One of the last Ravensbruck “rabbits” tells her terrifying story.

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I’m still pinching myself since I was lucky enough to spend time with with one of my heroes, Stanislawa Sledziejewska-Osiczko, at the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Known as Stasia to her friends (and everyone who meets her instantly becomes her friend) she’s a woman I’d only read about while researching my novel Lilac Girls. Stasia and seventy other young Polish women were used as experimental subjects by Nazi doctors and became known as the “rabbits” or “guinea pigs.” Just 14 years old when she was chosen to undergo the experiments, she was one of the youngest to be operated on at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, her leg surgically opened and infected with tetanus and gangrene, broken glass and dirt in order to test the efficacy of sulfa drugs. There are only five survivors of the experiments alive today.

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I was at the camp with my friend Stacy Fitzgerald who is shooting a documentary on the Ravensbruck Rabbits and got to hear Stasia’s stories of being hunted by the camp authorities once the Nazis realized they were losing the war. She told how the camp guards went block to block searching for the survivors of the medical experiments in order to eliminate the evidence of their crimes. The rabbit’s fellow prisoners of all nationalities rallied around them. They hid the girls, often by exchanging numbers with them or sneaking them into the typhus block where they slept among the dying inmates. This was a safe place since the camp staff did not enter the typhus block, afraid they’d contract the disease.

“Finally we dug holes under the blocks and squeezed ourselves under there,” Stasia said. “We could hear the dogs searching for us. It was terrifying.”

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Today, Stasia radiates positive energy as she’s pushed across the gravel in her wheelchair, but isn’t afraid to share anecdotes through our translator.

“See these sharp stones?” she said. “They made us walk on them in bare feet. We only had shoes in winter.”

A true celebrity, crowds followed her wheelchair wherever she went in the camp.

A group of teens hovered nearby and a brave girl approached Stasia.

“May I hug you?” the girl said.

“Tak, tak,” Stasia said, waving her over. “Yes, yes.”

The girl hugged Stasia and neither let go for  several seconds. It was one of my favorite moments all weekend. Who wouldn’t want to salute a woman who withstood the most heinous medical experiments, evaded Nazi execution at Ravensbruck and returned to Poland after the war to deal with Stalin’s occupation? Post war Poland was difficult for the women, since many were still very sick from the wounds to their legs, but the German government refused to recognize Poland as a country and would not pay the women compensation, something Caroline Ferriday helped them fight.

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I was happy to see that a group of Polish motorcyclists have befriended the Polish survivors. Each member wears the blue-striped survivor kerchief, emblazoned with the red triangle the Polish political prisoners once wore, printed with a survivor’s name and camp number and acts as a helper to that woman.IMG_2245

Stasia is lucky to have Leszek Rysak, above, as her helper. A history teacher and all around great guy, Leszek calls Stasia “auntie” and dedicates a large part of his time to helping her.

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Leszek and other members of the motorcycle group join Stasia and fellow “rabbit” Wanda Rosiewicz at the crematorium to remember their friends they lost at Ravensbruck

 

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Leszek Rysak

 

IMG_2252     Meeting Mrs. Sledziejewska-Osiczko was a profoundly moving experience. I told her about Lilac Girls and she was happy to hear the world will soon know the story of what she and her fellow “rabbits” endured. But most of all I was thrilled to see the whole camp embrace her. With people today idolizing reality TV stars and viral internet sensations it’s refreshing to see a woman like Stasia in the limelight, finally getting her fifteen minutes of fame.

72 thoughts on “One of the last Ravensbruck “rabbits” tells her terrifying story.”

  1. I just finished “Lilac Girls: a Novel” and am moved by their strength and resilience. The book was so well written. I could not put it down. I am now studying about this time in history and pray it will never happen again.

    1. Dear Jennifer, Thank you for your wonderful comment.Im so happy Lilac Girls caused you to find out more about that period…it’s so important to remember!

    2. I just finished “Lilac Girls:a Novel” as well yesterday and am at a loss for words regarding these women. I am a 70 yr old third generation Polish woman, both paternal grandparents from Poland (Austria at the time) and ashamed to admit I had never heard these stories. I will continue reading everything I can find regarding this horrible time in our history. Thank you to Martha Hall Kelly and Caroline Ferriday.

    3. I am just about to finish the book and feel the same thoughts.
      Reading brought me to look up the topic for information to use for my book club presentation. So much info and am glad I have a month to try to do these brave ladies justice.
      They truly had the will to survive at all costs and to help others along their paths whatever that may be. They were heroes.
      This an amazing book and so glad I have had the privilege to read.
      Thank you Martha Hall Kelly.

      1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book, Sue. Not sure if you saw the photos on Pinterest under my name, but there are some good ones of the real people behind Lilac Girls. Hope you have a great discussion with your book group!

  2. What a beautiful story about an amazing woman! I just finished reading Lilac Girls and hated to have it end – I will miss these wonderful women. I was horrified to hear what they endured but inspired by their courage, resilience and love for one another.
    You truly wrote a very moving account of this horrible time in human history, Martha……thank you for you tireless research and determination to get this story told!

    1. Thank you, Betsy. I’m just thrilled that you enjoyed the book and so appreciate your kind words!

  3. My husband bought me The Lilac Girls for my 59th birthday on May 11. Because I am born and raised Jewish I thought I knew most everything about the concentration camps and the holocaust.

    I was shocked to read the story of the Rabbits, and shamed that their story is only now being told.

    I finished the book about 2 hours ago and I immediately broke down crying. I am not sure exactly why, but I felt like I was there and that I personally knew these women.

    Thank you so much for bringing this story to the public. I am now going to research all I can about Ravensbruk and the Rabbits.

    I live in Vermont so Connecticut is not a long way for me to journey. I told my husband that this summer I want to visit Caroline Ferriday’s home and gardens.

    I am going to read all I can about her. She was an amazing woman and I cannot believe that this is the first I have heard about her.

    The strength that the women showed was beyond anything I could ever imagine. I have never read a book that touched me so much.

    I started last summer reading historical fiction about WWII, and started with the book, Nightingale that came out a year ago. That book started me on this journey to learn all I could about the different nationalities of not only the prisoners in concentration camps, but about the resistance movements as well.

    Thank you so much for writing this book, you cannot know how grateful I am to have read it. I will be talking to everyone I know about the amazing Caroline Ferriday, and the exceptionally brave women of Ravenbruk, esp. the Rabbits.

    You have started me on a journey to learn all I can about this, and to make sure that Caroline’s story, and those of the women at Ravenbruk are kept alive.

    1. Dear Andi,

      I write this with tears in my eyes after reading your lovely note. It is so gratifying to hear how strongly you connected with the story and characters–I felt the same way about this story when I first heard of it so I am thrilled to hear you felt the same way. And to think it was a birthday present from your husband…what a thoughtful man!
      I hope you do get to see Caroline’s house–it is so beautiful and will be meaningful after reading the book–make sure you don’t miss Caroline’s little playhouse out in the meadow.You can only peek in the windows…just darling. If you plan a trip around June 16th I will be doing a little talk nearby the house in Litchfield. Whenever you go, would you send me a photo of your trip to Caroline’s house? I love seeing people’s journeys to the house!

      xx

      Martha

    2. I didn’t realize until I almost finished the book that the characters were indeed real. So then I started researching each woman. Caroline Ferriday was truly a marvelous compassionate woman. I am so happy that her story is being told. I’m spreading the word about your exceptional book “Lilac Girls”.

  4. Dear Ms. Kelly,

    I’m a granddaughter of a Polish forced laborer. I had no idea of what the poor rabbits of Ravensbruck endured, and I’m so grateful to you for bringing the story to light. Often WWII/Holocaust fiction, when written by Western authors who are neither Jewish nor Romani, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There seems to be a perception among Americans/Britons that WWII is nothing more than a “grand human drama”, an interesting backdrop for their story – the terrible pain and terror of millions of people gets condensed into a set piece.

    I did not feel that, at all, with Lilac Girls. I think you definitely did the right thing in following closely to the historical events, rather than having characters who “magically” held all the right opinions and made all the moral choices. I am profoundly grateful for your commitment to the truth.

    Secondly…I have been dealing with suicidal thoughts, on and off, since I was seventeen. After reading Lilac Girls, I read more about the Ravensbruck 86. The recognition of their heroic will to live, and the fact that better days came, has made a deep impression on me. Although their suffering is something I cannot imagine, abuse is part of my daily life. The idea that young women not so different from myself prevailed over their torturers – that they won – has helped me a lot in affirming my own will to live.

    Thank you.

    1. Dear Lana,

      I’m happy you reached out–and glad you enjoyed Lilac Girls. I’m sorry to hear about your struggle with suicidal thoughts. I know firsthand how tough that is since family members have dealt with it as well. Are you getting help if you need it?

      I’m grateful that Lilac Girls helped inspire you–yes, they were incredible young women who are proof that it’s possible to overcome the darkest days.

      xx

      Martha

      p.s. Thank you for telling me that g***y is considered a racial slur. I had no idea and glad to know that for the future.

  5. Dear Martha,
    Your writing is to be rewarded in so many ways. As a Jewish woman, I was educated by reading your book, Lilac Girls. I have never read such an accurate account from so many viewpoints. My book group is meeting tomorrow night and I am ravenous exploring all the facts about the women in Lilac Girls. I am also hungry to learn more about Poland as my first cousin is married to a Jewish Pole. Thank you so much for stimulating me!

  6. I could not put this book down. The strength and fortitude of all these survivors surpasses anything I could imagine. Thank you so much for writing this book in such a straightforward way. I can’t wait for your next book. You certainly have a wonderful talent.

  7. Martha,
    What an amazing story of such courage with such young women. I think we forget many of these girls were in their early teens. I thought it was a lovely twist to give Caroline a french lover for a a brief moment. Thank you for telling the story that hopefully encourages us never to go to such a dark place again.

    1. Dear Yvonne,

      Thank you for your lovely message–I’m so glad you liked Paul and also agree we should learn and never go to such a dark place again!

      xx

      Martha

  8. I just finished Lilac Girls and have already recommended the book to a friend.
    I have been interested in this time period for a very long time. I have read Leon Uris’s Mila 18 about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; All the Light You Can Not See; Nightingale and Salt to Sea. Your story and Salt to Sea were two incidents in the many atrocities of WW2 that I knew nothing about. As a read several readers comments I, too felt that the Ravensbruck’s Rabbits story is long overdue. These woman and many other unknown people from this era are the heroes not the celebrities of Hollywood or overpaid sports figures. I become so enraged that there are people who think the Holacost never occurred.
    Thank you for your wonderful book.

    1. Dear Barbara,

      Wow, you have read so many wonderful books about the era–I’m so glad you enjoyed Lilac Girls. I so agree that the story is long overdue to be told…I’m so grateful and happy it is resonating with readers like you. Also agree about Holocaust deniers. All we can do is get the truth out there!

      xx

      Martha

  9. Martha, This was such an impactful and beautifully written book! I must admit, when I first started reading it, I was so disturbed that I wasn’t sure I could continue. Familiar with only minor details, your book provided the intense, horrific and inhumane acts during the war. I actually had heard of Caroline Ferriday, but not to the extent you provided. Thank you for writing a book that I will never, never forget and for your incredible research. May all these women be blessed with a place in heaven.

  10. Martha, I am giving a review on Nov. 1st to my Book Club. I have read Lilac Girls twice to make sure I have all the twists and turns and story lines correct. It was absolutely fascinating, horrifying, and a story that I cannot wait to share! I just read that there is a media story being developed. Do you know when it will air on TV? Thanks for your heartfelt story and your tenacity!
    Winna Kerr Ellis

    1. Wow, twice, Winna? That’s dedication! The documentary about the true story behind the book is coming soon…no more details yet, though!

  11. Dear Martha, Words fail to describe the awe I experienced as I listened to the audio version of “Lilac Girls”. There were times when I could barely move as I was listening to the incredible story of these people whom you brought to life so vividly. I knew nothing of “the rabbits” or the amazing work of Caroline Ferriday. Thank you for this wonderful work.

    1. You are so welcome, Lucille. I love the audio book as well. When I listened to it I almost forgot I had written it, the three actors made it feel so real!

  12. I just finished your book. I’m forever changed. I studied History in college (specifically World War II) and even I did not know about the Rabbits. Thank you for bringing this part of history out into the light. What amazingly brave women! I’ve added the Bellamy-Ferriday House to the list of places I want to go in my lifetime, so that I may stand where Caroline once stood!

    1. So happy you enjoyed the book so much, Angelika and I hope you get to visit The Bellamy-Ferriday House someday. We are having a big event June 10th up at the house, when the lilacs are all out, which might be a great time to visit. I will post more info on my website as the date gets closer.

  13. I just finished Lilac girls and I too was left in tears. I have read many novels from this era and your book is definitely at the top of my list of favorites. I was drawn in from the first few pages. You bring honor and dignity to these brave women. Thank you for researching and writing this fantastic book. I am so glad you were finally able to travel there and even meet one of the survivors.

  14. Thank you for writing this story! So many emotions in me right now. I would be interested in any good documentaries you know about these brave women and their story.

  15. Dear Martha,

    I just finished the audio version of Lilac Girls and immediately begun researching the women of the novel. You did a wonderful job of weaving their stories together, showing this was a truly a world war. Thank you for sharing them. I imagine meeting Stasia was surreal. About 25 years ago, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp (Auschwitz, I believe) who had immigrated to America came to speak to my high school English class. She talked about the importance of telling her story, although incredibly painful and difficult, so the world did not forget or repeat these atrocities. I remember the number tattooed on her forearm and often wonder how that could’ve happened in the not so distant past.

    Thank you,

    Sarah

  16. I just finished your book. I think the word “amazing” is often overused, but your book is truly amazing. The many hours of research, the skill to make the characters real. It is still hard to believe that these events really happened.
    Thank you for your commitment, for your love for these women, for telling this story.

  17. Dear Martha,
    O, too, have read many books about the holocaust, none of which mentioned the Rabbits. I have a wonderful Jewish girlfriend in Scottsdale, AZ who knows a survivor of the Death March who is still living in Scottsdale, AZ and has published her story, entitled All But My Life, by Gerda Weissman Klein. I have always been very sensitive to each and every account of the Holocaust, finding it terribly hard to read and, at the same time, demanding and deserving to be read and remembered.
    I am hosting our bookclub discussion of your book on February 15 and wonder if you have a list of pertinent questions I may ask or anything I might share with our readers. Thank you for your thorough research and soulful retelling of this very important piece of history. I am grateful and thankful.

    1. Hi Linda,
      Thank you for sharing that and for the book recommendation. Sounds very interesting! I’m so glad you are discussing Lilac Girls at your bookclub…there is a great list of questions on my website under bookclubs. Let me know if you can’t find it.

      All the best,

      Martha

  18. Dear Martha,

    I just finished listening to Lilac Girls. Wow!! I am Jewish and have been reading about the Holocaust and WWII since I was in high school starting with Exodus and Mila 18. I’ve read and listened to so many books that I swore I wasn’t going to listen or read any more but then I started listening to your book. I could not put it down.

    Like so many of your other fans I cried and smiled my way through the end and then started researching. You did an incredible service for these incredible women who survived. I have never been able to understand how people like Doctor Herta could do what they did. I’m not sure I do now but I do have a better understanding of what it was like. The honesty of your characters and to hear how many people from so many walks of life reached out to help them is heart warming.

    I don’t ever write to authors but thank you for writing such a fabulous, heart-wrenching story of good people that needed to be told. What a treasur

    With warmth
    Carol

    1. Dear Carol, Thank you for this beautiful note–I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. I agree, it’s hard to understand how Herta did what she did!
      xx
      Martha

  19. Hello!
    I just finished “Lilac Girls”, about 5 minutes ago actually, and the only thing I can say is thank you. Thank you Ms Martha Hall Kelly for shedding light on these woman, their stories, and sharing them with the world. It is far too often that we forget the tragedies of the past which then leads us to repeat them. I hope that more people like you continue to share our world history in the hopes that we can learn from it to make our future a brighter and peaceful world.
    ~Melissa

  20. Dear Martha,
    Thank you so much for writing this book. What an amazing journey back into a dark time. So hard to even imagine what these women endured- or how a Dr. could do what she did. And the perseverance of Caroline- what a saint.
    I love reading anything Historical and I am always amazed when I read of something I had never heard about. There are so many stories yet to be told- this I am sure. Again thank you for your hard work in bringing this time to light.

  21. I have just finished your book Lilac Girls and I too am so grateful for it as I had no idea about the Ravensbruck rabbits. I am a South African and the book was purchased for my book club. How beautifully you wrote about these three woman, living separate lives but you entwined their stories until all three were in some way joined at the end. I must say that Caroline’s romance with Paul was most intriguing. Loved it! Well done, I was actually looking for more information about Ravensbruck on Google when I came across this site and thought I must write and congratulate you. I thank you too for highlighting this terrible part of our world’s history.

    1. Thank you for your lovely note, Rosemary. You can find more information about Caroline and the rabbits with a Google search–Lund University has a great site…there are also some wonderful pictures on Pinterest!

  22. Just finished reading Lilac Girls, a most beautifully written account of the atrocities inflicted on young women by the Nazis. Harrowing!! The Lilac Girls’ individual stories speak of the strength and resilience of the human spirit.
    I have a keen interest in WWII as for the past fourteen years I’ve been transcribing my parents’ WWII Letters, 1800 in number. Though my father was in the South Pacific on Guadalcanal, I am captivated by every aspect of the horrific conflict that shrouded humanity, and pray to God it never befalls mankind again.

  23. I have been amazed at the story that has been told. The authenticity that you held true to and the way the story has been presented. Thank you for your research and hard work in giving us this bit of history that hopefully will not ever be forgotten. I, too, am amazed at the bravery of so many wonderful women and also the brutality of so many others. One wonders how someone could treat others so inhumanely. It is an episode in history that haunts me and scares me at the same time. Well done! I look forward to your next work! Thank you again.

  24. Thank you so much for sharing this incredibly moving, inspiring story! These women are true heroes. My grandmother’s best friend was a concentration camp survivor. Since I was a child, I’ve been awed by their strength, resolve, and spirit. Now that I’ve read Lilac Girls, I am making all of my friends aware of it, so they can experience this heroism, too. What these women endured is nothing short of horrific. Yet they prevailed. Good really can overcome evil when good people stand up against it.

  25. I have just finished your book. I was horrified at the description of the capture and treatment of the women. Over the years I have read so much about the torture of the prisoners of the Nazi regime, but this account touched me deeply. Right now, more than 70 years later women still face discrimination and torture in this world. I am appalled at the politcal situation we find ourselves in, here in the US where we have a government that wants to take medical care away from the people who need it most.
    We hear of torture and hatred flung at our sisters around the world, sex trafficking, mutilation, descrimination. Thank you for writing this inspiring book

  26. I was reading the Lilac Girls while cruising the Seine river from Paris to Normandy. Each evening I couldn’t wait to pick up your book and continue reading. I had just finished the book “Life in a Jar” and wanted to continue my quest for more information about the atrocities that occurred during this time period. Thank you for all your research for this book and for helping me learn more about my Polish heritage. I plan on visiting Carolines home sometime very soon.

  27. Our book club is currently reading “Lilac Girls,” and I must say it’s one of my very favorite books. I am on my third time around reading it because when I finish it, I miss everyone so much that I have to start over. I have Googled all of the women in the book and enjoyed a few pictures of Caroline Ferriday and the girls. Thank you for educating us and for writing this book that is so achingly beautiful and sad all at the same time.

    1. What a lovely note, Katy. I love that you Googled Caroline and the girls and I’m so glad the story resonated so strongly with you. I know how you feel!

      xx

      Martha

  28. Lilac Girls left me with an overwhelming sense of anger towards the people that committed these crimes. But also it left me with an awe-inspiring sense of what the human spirit can withstand, overcome and ultimately conquer! I would love to meet a survivor and am planning trip to Europe next year to see these landmarks myself. Bless all those that had to endure the concentration camps.

    1. How wonderful, Naomi that you are planning a trip to Europe next year to see the landmarks for yourself. It’ll be such a fabulous trip!

  29. Dear Martha,
    Thank you for sharing your research, heart & soul by writing Lilac Girls. I am almost finished with the book and cannot express my gratitude to you.

    Your book was included in a list of books written about this time of our history, provided by Susan Meissner.

    God Bless you and please continue to share with everyone.

  30. This book was amazing. I am Jewish and have spent many years learning about the Holocaust and all that was lost. I did not know much about Ravensbruck and your book really brought it all to light. I now need to learn more about the Rabbits and Herta Oberheuser. Thank you for piquing my interest and for teaching me so much.

  31. I just finished Lilac Girls, and like so many others who have already left comments, I had never heard of the Rabbits and the horrible things they had to endure. I love historical fiction, and usually learn so many things that have been “omitted” from the history books; thank you for such a wonderful book and telling the story of the Rabbits!

  32. I can’t remember when a novel that I have read has affected me quite like this one. I listen to it through Audible and each character was perfectly represented by the reader. I have found myself searching for more information about each person represented in the novel. Thank you so much for putting their stories out to the world. May it never happen again!

  33. I was so moved by your book. It provided a different look at that time and those involved. We ask so often why people didn’t stand up for themselves, say NO. We try to understand why Germans were so quick to follow the Nazi beliefs. You provided a glimpse into all of those levels of psychological indoctrination. People were wanting to protect their families, protect their country and protect themselves. I would love to see this be part of high school reading but I don’t think most of today’s society are ready to hear it and have those conversations with their own children. As much as we never want this to happen again, until we understand our past we are destined to repeat it. Thank You for providing the opportunity to learn from mistakes.

    1. I so agree, Cyndi, especially the “until we understand our past we are destined to repeat it” part. I’m very happy the book resonated with you.

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