The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory: an impressive debut from an author to watch - book review

The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory
The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory

As the Berlin Wall falls in 1989, the dying words of an elderly professor set his daughter on a disturbing journey into the horrors and inhumanity of the notorious Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp.

Dark secrets from the past return to haunt a fractured family in what should be a bright new dawn for Germany, and for troubled Miriam Voight, unsettling events in the present are also casting a long and menacing shadow.

Debut novelist and former children’s nurse Anna Ellory from Bath reveals she was inspired to write this searing exploration of the women known as the ‘Rabbits of Ravensbrück’ as a way of shining a light on the rarely told experiences of women and children during the Holocaust.

In a shocking act of Nazi cruelty, a group of Polish political women prisoners were forced to undergo gruesome Nazi medical experiments. The victims became known as ‘rabbits,’ a nickname that derived from being used like laboratory animals, and the fact that they were reduced to hopping around the camp after sometimes fatal procedures in which dirt, rusty nails and other items were inserted into their flesh to test the efficacy of sulfa drugs.

Against this haunting, highly-charged backdrop, Ellory weaves a rich and complex multi-stranded, cross-generational story of love, survival, hope and redemption which acts as both a gripping and emotive novel and a powerful reminder of a disturbing corner of wartime history.

As the wall between East and West falls in December of 1989, ‘Berlin is Berlin’ again for a city that has long been divided. But the joy and euphoria is out of reach for Miriam Voight as she cares for her dying widower father, Henryk Winter.

It is ten years since she last saw her father and now, as she helps him on his final journey, she is locked into a cycle of ‘cleaning, caring and changing.’ And it is while she tends to him that she discovers a small tattoo under his watch strap, a mark that could only mean he had once been a prisoner in Auschwitz.

Shocked to learn that Henryk, a former university professor, had ever been in a concentration camp, she becomes more determined to probe into the war years when she hears him cry out for someone named Frieda.

Searching for more clues about her father’s past, Miriam finds a dress uniform from the Ravensbrück women’s camp concealed in an old carpet bag inside her late mother’s wardrobe. And carefully sewn into its seams are dozens of letters to Henryk written by Frieda.

The letters reveal the disturbing truth about the Rabbit Girls, young women, mainly Polish political prisoners, who were used for medical experiments by doctors at the camp by the Nazis. And amid their tales of endurance, Miriam pieces together a heartbreaking love story that has been hidden away in Henryk’s heart for almost fifty years.

Inspired by the strength and sacrifice of these extraordinary women, Miriam strives to break through the harmful, defensive walls she has built around herself. Because she is running away… desperately trying to escape the clutches of her controlling, husband Axel, a dangerous man who is still on her trail.

And as Henryk’s secret history unravels and the city enters a new era, it seems that hope can survive even in the darkest of times…

In a three-way narrative that includes Henryk, Miriam and the voice of Frieda from her long-lost letters, Ellory’s story lays bare harsh truths about the abuse of women. While Miriam’s experiences as the victim of a coercive relationship inevitably pale in the face of the barbarities of a concentration camp, The Rabbit Girls does succeed in its focus on the ongoing struggles of women fighting violence.

This hard-hitting, immaculately researched and sensitively written story also tackles other important issues… the emotive subject of self-harm, can collusion ever be forgivable, and how far should we go to protect ourselves and our loved ones?

With its moving tribute to the strength and resilience of generations of women, its thoughtful reflection on those who suffered in concentration camps because of their political convictions, and a final act that offers a ray of light in a sea of darkness, this is an impressive debut from an author to watch.

(Lake Union Publishing, paperback, £8.99)