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Why everyone should read Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Have you ever read a book that you just can’t stop thinking about when you close the cover on the last page? I needed a book to read on the airplane on my way to the SNAP Conference this weekend, (This post contains an affiliate link) and read Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. I bought it while breezing though the airport at a book stall. It sounded interesting, and very timely since my own lilacs just bloomed. I actually put off reading it (instead I watched 3/4 of  Florence Foster Jenkins… I don’t know why. ), until the plane ride home. And, then I couldn’t put it down. I know I share decorating and lots of fun,pretty stuff on here, but I really wanted to share this book with you, because it has just dug into the center of me and won’t let go.

Why everyone should read Lilac girls by Martha Hall Kelly.

My grandmother’s mother came to America on a ship from Poland as an immigrant. Around the turn of the century she braved the Ocean, pregnant,with her oldest son and daughter who at the time were 6 and 4. Her husband was already in Chicago, working. After she arrived with her children,which seemed like it would be the land of hope and opportunity, it was a hard life. She had several children die from things that are easily treatable today and they were placed in unmarked graves because they were so poor. My great-grandfather passed away at a young age, and she was left widowed with only 6 of 9 living children by 1930. Her story has always intrigued me. Looking up my family tree several years ago, I found one of my Gram’s sister’s passed away from pneumonia at age 2. I never even knew she existed. I went to find her grave at the cemetery, and when I finally located it, there was nothing there but an empty field with mowed grass, at 2 years old, she had just been forgotten about. I cried for days.

My kids recently asked me if any of our family was involved in the Holocaust, if they ever went to concentration camps, since we had relatives in Poland at the time. I had to answer honestly. I don’t know, I don’t know what they experienced. I do know that Anna left family  behind, and we did have family there during the war, because, I remember as  a young child my grandmother talking to older relatives  in rapid-fire Polish on the phone, yelling to be heard long distance. I do remember a time when it was under communist rule, and we would send care packages. We would break up shoes into two packages so they couldn’t be grabbed as a pair and sold on the black market. I also remember asking my mother why she was hiding straight pins and money in  a bag in a jar of powdered iced tea, and taping the top and she answered, “So they don’t take it in customs.”  It makes me sad that once my Gram and the aunt’s we gone, we lost that connection.

Purple lilacs in spring

I also remember an old, old aunt visiting us during that time, and going to the grocery store with my gram and great aunt. When they went to the butcher counter, and my Great Aunt started rejecting cuts of meat the butcher  was showing her, my Polish aunt grabbed my great Aunt’s arm in a fearful panic and said “Sophie, just take what they give you, our they’ll put us in jail.” It left me dumbstruck that she wasn’t free to have a choice, of something so simple.

I remember those things. People living in oppression. But, in all of the things I wished, it was that I had asked my grandmother about our history. WW II was something I never asked her about, and now I wish I had. My mother-in-law lived through it as a small child in England and she still remembers the bombs being dropped, and her school being hit. She’s in her 80’s, it’s so far away, and it still leaves scars.

Lilac Girls is about young Polish women (girls really ) sent to an all-female concentration camp, and their stories, as well as Caroline Ferriday, who championed for them. Even though the book is work of fiction, it is based on a true story.  It made realize that a  many of us don’t know real war. While I am the child of a Vietnam Veteran, and know the after-effects of that in a parent,I don’t know real war. I can say, it’s uncomfortable to think about other atrocities thousands of miles  or even years way, and still not truly understand them. I started thinking about Anna, and how she must have felt knowing what her family back home was going through, and if she was filled with rage at who has the right to decide that kind of injustice. I wondered if she was puzzled by why her people were seen as not worthy just because of who they were, and their geography. I couldn’t imagine how deeply the fear must have been in the Jewish community, knowing there was no way out.

Single purple lilac blossoms

As I read Lilac Girls, it also always amazes me, the ways people have survived in times of intense suffering. And how, after being completely broken, they can emerge whole.

Upclose lilac girls

So read Lilac Girls. Maybe you won’t be as effected as I was. But read Lilac Girls to remember. I realized this week is actually Holocaust week, and it struck an even deeper chord in me. WW II actually wasn’t that long ago. People are still alive that experienced it today. It’s amazing how timely it is, how relevant it is today, and how we shouldn’t forget.


  1. I will have to look for this at my library Jen. It sounds like a testament to inner strength and faith. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you for sharing. I love a book that leaves an impression on you weeks or sometimes even years after you’ve read it. I was thinking about living during wartime after recently seen the PBS special about the great war. I know that since the Civil War we really haven’t had a war on our homefront where soldiers are literally walking through your backyard and your home is being damaged from bombs. It is unthinkable yet such a reality for many people in the world!

  3. It is so funny that you are talking about this, because we have been watching a docu-series on Netflix about the World Wars over the past two weeks in the evenings. We’ve been so intrigued and saddened watching how the events unfolded. I taught 5th grade, where American History was part of the curriculum, but it was more of a topical approach, i.e. the events leading up to the wars, and why the US got involved. Now, looking at the individual battles – and the people involved, all I can think about is that they were real people just like us, and life was so very hard and scary. Millions and Millions were enslaved and killed. No wonder we call those from that era the greatest generation – they deserve it!

    1. I know! It’s so easy to state the facts, but it’s the real human stories behind it that matter.

  4. I also read this book recently. I love WWII fiction but this book struck me. I thought about it for days. Glad to see it made a strong impression on someone else. Thanks for sharing

  5. This is a very powerful post. Recently my husband and I took our 7 year old granddaughter to a museum and they had a section about brave children, Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White. As we approached the entrance to the section of Anne Frank she stopped dead in her tracks and told us she didn’t want to go in. At 7 years old she already understood enough to know what Anne Frank and her family went through. It was quite a moment for the three of us. Thank you for sharing your family’s story. You come from a strong, brave family.

    1. Thank you Becky. I agree with you,It’s important to remember the history behind us.

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