After writer Martha Hall Kelly read an article in a lifestyle magazine about a New England garden, she began an odyssey toward something she wasn’t consciously seeking.
“It was surreal even for me,” Kelly, author of the acclaimed book “Lilac Girls” told The Times of Israel.
For months, Kelly carried the Victoria magazine article with her, hoping to visit the famed lilac garden of actress Caroline Ferriday a three-hour drive north in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Finally, on Mother’s Day in 2000, Kelly’s husband offered to care for their three children so Kelly, who had lost her own mother that past January, could see the garden.
She was the only visitor to the manor that day, and as she was given a personal room-to-room tour, Kelly was struck by a framed black and white photograph of a group of Polish women on Ferriday’s desk.
The guide explained that the women were the “Rabbits of Ravensbruck,” a group of Polish concentration camp survivors who underwent gruesome Nazi medical experiments.
Kelly was immediately drawn into their story, obscured by history, and how Ferriday brought them to the US for post-war rehabilitation.
Kelly continued researching, ultimately spending 10 years working toward a goal that remained unknown even to her. She only began writing when she accidentally drank a caffeinated Starbucks cappuccino instead of her usual decaf one morning. What turned into her first book became an immediate New York Times bestseller.
“Through the whole thing, I felt responsible for telling their story,” Kelly says.
With fact woven into fiction, “Lilac Girls” explores the lives of its three narrators. The late Ferriday was a New York resident who summered in Connecticut, cultivating lilacs, sending out charged correspondence about a variety of issues and running charitable campaigns.
But Ferriday wasn’t all talk. She soon brought the group of Ravensbruck survivors — the only Nazi concentration camp solely for women — to the US for treatment in the post-war period.
In addition to Ferriday, the book’s other narrators are a Nazi physician, Herta Oberheuser, and a young Polish girl, Kasia, a composite character based on the political prisoners who became “rabbits.” The prisoners-turned-laboratory animals were nicknamed for both the experiments they underwent as well as how they hopped around the camp after sometimes fatal procedures in which dirt, rusty nails and other items were inserted into their flesh to test the efficacy of sulfa drugs.
“I had learned about Herta Oberheuser, the only female doctor at the only female camp and I was so fascinated by how could a woman do this to another woman,” Kelly says. “And then I wanted to add Kasia, one of the rabbits.”
‘I was so fascinated by how could a woman do this to another woman’
The book has since spawned a forthcoming documentary by a friend and colleague of Kelly’s, as well as two prequels, recently acquired by Random House. The upcoming one features Eliza, Caroline’s mother, as its main character, and is due out in 2018.
Kelly is not Jewish, nor were the “rabbits.” But JCCs across the United States have invited her to speak about her book and its fascinating intersection with this period of Jewish interest. She appeared at the Sid Jacobson JCC of Greenvale, New York on May 4, and has upcoming engagements at the JCC of Springfield, Massachusetts on May 11 and the Bender JCC of Greater Washington on June 22.
Kelly, who is Catholic, was nervous Jewish audiences would reject the book, since, as she says, Poland has a long history of anti-Semitism. However, the book depicts Zegota, The Council to Aid Jews, an underground system of Poles dedicated to the resistance.
“It is one of my greatest surprises after writing the book that Jewish readers not only enjoyed the book and related to the characters, but sang its praises from the rooftops and gifted it to their friends,” Kelly says. “We never fail to get into the deepest, most intense discussions in the Q & A part of my talks at JCCs. It’s such a pleasure.”
Kelly has addressed more than 25 JCCs on the East Coast and Midwest, and plans for more this spring.
“I feel so blessed that the Jewish community has embraced ‘Lilac Girls’ in such a big way,” Kelly says. “Though the story centers around Catholic political prisoners experimented on at Ravensbruck and there are only six Jewish characters in the book, this community has welcomed it with open arms and never fail to show genuine sorrow about what happened to these women. I think it shows an incredible generosity of spirit.”
In addition to considerable research, music has played an important part of Kelly’s process.
“I need complete silence when I write. But I walk a lot and listen to music when I’m walking to evoke certain scenes and moods,” she says. “Sometimes I imagine a specific scene as I listen and then translate it to the page when I get home.”
About six years ago, in 2011, Kelly took her son with her to Poland and Germany. They began their research trip in Lublin.
“Once Hitler invaded, the girl scouts joined the underground and were arrested for petty activities like changing signs in the town and painting anchors, a symbol of the Polish underground. And their punishment was being sent to Ravensbruck,” Kelly says. “You can still feel the souls there.”
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