Here we read about three women. Two were real people - Caroline Ferriday, a New York Broadway actress who at the beginning of the war is working in the French Consulate, doing her best to help French orphans, refugees, trying to keep the lines of communication open. The other actual person is a German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, who takes up a job in the Ravensbruck camp, doing unspeakable things to women prisoners. The third character, Kasia Kurzmerick, although fictional, is based on a number of Polish women who were interred in the camp and subject to medical experimentation. These women became known as the Rabbits - for being experimented on and because they all ended up with a limp, hopping around the camp. It wasn't until after the war that Caroline Ferriday became aware of these survivors of such brutality and used her many connections in New York to ensure they received reparations from the German government.
Fact and fiction are effortlessly woven together, with well rounded characters. The awfulness of the war is always present, its brutality. It is amazing really that any women survived Ravensbruck, let alone those weakened and deformed by the experiments. For what she did at the camp, Herta Oberheuser was the only female doctor tried at the Nuremberg war trials. She is perhaps the most intriguing character, brainwashed like so many Germans were, but also a doctor, pledged to care for the sick, and yet she is able to justify and rationalise her actions in the camp. She can leave, but chooses not to, money being the prime motivation for her to stay. Very disturbing.
And the lilacs? Caroline's favourite plant, and also in Kasia's parents' garden in Lublin, Poland, that were still growing at the end of the war, a symbol of endurance and rebirth. The story of how the author came to write the book is in itself also a great story, and I think she has written a marvellous tribute to Caroline Ferriday and above all the women of Ravensbrook.