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In August of 1958 Herta’s license was revoked but she continued to practice medicine while she appealed the case with the support of some high profile friends and a cadre of lawyers.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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35 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.

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