Monthly Archives: July 2018

“Lilac Girls” by Martha Hall Kelly


LILAC GIRLS, Martha Hall Kelly

Review by Carol J. Biedrzycki

Lilac Girls is the story of strong women whose lives were driven by World War II.  Two are real life historic figures.  Caroline Ferriday was a generous American humanitarian who worked tirelessly to help those being oppressed in Europe during the war.  Herta Oberheuser was a German doctor who pledged loyalty to the Nazi party to gain economic security and prestige.  Kasia Kuzmerick, one of the victims of medical experimentation at Ravensbrück, is a composite character who suffered physical and emotional abuse.  Ms. Ferriday was responsible for bringing them together.  Lilac Girls is their story.

The personal backgrounds and motives of the Lilac Girls are a unique snapshot of the much written about Nazi occupation of Europe.  The stories of the three women are told through the eyes of Caroline, Herta and Kasia.  Each of the narrators has a unique voice that took me on a voyage with ports-of-call in the United States, Germany, and Poland.

Society’s expectations for women in 1939 were stereotypical and narrow.  A woman married and stayed at home to look after the children while her husband worked and brought in a weekly wage. A single woman was pitied and she usually did work which involved some form of service such as working as a waitress, cooking, and housekeeping.  No matter how well or how hard they worked, a man was always the boss.  Women did as they were told.

Societal norms in Nazi-occupied Europe didn’t budge when it came to giving women a fair chance.   Women were targets for sexual abuse and discrimination with no recourse short of suicide.  None of the Lilac Girls could live within society’s expectations and be happy.   Because they were women they had to take risks to survive and fulfill their personal goals.

I am of Polish decent.  I have deceased relatives who were political prisoners in Nazi-occupied Poland.  Besides learning about the difficulties experienced by Europeans trying to immigrate to the United States I was entrenched in the details of the plight of the Polish people who were much like my relatives who never talked about their experiences.

I bought Lilac Girls because I liked the cover photo.  It jumped into my hands and turned out to be a profound reading experience.  Martha Hall Kelly spent ten years researching this book and it shows.  When I started reading it I couldn’t put it down.  When I finished reading it I had to share it with my reading friends.  Everyone has thanked me for letting them know about Lilac Girls.

Carol Biedrzycki, an avid life-long reader, is a recently retired Executive Director of a non-profit in Austin.  She is spending the summer in Montague working at the Book Nook.

Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, August 6.  Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.


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“The Trick” by Emanuel Bergmann


The Trick employs dual story lines.  The first is about Max Cohn, a 10-year-old boy growing up in Los Angeles, who momentarily wishes his father would go away when he is asked to clean the bunny cage instead of going to the movies.  A few weeks later, his parents announce they are getting divorced, and Max feels guilty that his fleeting wish came true.  He is determined to make things right.  While looking through his father’s things, he finds an old LP labeled: ZABBATINI: HIS GREATEST TRICKS, which among other things, contains the spell of “eternaaaaal loooooove!” – this, he believes, is what is needed to save his parents marriage.  Unfortunately, when he plays the track, it has a scratch and won’t play.  Undeterred, he goes about searching for the famed magician.  He climbs out the window, jumps on a bus, and heads to the Hollywood Magic Shop, where he incredibly receives some help on tracking down Zabbatini, now an old man.

In alternating chapters, we learn the the story of Moshe Goldenhirsch. In the early days of the 20th century in Prague, Rabbi Laibl Goldenhirsch and his wife, Rifka, desperately long for a child, but their efforts are in vain. Laibl gets called to serve in World War I. Upon his return, Rifka is pregnant. “It’s a miracle,” she says. “Immaculate conception.” (The locksmith upstairs may have been an agent to the miracle.)  Because the rabbi loves his wife, and because they want the child so much, he accepts her words (and he has secrets of his own). But little Moshe is a gift, and he is loved – postwar life is happy for a while. Later, Rifka’s health deteriorates, and Moshe is left to the care of now an abusive, depressed, and drunk rabbi of a father.

This all changes when a neighbor takes Moshe to the circus.  It is love at first sight – not just the excitement of the circus, the animals, the magician – but Julia, the magician’s assistant.  Like Max’s determination, Moshe is single-minded in his efforts to join the troupe and pursue his interest in Julia. Under the tutelage of the magician, he creates his own persona and craft, becoming “The Great Zabbatini.” Just when hitting his stride in Berlin, the Nazis come to power along with growing anti-Semitism.   Moshe learns that neighbors are your friends until they aren’t. Villagers accept money to keep secrets until there’s no more money, and they get paid elsewhere. Moshe is sent to a concentration camp.  In a chapter called “Scheherazade’s Last Tale,” Zabbatini performs a new trick every night for the camp commandant, until he finally gets bored and throws Moshe in with the rest of the prisoners.

Emanuel Bergman has written a charming, yet haunting, tale of love, betrayal, redemption, and the power of determination. It also asks if there is room for miracles and magic in our lives or is it just a trick?

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, July 2.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Tuesday, July 3 to discuss “The Trick” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly

all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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