The first character we get to meet in the novel is Caroline Ferriday. Caroline Ferriday (1902 – 1990) Carolyn Woolsey Ferriday was an American philanthropist known for her efforts during World War II and the period after. She is best known for bringing the plight of the Rabbits, or Lapins, Polish women subjected to medical experimentation by the Nazis at Ravensbrück concentration camp, to the American public.
Ferriday volunteered at the French Embassy in New York. The Consulate General of France is the consular representation of the French Republic in the state of New York, in the United States of America. The Consulate General is housed in the Charles E. Mitchell House, at 934 Fifth Avenue, between 74th and 75th streets.
On September 1, 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. The Invasion of Poland was a joint invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the Free City of Danzig, and a small Slovak contingent, that marked the beginning of World War II. The German invasion began on 1 September 1939, one week after the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, while the Soviet invasion commenced on 17 September following the Molotov–Tōgō agreement that terminated the Soviet and Japanese hostilities in the east on 16 September. The campaign ended on 6 October with Germany and the Soviet Union dividing and annexing the whole of Poland under the terms of the German–Soviet Frontier Treaty.
Kasia and her sister Zuzanna are based on Nina Iwanska and her sister Krystina, who were prisoners in Ravensbruck.
Kasia and her sister are from Lublin. Lublin is the ninth largest city in Poland and the second largest city of Lesser Poland. After the 1939 German and Soviet invasion of Poland the city found itself in the General Government territory controlled by Nazi Germany. The population became a target of severe Nazi repressions focusing on Polish Jews.
After the invasion there is a mention of the Volksdeutsche as Halina, Kassia’s mother, was of German origin. In terminology of Nazi Germany, Volksdeutsche were “Germans in terms of people or race”, regardless of citizenship. After Germany occupied western Poland, it established a central registration bureau, called the German People’s List , whereby Poles of German ethnicity were registered as Volksdeutsche. The German occupants encouraged such registration, in many cases forcing it or subjecting Poles of German ethnicity to terror assaults if they refused. Those who joined this group were given benefits, including better food as well as a better social status.
The third main character is Herta Oberheuser, a real Nazi doctor. Herta Oberheuser (15 May 1911 in Cologne, German Empire – 24 January 1978 in Linz am Rhein, West Germany) was a Nazi physician and a war criminal who worked at the Auschwitz and Ravensbrück concentration camps from 1940 until 1943.
Herta belonged to the league of German Girls. The League of German Girls (abbreviated as BDM) was the girls’ wing of the Nazi Party youth movement, the Hitler Youth. It was the only legal female youth organisation in Nazi Germany.
When Herta is in the camp with this girls’ league, we learn about die Mutter-haus des Lebensborns. Lebensborn e.V. (literally: “Fount of Life”) was an SS-initiated, state-supported, registered association in Nazi Germany with the goal of raising the birth rate of “Aryan” children of persons classified as “racially pure and healthy” based on Nazi racial hygiene and health ideology. Lebensborn provided welfare to its mostly unmarried mothers, encouraged anonymous births by unmarried women at their maternity homes, and mediated adoption of these children by likewise “racially pure and healthy” parents, particularly SS members and their families. The Cross of Honour of the German Mother was given to the women who bore the most Aryan children. Abortion was legalised by the Nazis for disabled children.
Kasia is arrested because she gets involved in some missions with the home army. The Home Army ) was the dominant Polish resistance movement in Poland occupied by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II. It was formed in February 1942 . Over the next two years, it absorbed most other Polish underground forces. Its allegiance was to the Polish Government-in-Exile, and it constituted the armed wing of what became known as the “Polish Underground State“.
Kasia belonged to the Polish Girl Guides and Scouts. The Polish Scouting and Guiding Association is the coeducational Polish Scouting organisation recognized by the World Organisation of the Scout Movement and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. After the Invasion of Poland of 1939, the ZHP were branded criminals by Nazi Germany, who had executed many Scouts and Guides, along with other possible resistance leaders, but the ZHP carried on as a clandestine organisation. The wartime Scouts evolved into the paramilitary Szare Szeregi (Gray Ranks), cooperating with the Polish underground state and the Armia Krajowa resistance. Older Scouts carried out sabotage, armed resistance, and assassinations. The Girl Guides formed auxiliary units working as nurses, liaisons and munition carriers. At the same time the youngest Scouts were involved in so-called small sabotage under the auspice of the Wawer organization, which included dropping leaflets or painting the kotwica sign on the walls.
When Kasia is arrested, it happens after taking a package in the ghetto. The Lublin Ghetto was a World War II ghetto created by Nazi Germany in the city of Lublin on the territory of General Government in occupied Poland. The ghetto inmates were mostly Polish Jews. Set up in March 1941, the Lublin Ghetto was one of the first Nazi-era ghettos slated for liquidation during the most deadly phase of the Holocaust in occupied Poland.
Before being sent to Ravensbruck, Kasia and her family stay in Lublin Castle. The Lublin Castle is a medieval castle in Lublin, Poland, adjacent to the Old Town district and close to the city centre. The castle served as a prison most infamously during the Nazi occupation of the city from 1939 to 1944, when between 40,000 and 80,000 inmates, many of them Polish resistance fighters and Jews, passed through.
Kasia is sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp, where Herta also got a job. Ravensbrück was a German concentration camp exclusively for women from 1939-1945, located in northern Germany, 90 km north of Berlin at a site near the village of Ravensbrück (part of Fürstenberg/Havel). The largest single national group consisted of 40,000 Polish women. Others included 26,000 Jewish from all countries, 18,800 Russian, 8,000 French, and 1,000 Dutch. More than 80% were political prisoners. From 1942-1945, medical experiments to test the effectiveness of sulfonamides were undertaken.
The first thing Herta has to do in the camp is to administer a lethal evipan injection to one of the women. Hexobarbital or hexobarbitone, sold both in acid and sodium salt forms as Citopan, Evipan, and Tobinal, is a barbiturate derivative having hypnotic and sedative effects. It was used in the 1940s and 1950s as an agent for inducing anesthesia for surgery, as well as a rapid-acting, short-lasting hypnotic for general use, and has a relatively fast onset of effects and short duration of action. It was also used to murder women prisoners at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.
In Ravensbruck Herta works with her former university partner, Fritz Fischer. Fritz Ernst Fischer (5 October 1912 – 2003) was a German medical doctor who, under the Nazi regime, participated in medical experiments conducted on inmates of the Ravensbrück concentration camp. After having been wounded he was posted back to Hohenlychen and worked in the camp hospital of the Ravensbrück concentration camp as a surgical assistant to Karl Gebhardt. He participated in the surgical experiments carried out on concentration camp inmates there.
In Ravensbruck the man Herta first has to respond to is Commandant Koegel. Otto Max Koegel (16 October 1895 – 27 June 1946) was a Nazi officer who served as a commander at Lichtenburg, Ravensbrück, Majdanek and Flossenbürg concentration camps. From 1938 to 1942 he was first “Direktor” (managing director) and then commander of the labour camp for women in Lichtenburg at Ravensbrück at the rank of Sturmbannführer (Major).
Koegel was replaced by Commandant Suhren in Ravensbruck in 1942. Fritz Suhren (10 June 1908 – 12 June 1950) was a German SS officer and Nazi concentration camp commandant. His policy upon taking command in 1942 was to exterminate the prisoners through working them as hard as possible and feeding them as little as possible.
One of the other women in the camp is Dorothea Binz. Dorothea Binz (16 March 1920 – 2 May 1947) was a supervisor at Ravensbrück concentration camp during the Second World War. At Ravensbrück, the young Binz is said to have beaten, slapped, kicked, shot, whipped, stomped and abused women continuously. Witnesses testified that when she appeared at the Appellplatz, “silence fell.” She reportedly carried a whip in hand, along with a leashed German Shepherd and at a moment’s notice would kick a woman to death or select her to be killed. She reportedly had a boyfriend in the camp, an SS officer, Edmund Bräuning. The two reportedly went on romantic walks around the camp to watch women being flogged, after which they would stroll away laughing. They lived together in a house outside the camp walls until late 1944, when Bräuning was transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp.
In New York Caroline starts a relationship with an actor, who is married. When the war breaks out, he takes her to the Rockefeller Center Observation Deck to tell her he is going back to France. 30 Rockefeller Plaza is an American Art Deco skyscraper that forms the centerpiece of Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. Formerly called the RCA Building from 1933 to 1988. The observation deck atop the skyscraper, dubbed “Top of the Rock”, is built to resemble the deck of an ocean liner, offers sightseers a bird’s eye view of the city, competing with the 86th floor observatory of the Empire State Building 61 m higher. It is often considered the best panoramic city view.
Caroline’s work at the Embassy involves sending aid to orphanages in France. She is very concerned about children, and she tells some acquaintances about an episode about a ship which was sank by the Nazis. City of Benares, the ship, was being used as an evacuee ship in the overseas evacuation scheme. She was carrying 90 child evacuee passengers who were being evacuated from wartime Britain to Canada. Late in the evening of 17 September, the City of Benares was sighted by U-48 who fired two torpedoes. Both torpedoes missed, and at 00.01 hours on 18 September, the U-boat fired another torpedo at her. The torpedo struck her in the stern, causing her to sink within 30 minutes. In total, 260 of the 407 people on board were lost. Out of the 134 passengers, 77 were child evacuees. Only 13 of the 90 child evacuee passengers embarked survived the sinking.
On June 14, 1949, the Germans took Paris. Paris started mobilizing for war in September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, but the war seemed far away until May 10, 1940, when the Germans attacked France and quickly defeated the French army. The French government departed Paris on June 10, and the Germans occupied the city on June 14. During the Occupation, the French Government moved to Vichy, and Paris was governed by the German military and by French officials approved by the Germans.
Philippe Petain headed up the new French Republic, called the Vichy regime. Philippe Pétain (24 April 1856 – 23 July 1951) was a French general officer who reached the distinction of Marshal of France, and later served as the Chief of State of Vichy France also known as the French State, from 1940 to 1944. During World War II, with the imminent fall of France in June 1940, Pétain was appointed Prime Minister of France, and the Cabinet resolved to make peace with Germany. The entire government subsequently moved briefly to Clermont-Ferrand, then to the spa town of Vichy in central France. His government voted to transform the discredited French Third Republic into the French State, an authoritarian regime.
Herta Oberheuser worked with Dr. Gebhardt. Karl Franz Gebhardt (23 November 1897 – 2 June 1948) was a German medical doctor and a war criminal during World War II. Gebhardt was the main coordinator of a series of surgical experiments performed on inmates of the concentration camps at Ravensbrück and Auschwitz. These experiments were an attempt to defend his approach to the surgical management of grossly contaminated traumatic wounds, against the then-new innovations of antibiotic treatment of injuries acquired on the battlefield.
Herta and Gebhardt came to Ravensbruck in 1942 in order to conduct experiments on its prisoners, with an emphasis on finding better methods of treating infection. They conducted gruesome medical experiments (treating purposefully infected wounds with sulfanilamide, as well as bone, muscle, and nerve regeneration and transplantation) on 86 women, 74 of whom were Polish political prisoners in the camp. She performed some of the most gruesome and painful medical experiments, focusing on deliberately inflicting wounds on the subjects. In order to simulate the combat wounds of German soldiers fighting in the war, Oberheuser rubbed foreign objects, such as wood, rusty nails, slivers of glass, dirt, or sawdust into the cuts.
As commandant at Ravensbrück, Commandant Suhren had to provide inmates to Dr. Karl Gebhardt for experimentation. Suhren initially objected to this, mainly because most of the inmates at the camp were political prisoners, and he complained to the SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt about the practice. However the SS command overruled Suhren’s doubts and he was forced to apologise to Gebhardt and supply him with the prisoners he demanded. Suhren would later state that he had witnessed experiments that included exposing women to high levels of x rays in order to accomplish sterilisation.
In France, Paul is arrested and sent to Drancy. The Drancy internment camp was an assembly and detention camp for confining Jews who were later deported to the extermination camps during the German military administration of Occupied France during World War II. It was located in Drancy, a northeastern suburb of Paris.
Then he is sent to Natzweiler-Struthof. Natzweiler-Struthof was a German-run concentration camp located in the Vosges Mountains close to the Alsatian village of Natzwiller in France, and the town of Schirmeck, about 50 km south west from the city of Strasbourg. Natzweiler-Struthof was the only concentration camp established by the Nazis on present-day French territory, though there were French-run temporary camps such as the one at Drancy.
At Christmas 1943 in the concentration camp Kasia tells us how the Nazis have changed the traditional elements of Christmas. Nazi ideologists claimed that the Christian elements of the holiday had been superimposed upon ancient Germanic traditions. They argued that Christmas Eve originally had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus Christ, but instead celebrated the winter solstice and the ‘rebirth of the sun’, that the swastika was an ancient symbol of the sun, and that Santa Claus was a Christian reinvention of the Germanic god Odin. The Christmas tree was also changed. The traditional names of the tree, Christbaum or Weihnachtsbaum, was renamed in the press as fir tree, light tree or Jul tree. The star on the top of the tree was sometimes replaced with a swastika, a Germanic “sun wheel” or a Sig rune, and swastika-shaped tree lights.
In August 1944 Paris is liberated. The Liberation of Paris was a military action that took place during World War II from 19 August 1944 until the German garrison surrendered the French capital on 25 August 1944.
Before the end of the war, we learn through Kasia that there are some important prisoners in Ravensbruck. One of them is Gemma La Guardia Gluck, sister of New York’s mayor. La Guardia’s sister, Gemma La Guardia Gluck (1881–1962), and brother-in-law, Herman Gluck (a Hungarian Jew whom she met while teaching English in Europe), were living in Hungary and were arrested by the Gestapo on June 7, 1944, when the Nazis took control of Budapest. Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler knew that Gemma was La Guardia’s sister and ordered her to be held as a political prisoner. She and Herman Gluck were deported to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where he died, as Gemma learned from reading a newspaper account a year after her own release. She was transferred from Mauthausen to the notorious women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück
Another prisoner was De Gaulle’s niece Genevieve. Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz (25 October 1920 – 14 February 2002) was a member of the French Resistance . She was arrested by the French Gestapo on 20 July 1943, imprisoned in Fresnes and deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp on 2 February 1944. In October 1944, de Gaulle was placed in isolation in the camp bunker. Heinrich Himmler made the decision to keep her alive to use her as a possible exchange prisoner. She was released in April 1945.
Near the end of World War II, Franz Göring (SS member) and Benoit Musy approached Suhren, the commandant in Ravensbruck, to ask him to allow a convoy of women to leave the camp and go into the custody of the Scandinavian Red Cross. Suhren however refused the request as it was against superior orders although eventually Göring got the backing of Rudolf Brandt and Suhren was forced to yield. This is how Kasia and Zuzanna finally left Ravensbruck.
Herta escapes to Dusseldorf where she is from, but the Americans are already there. The Allied ground advance into Germany reached Düsseldorf in mid-April 1945. The United States 97th Infantry Division easily captured the city on 18 April 1945, after the local German Resistance group launched Aktion Rheinland.
When Caroline goes to Paris for her long-desired encounter with Paul, she hears about President Roosevelt’s death. On March 29, 1945, Roosevelt went to the Little White House at Warm Springs, to rest before his anticipated appearance at the founding conference of the United Nations. On the afternoon of April 12, Roosevelt said, “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.” He then slumped forward in his chair, unconscious, and was carried into his bedroom. The president’s attending cardiologist, Dr. Howard Bruenn, diagnosed the medical emergency as a massive cerebral hemorrhage. At 3:35 p.m. that day, Roosevelt died.
Paul has been staying in the Hotel Lutetia to recover his health. The Hôtel Lutetia is one of the best-known hotels on the Left Bank. When Paris was liberated in August 1944, the hotel was abandoned by German troops, and taken over by French and American forces. From then until after the end of the war, it was used as a repatriation centre for prisoners of war, displaced persons, and returnees from the German concentration camps.
On May 8th, 1945 de Gaulle, announced the official end of World War II in Europe.
Kasia and Zuzanna spend a couple of months in Malmö, Sweden, after they are liberated. Malmö is the capital and largest city of the Swedish county of Scania. Malmö is the third largest city in Sweden, after Stockholm and Gothenburg.
In 1946 Kasia and Pietrick get married, and we learn about some of the traditional customs for Polish weddings. Before the church ceremony everyone would gather at the home of the bride to accompany the bridal couple to the church, but also to witness the blessing and symbolic farewells of the bride with her parents, relatives, and friends. The blessing by the parents before church were seen as more important than the church ceremony itself. Traditionally the mother of the bride gives the blessing. Either kneelers or some cushions are provided for the bride and groom to kneel on. They hold hands as they kneel in front of their parents. Kasia misses her mother’s blessing.
All single ladies circle the bride as the maid or matron of honour stands behind the bride and removes the veil/cap (welon, czepek) from the bride’s head as music is played. A married woman is given the responsibility of pinning the cap on the bride as all married women circle around the bride. At this moment, the bride is officially considered a married woman, Sometimes, after the unveiling the bride will toss the veil, rather than the bouquet, to one of the single women or give the veil to the maid of honour.
The money dance may have originated in Poland around the beginning of the 20th century. The dance takes place some time after the First dance, often once guests have had a chance to have a few drinks.Customarily, the best man begins dancing with the bride, pinning money onto her wedding gown or putting it into a purse, which she carries especially for the purpose, or into the pockets of an apron she dons over her gown especially for this dance.
Caroline Ferriday was involved with the Association des Déportées et Internées Résistantes (ADIR), to provide relief to French orphans. She later helped the so-called Ravensbruck rabbits, and brought them to America.
Herta Oberheuser was released in April 1952 for good behaviour and became a family doctor in West Germany. She lost her position in 1956, after a Ravensbrück survivor recognized her, and her license to practice medicine was revoked in 1958. She died in January 1978. In the book Kasia goes to Stocksee to confront her.