Oberhauser, and she can walk without stabbing pain. Zuzannah, too, gets help as she undergoes chemotherapy to cure her of cancer. The girls throw themselves into the luxuries of New York City—a place so different from the town they left behind in Poland.

Zuzanna and Caroline hit it off immediately as the two become instant friends. Zuzanna also starts a relationship with Serge, Caroline’s cook. She receives a visa to stay in America as Mount Sinai hospital asks her to stay on and teach a class. Kasia’s heart breaks at the thought of returning to Poland without her sister, but Zuzanna tells her sister that there is no life for her in Poland. At least in New York, she has a chance at medicine, love and even a family, as Caroline promises that she and Serge can adopt a French child if they make things more permanent.

Caroline has news for Kasia, too: her sources tell her that Dr. Oberhauser has started practicing medicine again. Although she was originally sentenced to 20 years in prison, Dr. Oberhauser was released after serving only five years. She tells Kasia that the only way to stop her is if someone visits her medical practice and makes a positive identification. Too scared to confront the woman of her hellish nightmares, Kasia refuses her mission. As she returns to Poland, however, Kasia realizes just important visiting Dr. Oberhauser could be. Her relationships in Poland are crumbling as the toxic hate Kasia harbors pushes Pietrik and Halina away. Full of bitterness and hate over the loss of her mother, Kasia gets drunk one night and arrives at her daughter’s school art show, making a drunken scene. She awakens the next morning and takes the package of visas and money Caroline sent her and leaves to find Herta Oberhauser.

As Kasia drives to meet Herta, meanwhile, her sister is getting married in America. Zuzanna and Serge have adopted a young Canadian child and they enjoy a small ceremony in Caroline’s backyard, a radical juxtaposition from the Hell Kasia is about to endure at Dr. Oberhauser’s office.

After harassment from Soviet soldiers at the West German checkpoint, Kasia arrives at Herta Oberhauser’s family medical practice. Uneasy in the waiting room, Kasia watches mothers bounce their babies on their knees as they wait for the doctor. She cannot imagine how anyone would let that woman touch their children, and the mission suddenly grows even more important. She makes her way into the doctor’s office, the last appointment of the day, and comes face to face with her past as Herta Obehauser opens the door and enters. At first, she does not remember Kasia, however, panic soon sets in as Kasia reveals her true identity as Halina’s daughter. Suddenly brave, Kasia make Herta tell her the story of her mother. Herta tells her that she and Halina were very close at Ravensbrück, as Kasia’s mother was a good worker and a good artist. However, Halina was stealing bandages and medicine and one day, she was caught trying to alter the list of prisoners on the operations list as she tried to take Kasia and her sister off the list. Halina was punished and sent to the firing wall one night. Her final wish was to say goodbye to her children, and the guards relented, allowing her to kiss them goodbye as both Kasia and Zuzanna lay recovering in the infirmary, having just been operated upon. Kasia feels the hate slipping out of her as she realizes that her mother got to say goodbye after all. Before she leaves, she makes Herta give her the ring she wears, after recognizing the ring as her mother’s.

Kaisa sends a telegram to Caroline, confirming that Dr. Oberhauser is indeed the doctor from Ravensbrück, and makes her way home. She crawls back into bed with Peitrik, left with the feeling of her love clicking into place.

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