Another Childless Woman Redefining Feminine Legacy: Caroline Ferriday


When I told a friend that I was reading Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, she let out a sigh and said, "That is one hard book."

Actually, I listened to the arduous story of 72 Polish Catholic women imprisoned in Adolf Hitler's only all-female concentration camp as an audiobook. It's the only way my busy schedule can accommodate my love of good books, and this is a very good book.

With all the cable specials, and movies, and books, and on and on, you would think that we know everything there IS to know about Germany's Third Reich, and yet.

Had you heard of the Ravensbrück camp near Berlin where women were subjected to "research" surgeries that removed bone and muscle and replaced them with dirt and nails? Did you know the horrible, true story of the "rabbits," so named because they were, after all, experimental lab animals? Also, many of them were forced to hop about, if they survived their surgeries at all.

Did you know about the New York and Connecticut heiress, ex-actress and philanthropist who championed the rabbits? At the end of World War II, Caroline Ferriday was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French Government for her active support of the French Resistance.

Well deserved honors for sure, but Caroline's work to gain money, medical care, employment and more for the "rabbits" is why she is most remembered today. Once she heard their story, she was drawn to bring many to America for restorative treatments. In 1958, she raised $5,000 for their rehabilitation, which was quite a sum back then, and she remained close to the Polish survivors until she died in 1990 at age 87. That's Caroline at far right, celebrating Christmas 1958 in her home with several ex-rabbits.

Unlike Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who created a list to save more than 1,100 Jews from certain death during the War, Caroline was childless and never married. Many biographers describe her relationship to the rescued survivors as maternal. Looking for an example of a childless woman's legacy? Here's Caroline.

Lilac Girls author Martha Hall Kelly tells the "rabbits" experience -- before, during and after -- through alternating voices of three women. One is a fictional composite to represent every prisoner's torture. The others are two real-life women, Caroline Ferriday and German doctor Herta Oberheuser who performed many of the experiments. Dr. Oberheuser was the only female physician at the camp, and the only female defendant at the Nuremberg.trials.

In 2017, you can visit Caroline's family home in Bethlehem, Connecticut, and what's left of Ravensbrück in Germany. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC features information on all of the horrific facts.

If you love learning through historical fiction as I do, Lilac Girls is a goodie, and there are no spoilers in this post. Yes, it is hard, but so was the 2017 murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, also committed by Nazis and their friends.

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