As part of Bas Bleu’s 2017 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus material about our Bluestocking BAM selection to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
More than seventy years have passed since World War II ended, yet stories of heroism and horror during that global conflict continue to emerge. Novelist Martha Hall Kelly tapped a real-life, little-known story of one American’s wartime efforts in order to write Lilac Girls, our “riveting, sometimes brutal” February 2017 Book a Month selection. The novel traces the experiences of three women—American socialite Caroline Ferriday, Polish teenager Kasia Kuzmerick, and concentration-camp doctor Herta Oberheuser—during and after the war. Recently the author took a break from her busy writing schedule to answer several (we had so many!) questions about this remarkable story.
Bas Bleu: Lilac Girls is a work of fiction, but Caroline and Herta were real people, and Kasia and Zuzanna were based on a real-life pair of Polish sisters. How did you first encounter their stories, and what inspired you to write a novel about them?
Martha Hall Kelly: I stumbled upon the true story behind Lilac Girls during a visit to Caroline Ferriday’s lovely summer home she called The Hay, now called The Bellamy-Ferriday House and Gardens, in Bethlehem, Connecticut. I visited the house because I love lilacs—Caroline and her mother collected specimens from around the world—and ended up falling in love with her and her story. Once I researched Caroline’s life in the archives she left there in the root cellar of her home, I discovered Nina Ivanska and her sister Krystyna, the real-life inspirations for the two Polish sisters. I went to Lublin, Poland, and found incredible information about them, including one of the secret letters from the book, now under glass at a museum.
BB: You grew up in New England, like Caroline Ferriday, and you had access to her archives. But how did you immerse yourself in Kasia and Herta’s worlds and mindsets? You created separate, distinct voices for all three women. How difficult was it to juggle such disparate primary characters without giving any of them short shrift? Did you focus on writing one character’s story at a time, or did you jump back and forth between them as the story progressed chronologically?
MHK: I had to go to Poland and Germany to immerse myself in Kasia and Herta’s mindsets. Walking around Lublin, Poland, where the Rabbits [the nickname for Polish political prisoners subjected to medical experiments at Ravensbrück concentration camp] were arrested for working in the underground against the Nazis, was so moving. To see Lublin Castle where they were imprisoned. To walk the vast area that was once the Jewish ghetto, razed to nothing by the Nazis. It was incredible. Then I took the same train route the Rabbits were forced to take once they were arrested, from Warsaw, to Berlin, and then up to Furstenberg. Stepping off the same train platform the women did almost seventy years before, you could almost feel their despair. The barracks are gone now from Ravensbrück, but many buildings survive including the shooting wall the women were all so terrified of, the crematoria, the prison bunker. It really helped the scenes come alive.
BB: We struggle to understand how anyone with a conscience could commit the crimes the Nazis did. Before she begins working at Ravensbrück, Herta, though not exactly lovable, doesn’t come across as inherently evil. We even see her balk initially at her responsibilities once it becomes clear to her what they will be. Was it more difficult to send her character along an arc from sympathetic to heinous than it might have been to make her awful from the get go?
MHK: It definitely took a lot more work to give Herta more of an arc but it’s one of my favorite things about the book, since it shows how an average person could one day be sitting in an office and the next day be participating in murdering people in the name of their country.
BB: How did you cope, mentally and emotionally, with the daily experience of sitting down at your writing desk and diving into the world of Ravensbrück? We imagine it would be hard enough for historians writing nonfiction about the Holocaust; do you think it was more difficult as a fiction writer, having to put yourself in Kasia and Herta’s minds and to write dialogue for them?
MHK: I loved delving into the world of Ravensbrück. I felt like I was the custodian of the story for these women, who suffered through so much, and I wanted to get the details right and transport readers there, to make them feel what the women felt. So I pushed through the horrifying details in order to make the story come alive. I never considered soft pedaling what it was like there. I was too focused on helping readers see and feel the reality of it. It may be hard feeling what it was like to be in Ravensbrück, but only then can you feel the deep satisfaction of what it was like to come out the other side and finally triumph.
BB: The fraught relationships between Kasia and her husband and child are frustrating for readers thinking, “You survived! Just be happy!” And yet her family bears the burden of her trauma too. Was that your plan for Kasia’s story all along, or did her post-war family life take shape for you during the course of writing the novel?
MHK: In my travels on book tour I’ve met so many readers who share their stories, and they often tell me how hard it was on the families of concentration camp survivors. The Rabbits were no different and this is what I wanted to show with Kasia’s relationships. It was not my plan all along to have her react as she did, by pushing her husband away and sabotaging her relationship with her young daughter. But as I researched survivor’s stories and as Kasia herself evolved, it felt right to have her struggle with it all. After all, she was only a child herself when she was operated on. I wanted to show the lasting trauma that horrible physical and mental wound would leave with a teenager.
BB: The tale of the Ravensbrück Rabbits is incredible yet true. When it comes to the horrifying medical experiments suffered by concentration-camp prisoners, Dr. Mengele is usually the only Nazi doctor Americans learn about. Why do you think everyday Americans know so little about what happened at Ravensbrück?
MHK: After the war the Soviet Union kept Poland behind the Iron Curtain, so many things were just lost or suppressed, including stories like those of the Rabbits. While West Germany went on about their business of rebuilding, Poland was silenced, their rights curtailed, until the late eighties. It seemed horribly unfair to me, but I think that is why Americans know relatively little of the true story behind Lilac Girls. Similarly, Ravensbrück was located in East Germany, under Soviet control and occupied by Russian soldiers, so that camp’s history has come out relatively recently.
BB: After the truth about the Holocaust came to light, the world swore “never again.” And yet, since World War II, genocides have occurred in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Darfur. And the war in Syria has created a refugee crisis of global proportions, helping to stir up anti-immigrant/nationalist fervor. Do you think the world has forgotten the lessons of the Holocaust?
MHK: In many ways, yes. As each generation is added, these critical lessons slip further from our collective memory. But sadly, even generations that know and remember the history seem to have forgotten the consequences of isolationism and the dangers of hate-filled rhetoric. Forgotten how listening to only one news source can lead to a crippling tunnel vision. How people need positive voices to combat anti-Semitism and racial hatred. Caroline Ferriday was one of those positive voices, so hopefully she helps remind us all that one person can make a tremendous difference.
BB: On a lighter note, which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?
MHK: My mother was a huge believer in early childhood education and swore reading to my three siblings and me was the key to success in life. She often read us Charlotte’s Web, her favorite and it became mine as well. I still get cravings for it and love rereading it. That book has it all! I also loved Jane Eyre. Jane’s story changed me in so many ways and got me hooked on historical fiction early on. Also The Little Princess. So tragic and so satisfying. As a teen I loved the book Good Times, Bad Times by John Kirkwood. I found a copy on eBay and reread that again recently and it is still so good.
BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?
MHK: I love Lynn Cullen’s books, Mrs. Poe and Twain’s End. She has a new one coming out soon, too. I also often recommend a book by Stef Penney called The Tenderness of Wolves. Amazing descriptions. You’d swear she wrote it from the wilds of Canada but she never set foot there and wrote it from her hometown in Scotland.
BB: What future projects can readers look forward to seeing from you?
MHK: I have two new books coming soon, both prequels to Lilac Girls. Can’t wait to share them!
BB: A hearty Bas Bleu “thank you” to Martha Hall Kelly for sharing her “behind-the-scenes” insight into this incredible novel!
Don’t want to miss another post from The Bluestocking Salon? Sign up to receive our posts via email! Just scroll down past the comments section and you’ll see a space where you can enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts.