What Happened to Herta Oberheuser, the Only Woman Doctor at Ravensbruck, After She Was Released From Prison?

Spoiler alert…if you haven’t finished Lilac Girls you may want to read this once you have…

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Above, young Herta, a BdM pin on her lapel.

I’ve been loving my Skype sessions with book groups that have just finished Lilac Girls. One of the first questions many of them ask is “What happened to Herta Oberheuser after she was released from prison?”

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After several Polish “Rabbits” (above) testified that Herta participated in the horrific sulfa experiments at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, Herta was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

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Herta was quietly released from her twenty years after serving only five years, with permission from the United States. Like many other Nazi concentration camp doctors she returned to practicing medicine and developed a “flourishing medical practice” in northern Germany. There, she was recognized by a Ravensbruck survivor who quickly got word to French survivors, who contacted Caroline Ferriday. Once Caroline heard Herta was free she mounted a campaign, with the help of her physician friends at The British Medical Association, to have the doctor’s medical license revoked.

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Der Spiegel article about Herta found in Caroline’s archives.

In August of 1958 Herta’s license was revoked but she continued to practice medicine while she appealed the case with the support of some high profile friends and a cadre of lawyers.

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But before long Caroline and others’ hard work resulted in a victory for the victims of the experiments and Herta’s medical license was permanently revoked (below, a newspaper account found in Caroline’s archives).

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72 thoughts on “What Happened to Herta Oberheuser, the Only Woman Doctor at Ravensbruck, After She Was Released From Prison?”

  1. I read “Lilac Girls” in 2 days. Until 5:00 AM. Could not put it down. Will recommend it to my book club(s). Am delighted that war crimes folks have been taken care of. My father, in the U. S. army was at the Bulge where the Americans white-washed their tanks to blend in with snow. Also they cut the bottoms out of their sleeping bags ’cause it was sssssooooo cold.

  2. Once I started reading Lilac Girls, I couldn’t put it down. As I read it I experienced so many emotions…joy, sadness, anger. What happened to the women in the concentration camp was so terrible and it is hard to understand why those who operated on them weren’t punished more severely. Your book is riveting and amazing!

    1. Thank you for your lovely note, Linda. Im so glad you enjoyed Lilac Girls! And yes, I agree it’s hard to understand why some of the doctors and others got off easily. I think it had a lot to do with the US trying to curry favor with Germany at the time.

  3. I have just finished reading Lilac Girls – thank you! I’ve always thought that women could stop the global carnage if we could just hold hands somehow.
    New Zealand

  4. I loved reading Lilac Girls. Was hard to put down and will recommend to my book club. I cannot understand how another human being could be so in humane to another, especially as a female doctor. Wanted to understand Dr. Herta’s state of mind. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  5. With everything happening in America right now, I feel the need to study history to stop its repetition. It is unfathomable that people can be so heartless and cruel although there continues to be too many examples even today. Amazing book that motivates me to do more positive in the world.

    1. You are so right, Kelli. Thank you for this. It makes me so happy the book has spurred you toward positive change. I think Caroline would be proud.

  6. I read lilac girls in two days! I couldn’t stop reading. I read a lot of historical fiction and this one impacted me in a strong way. Thank you for sharing this story

  7. I have visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. a couple of times and am now wondering, after reading your book, if Caroline Ferriday is featured in any of the exhibits. There is so much to see, read, and watch there that even after two visits in two years, I know I have not yet seen it all. Thank you for sharing the stories of the survivors so beautifully.

    1. Hi Angela,
      No, Caroline is not featured at the museum, but she has an archive there.
      And thank you for your nice note!
      Martha

  8. This was an incredible, moving book! I did not realize it was a true story until after I finished it. This is one of those rare books that you want to sit and savor after you finish it. Great read!

  9. I loved the book and mainly read it to see how Poland was represented in the story. I wonder why you chose to call Polish mom…Matka instead of Mama or Mamusia? Matka sounds so formal. Also, where the name Pietrik come from? Regardless, I loved the story line and that you told the story of Caroline and the Polish ladies who suffered through so much.

    1. Hi Agnieszka,
      Now I know Matka is formal, but at the time I didn’t know…and I found Pietrik in an old Polish book from the 40s.I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  10. I absolutely loved this book. I have a long commute to work so I love listening to books. Listening to the book felt like I was there. I actually missed my exit a couple of times. It was thought provoking and touched my heart. Thank you!

  11. Disgusts me that so many nazi doctors and other officers basically went free. What became of Herta’s life after she could no longer practice, until her death, much too late, in 1978? Was she ever sued by survivors? Would that have even been possible?

    Thanks.

    1. Hera lived a quiet life after her medical license was revoked. The rabbits never sued her but they did get reparation from the German government.

    1. Hi Wendy, The publisher came up with it…they liked the idea that lilacs only bloom after a very cold winter, just like the girls.

  12. Noting the times, I see I am among others who savored Lilac Girls, having read into the early hours. Thank you for a wonderful novel honoring these brave women, and for giving the inspirational Caroline to the next generations. And not a moment too soon, as I agree with previous comments about the current political climate. Let us all benefit from Caroline’s tenacity and bravery as we guard against hatred. I look forward to the reactions from my book group. I would like to know what title you would have given the book had the publisher not opted for Lilac Girls. Personally, I would prefer that they’d be given the respect due them by calling them women. What are you writing about now?

  13. Absolutely loved this book! So true to history and a definite page turner! I found my self holding my breath…as I read on!

  14. My wife got the book on the basis of someone else’s recommendation and after she read it she asked me if I was interested. I asked if it was a “girly” book she said to take a look and see if I was interested. Wow! As a grandson of Polish immigrants on my fathers side and married to Janina (a name featured in your book) I couldn’t help but wonder what our unknown relatives went through during those horrible years of both Hitler and the Soviets.
    Your book was an excellent read and caused many a tight throat and watery eyes. You brought to light not only a terrible event for many Polish families, but also the courage and determination of the human spirit.
    Thank You So Much
    Larry Regienczuk

    1. Dear Larry,
      So glad you read it–and to hear about the tight throat and watery eyes…makes me feel like I’ve done my job. 🙂
      I’m always so happy to hear from people of Polish decent that it resonated with them!
      Thank you for reaching out.
      All the best,

      Martha

  15. I met you last week at your presentation in Libertyville, IL. Bought the book that evening and devoured it over the weekend. I cannot remember the last time a book consumed me so! Parts were so difficult to read as the horror imposed on fellow humans is unimaginable – but the resilience and strength of these women from Ravensbruck was nothing short of inspiring.
    One question – the sisters, who were based on Nina and Krystyna Iwanska – did their lives wind up as their book characters? (One married to Caroline’s employee and the other “happily ever after” with her family in Poland)

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book, Lee! One of the Polish girls did stay with Caroline and married here, but not one of the sisters. Nina Ivanska lived the rest of her life in Paris and worked as a journalist. Sadly, her sister Krystyna passed away from her cancer.

  16. I found Lilac Girls at a local bookstore and I am so glad I picked it up. I couldn’t put it down. Never have I been so moved by a story. You’ve captured the resilience of the human spirit, the complexity of love, as well as the tormented emotions of people who have lived through the worst imaginable situations.

    Thank you for bringing the story of the “Rabbits” to life. Their story was largely unknown to most. This was the perfect time to read it.

  17. I found your riveting book in a rental condo in south-west Florida and echo the sentiments of others : ” I could not put it down.” Beautifully written and structured , with such suspense.

    I love the fictional account which weaves its way through the true story. Cannot wait for your next book. Any vague idea when it might be published ?

    Thank you.
    Joey

  18. Just read this book – it was extremely well written, gripping and disturbing! I started it at 900am on Saturday morning and finished it at 930pm that night – I did take a break for supper. Thank you Martha Hall Kelly for the intensive research. I am of Polish descent and found the portrayal of the “Rabbits”, the strength of these women inspiring, but hated the horrific atrocities they had to suffer. I admire Caroline Ferriday for her dedication and achievements. Because of your book I am doing research and further investigation myself – this has opened my eyes to the gruesomeness of this war.

    1. Wow, that’s amazing, Stephanie! I’m just thrilled you connected so strongly with the book! 💜

  19. Thank you for writing such a moving book. I read it on 2 days. We have to be so careful we don’t repeat the past. The world we live in as the essence of what took place back then. We can never forget. Your book reminds us how fast people can turn from good to evil. God bless all who survived and their families and of course those who didn’t. God bless Caroline and those like her. They are Angels on Earth. Thank you again for the book I will certainly recommend it.
    Sincerely Margaret

    1. Wow, you are a fast reader, Margaret! I’m so glad you enjoyed it and so agree Caroline was an angel!

  20. I read a lot of non-fiction and historic fiction about WWII. I think part of my interest is in the mystery that so many people were convinced it was okay to treat other humans in such horrific ways. I just finished Lilac Girls; the first book chosen by our newly formed book club – can’t wait for our first meeting this week. What a well written, compelling book. Hard to read but hard to put down. Thank you for the heart and soul you put into Lilac Girls.

    1. Thank you for your lovely note, Donna. Honored to be one of your newly-formed book club’s books! If you get a chance could you take a picture of your club and send it to me here on the contact at the website? I have a little gallery of bookclub pics and would love to include you all.

  21. I deeply enjoyed reading your novel. Definitely up there in my favourite Holocaust fiction!

    On a side note, I have a German friend who is the spitting image of Herta Oberheuser (at least in the photo in this post). I nearly flipped when I saw that photo. Not sure if that is something she’d like to hear though so I’ll keep that here.

  22. This was a really fantastic book – I read it in two days, and particularly appreciated the info you provided in these web posts on the characters, locations, and other information mentioned in the book. Do you have any links to what happened to Herta Oberheuser after she lost her appeal to practice medicine in Germany. I’ve tried to hunt it down, but no luck yet.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Margie! There isn’t a lot written about Herta–after her medical license was revoked she lived a quiet life, never married. Fritz Fischer worked for a chemical company in Germany and kept his medical license for life.

  23. This book so touched my heart. My Dad was a first generation Polish American. I am half Polish and a quarter German on my Mom’s side.

    Growing up in the ’60’s, WWII was still fresh in many ways. Anne Frank was my heroine as a girl. When I read about these Polish girls it gave me my adult heriones. I remembered my tough Polish Grandma and aunts and I know Kasia and the rest of them by heart. Thank you, thank you.

    Peggy Travinski Cafaro

    1. Anne Frank was my heroine as well, Peggy. Thank you for sharing a bit of your Polish family–I’m glad Kasia rang true for you.

  24. Absolutely loved this book and like others could not put it down. Like most people, I am familiar with the Holocaust and the murder of 6 million Jews. However, I was not familiar with the story of the Polish women and their suffering at Ravensbruck and it opened my eyes to learn more about the atrocities of the Nazis and how far reaching their diabolical fingers stretched. So much evil, so much hate and so much sorrow. Thank you for writing this most powerful story.
    NEVER FORGET!

    1. I so agree, Rebecca. I have a little pin I wear that says “remember” in Hebrew and it reminds me every day.

  25. I just finished the Lilac Girls. I am still teary-eyed after finishing the book. A great book that I will recommend to all. I had never heard of the Rabbits nor Ravensbruck. Now I can’t stop looking it up and reading more. Thank you!

    1. I’m just thrilled you enjoyed the book, Heather. If you haven’t checked out Pinterest, there are some great photos of Caroline on my page and others.

  26. I just finished the book and have so many emotions and thoughts about it. I read a lot of historical fiction and have studied a lot of about the Holocaust as some of my family were European Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. I knew that people were experimented on in the concentration camps but I didn’t specifically know about the Rabbits. Having knowledge about the atrocities is different from reading a first person description of the suffering. You did an amazing job of bringing a voice to the Rabbits and I will never forget their voices. Thank you for also bringing Caroline Ferriday’s story to light – what a remarkable woman. I think the Lilac Girls would be amazing as a mini series – you should try to get HBO to produce it. I think it’s important for as many people as possible to learn these stories – now more than ever as there are so few survivors left.

  27. Dear Martha…having grown up in Postwar Europe…I have studied, and continue to study, the Holocaust intensively. Although your novel is considered fictional…the portrayal of the actual historical figures are exceptionally well done…and accurate..which is important to us historians.
    Moreover the detailed description of the evil deeds of those female guards in Ravensbrueck and the work of Dr.Herta Oberheuser is very valuable to today’s generation, who stands in great danger to no longer be taught what happened…many young people just seem to think that the Third Reich was kind of a bit of a tough time…they have zero clue of what actually took place in those camps.
    Personally; I feel this “doctor” and all of her ilk were not treated correctly by the victorious Allies. She should never…EVER…have been released from prison after serving only five years…for her “good behavior”. It was a sheer travesty of justice.
    I do feel, based on history as well as personal research, Germany never really acknowledged its guilt, nor did it repent, as did other countries who were heavily involved into the extermination of 11 million people, and countless civilians, murdered for helping…the treatment the Jewish survivors received when they returned to their respective homelands, was almost akin to the Nazis.
    Failing to mete out justice…and failing to repent…and failing to make reparations causes the one thing we can always count on…and that is history repeating itself.
    When we look at what is happening to those European countries who assisted the Third Reich today…it seems to be what the Bible would call “The Sins of the Fathers shall be revenged upon Seven Generations”.
    I am looking forward to your prequel…and congratulate you on a superb work!

  28. Ooops…I detected an error in my comment….where it says “as did other countries who were heavily involved” I meant to say “neither did other countries who were involved…
    If my comment is accepted…I beg you to correct that sentence for me…thank you!

    1. Hi Rita,
      Thank you for your wonderful comment. I tried to approve and then edit your original comment but WordPress does not allow me to edit the comments. If you want to send me the edited one, I will just delete the originals.
      Thanks!
      Martha

  29. I read your book on a cross country flight. It was hard to put down! I only wish I had brought tissue with me. I admire the strength of the of these women. It would be difficult to accept that Herta was not given a harsher penalty or put to death…..she, I’m sure, received her judgement upon her death.

  30. I was bored at the airport and came across Lilac Girls at the airport newstand. I don’t really read a lot and normally by ebooks but something told me a I needed this book. I am about halfway through and wow. I am so glad I bought it. It is so hard to read but very eye opening. I cant wait to finish it.

  31. I just finished LILAC GIRLS. I have taken classes on WWII, been to concentration camps, museums etc and this was the fiest time I had heard of the horrific medical procedures that were done to the women. Your book is powerful And informative. I just wish that dome of the experiments that were done by Herta could have been done on her to “learn” more. Horrible that she only served 5 years. However, if there is a higher power she would be judged upon her death. Thank you for your novel

  32. I was browsing through chapters one day when I came across your novel Lilac Girls. I found it to be incredibly captivating and was quite emotional throughout the read. Throughout reading the novel I felt compelled to further research parts of the story as I had never heard of these events before, I was hooked throughout the entire book! I especially liked the use of the different points of view and I think all 3 of them really added a unique perspective to the story.

    1. Thank you, Nicole. I’m so happy the book compelled you to do additional research. Fascinating isn’t it?

  33. I read lilac girl in 2 days. I simply could not put it down. I am a huge fan of historical fiction based on true events/characters, so this was right up my alley. I loved experiencing the different perceptions of each character’s viewpoint. I equally loved the juxtaposition of Caroline’s “luxurious” lifestyle alongside Kasia’s. it made Kasia’s experience so raw and honest. I genuinely felt like I was there with her. I cried, laughed, and yelled alongside all the characters, and it ended beautifully. The click of the compact was a perfect way to bring the story full circle. Thank you for taking a leap of faith and writing this story that has touched so many hearts. I have learned as much as I have enjoyed. I CANNOT WAIT to read the prequel.

    1. Wow, Kat, I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. I’m just finishing up my first draft for the prequel and notes like this make me even more excited to share it!

    2. I agree 100% with everything Kat said! I just finished the book and what an incredible story – I just had to write you! I took this book everywhere with me and could not put it down. I am also a huge fan of historical fiction, specifically for this WWII time period, and I thank you, along with the many others who have written to you, for sharing Caroline’s story, as well as the story of the women at Ravensbruck. If it was not for you, I would have never known of Caroline Ferriday and her courageous efforts to help these women or even the stories of the women at Ravensbruck. I thank you also for putting together this site, showcasing your travels and the research you have done so we can dive deeper. I read Grazyna’s poetry from the link you provided in your “Inspiration for the Novel” and it touched my heart. I could not even begin to imagine what those girls went through, but you depicted their spirits and courage beautifully through this novel. I also cried, laughed and yelled alongside the characters who you represented so well. You have inspired me to learn more and I will be reading your recommended books at the end of your note to continue the journey.

  34. As a person who lived in Germany with during the 1960’s and having parents that wanted us to SEE history, you are spot on ! I wept,got angry and amazed at the courage and tenacity of these women ! I had a Polish friend that came to the US in the late 70’s and learned so much from her. Perhaps through your book we may hope not to allow history to repeat itself. We as women can accomplish so much. Thank you for writing this excellent book.

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