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Historical Inspiration

for Lilac Girls

Victoria Magazine, May 1999

It all started with Victoria Magazine.

I carried this article from the May 1999 Victoria Magazine around with me for months, not knowing it would lead me to write Lilac Girls, a novel about Caroline Ferriday and how she comes to the aid of a group of Polish women who had survived Ravensbruck, Hitler’s only all-female concentration camp. I have a crazy love of all things lilac and fell hard for the story of Caroline Ferriday and her garden.

The article said she was an incredible woman: Broadway actress, debutante, philanthropist: “When she wasn’t on stage or abroad, the debonair Shakespearean actress Miss Caroline Ferriday always headed for the Victorianized colonial home she’d inherited from her parents in 1953.”  The article was in my wallet for so long it became smooth and shiny. I’d take it out and read it, hoping to take the drive, three hours north of where I lived in Fairfield, to Bethlehem, Ct. But at the time I had three young children, so it was hard to break away.

I finally drove up the Taconic Parkway one spring Sunday and visited the Bellamy-Ferriday House. I was the only visitor on the tour of the lovely old federal-style home that day. The guide led me room to room, telling Caroline’s story.

She stopped at the crewelwork curtains Caroline’s mother Eliza had sewn (above) and told stories about the glorious garden, filled with specimen plantings the Ferridays collected from their European travels. She took me to Caroline’s bedroom, which overlooks the garden and to the adjacent landing where Caroline’s desk is just as she’d left it, with her framed photo of Charles de Gaulle and manual typewriter.

But it was the black and white photograph of a group of Polish women there on the desk that stopped me. “They are the Lapins–the rabbits,” the guide said. “Caroline took up their cause after they were experimented upon by the Nazis at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.” At the end of the tour we went to the charming little gift shop in the old summer kitchen behind the house.

I looked for a book about Caroline, but there wasn’t one. I pulled out of the gravel driveway, a lilac plant in my trunk, barely more than a stick, purchased from the small group of plants at the house, (a tradition Eliza Ferriday started, of offering cuttings of the estate’s plants to anyone who wanted to propagate their plants.) Somehow bewitched by the house and Caroline’s story, I thought of nothing else on the ride home. Once I planted the lilac stick in my own garden I set out to learn everything I could about Caroline Ferriday and the story of how she rallied America around The Rabbits. How she dedicated her life to making sure these women were not forgotten. That lilac is a full grown shrub now–it took that long to write the story. And I’m glad I did, on a mission to tell the story of Caroline and the Rabbits, eventually called Lilac Girls. (Finished product, below.)

The Train to Ravensbruck

My son and I took the train from Warsaw to Berlin, then up to Furstenberg, to recreate the route the Polish girls took to Ravensbruck. The youngest 14 years old, most of those arrested by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbruck were political prisoners, former Girl Scouts who’d joined the underground in an attempt to defeat Hitler. Crossing the Polish border into Germany was interesting. Not only does the changing of the staff alert you to the border crossing, our German conductor spoke excellent English, something that put us at ease.

The Hauptbahnhof in Berlin is an incredible architectural feat. We changed trains there and rode a little over an hour up to Furstenberg. What a strange feeling it was to stand on the same platform that Ravensbruck prisoners stepped onto over seventy years ago. Back then they were met by german shepherds and the rubber truncheons of guards. We were lucky to disembark with little fuss and start the long walk along beautiful Lake Schwedt to Ravensbruck, not sure what we’d find at the camp. Walking the same route the prisoners took was helpful in writing scenes in Lilac Girls.

Next Stop, Warsaw

Warsaw is such a vibrant city and very much recovered since being completely razed by Hitler’s troops after the second Warsaw uprising. Though the city was irreparably changed after Nazi troops systematically destroyed the entire city, including the fourteenth century cathedral and medieval Royal Castle, a complex of late baroque palaces around Pilsudski Square, the national archives and 93 percent of Warsaw’s dwellings,  there is still so much to explore in the city today.

We met Ms. Alicja Kubecka at the Church of St. Joseph of the Visitationists to see the lovely memorial plaque put there to memorialize the Polish women imprisoned and murdered at Ravensbruck concentration camp.

After we toured the church, we set up our camera in the adjacent park and I began the two hour interview. She took me through her arrest in the fall of 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising , her transport to Ravensbruck with her best friend, her time at Ravensbruck and then at Genshagen forced labor camp where she worked making Mercedes-Daimler airplane engines and her eventual return home. It was difficult for Alicja at times, especially talking about her best friend’s fate and Alicja’s return home to find her mother, but she seemed determined to tell her story.

It was so useful to hear Alicja talk about Ravensbruck first hand. She was happy to provide even the smallest details about the camp, down to what kind of towels and soap they provided at her processing (tiny and none) which really helped in writing scenes once I came home. In addition to the wealth of details and stories about the camp Alicja gave me, I came away with admiration for her tremendous sense of forgiveness. She could have ended up bitter and angry but almost glows when she talks about how she has forgiven the German people and travels to Germany often on goodwill trips.

A Life-changing Place

It’s somewhat terrifying descending into the Museum of Martyrdom Under the Clock (Muzeum Martyrologii Pod Zegarem.) I’d read many cryptic references to “Under the clock” in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp survivor testimonies and was beyond curious to see it for myself.

The museum is a short walk from the lovely old  Grand Hotel Lublinianka where we were staying, housed in the basement of the building the Nazis used for their Lublin headquarters. A visitor wouldn’t give it a second look, for it’s an ordinary- looking building from the outside, but there is a hellish prison below, now a museum dedicated to those who gave their lives in the extraordinarily active Polish underground. Heroic members of the “gray ranks,” codename for the underground paramilitary Polish Scouting Association, members of the AK [Home Army] and WiN [Freedom and Independence] are all remembered here, with exhibits in the cells that once held them.

Barbara Oratowska, the museum director, the perfect godmother for the museum, stayed with us most of the morning answering questions and telling incredible stories about the torture and brutality that happened in the building. The story she told about Grazyna Chrostowska (pictured at top) who wrote poetry while at Ravensbruck and Pola, her sister, will stay with me forever. Both were executed at Ravensbruck. I was thrilled to find this photo of the women I had been writing about, pictured below, in later, happier times.

Was also excited to see a photo displayed in one of the cells of the woman I was to interview in Warsaw the following week, Alicja Kubecka (below.) She turned out to be an incredible person and remains an inspiration to this day.

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