Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris: a tale about the triumph of goodness and hope even amidst the most appalling brutality - book review -

Cilkas Journey
Cilkas Journey
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Another extraordinary story of love, strength and survival amid the cruel history of both the Holocaust and the post-war Russian gulags.

When Heather Morris’s stunning Holocaust novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, was published last year, it became an international phenomenon, winning awards and selling over three million copies worldwide.

It was based on Slovakian Jew Lale Sokolov’s incredible, heartbreaking account of life and love in the Auschwitz concentration camp, a story poured out to New Zealand-born author Morris after he had hidden it away for 60 years.

Sokolov, who died in 2006, was the camp’s Tätowierer, the tattooist charged with marking his fellow prisoners with a number, and it was there that he met not only the woman who would one day become his wife but also a remarkable young girl from Czechoslovakia who, he declared to Morris, ‘was the bravest person I ever met… and she saved my life.’

Cilka Klein, inspired by the real life of Cecília (Cilka) Kováčová, was an intriguing, peripheral character in The Tattooist of Auschwitz, but now she takes centre stage in this powerful, disturbing and deeply moving sequel… another extraordinary story of love, strength and survival amid the cruel history of both the Holocaust and the post-war Russian gulags.

Cilka, who was coerced into having sex with her German guards to survive, was only eighteen years old when she was freed from the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp by Soviet soldiers in 1945, but was then arrested on charges of ‘collaborating’ with the enemy and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour in a Siberian gulag.

It was the cruellest blow for the teenager who had battled to stay alive for three years under the atrocities meted out by the Nazis, and it is a fictional version of her unforgettable, heart-rending story that forms the basis of this poignant tribute to a truly inspirational and courageous woman.

In 1942, Cilka Klein is just a young, naïve sixteen-year-old Jewish girl when she is transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The commandant at Birkenau, SS-Obersturmführer Johann Schwarzhuber, notices her long beautiful hair, and forces her separation from the other women prisoners. Cilka learns quickly that power, even unwillingly given, means survival.

But after liberation by the Soviet Army in 1945, Cilka is convicted of working with the enemy and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour at ‘the coldest place on earth’… the desolate, brutal prison camp known as Vorkuta inside the Arctic Circle in Siberia.

Knowing she is innocent and that she had no choice other than death at Birkenau, Cilka faces the long journey to the gulag in a cattle truck filled with death and the ‘sound of women suffering,’ and then the challenges, both new and horribly familiar, of a place where each day is again a battle for survival.

On arrival, Cilka is prostituted out to men at the camp but, as she tells her new friend, Josie, they might have her body but they ‘cannot have her mind, her heart, her soul.’

Cilka also befriends a woman doctor, Dr Yalena Georgiyevna, and learns how to nurse the sick in the camp, struggling to care for them under unimaginable conditions. And when she tends to a patient called Alexandr Petrik, Cilka finds that despite everything, he has the power to make her heart leap and that there is still room there for love…

Morris has put her heart, soul, and hours of research – including two trips to Slovakia to meet ‘several people who knew Cilka’ and who provided valuable information regarding her time in Siberia – into a story that is as affecting as it is shocking.

Fact and fiction blend seamlessly, and with overwhelming emotional power, as Cilka’s nightmare incarceration in the Russian gulag unfolds against flashbacks to her unspeakable experiences in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp… experiences shamefully repeated, in many ways, under the Soviet regime.

But Morris’s portrayal of Cilka is of a smart, resilient and resourceful young woman who has learnt the hard way how to stay alive… ‘stay quiet, stay small… don’t argue, don’t fight with them… and do as you are told.’

Cilka’s Journey is not an easy read... many people will be deeply unsettled and moved to tears at the inhumanity of her treatment. Women like Cilka – and her tale here is an amalgam of the facts and reportage of her circumstances in both camps, and the testimonies of others – did what they did in order to survive.

Despite her heart-rending ordeals, Cilka’s story was not entirely devoid of happiness… caring for sick prisoners in the gulag provided a ray of light in the darkness, and Cilka met the man with whom she would one day spend the rest of her life.

Cilka’s Journey is both harrowing and horrific but with the author’s skill and compassion, it is still essentially – against all the odds – a tale about the triumph of goodness and hope even amidst the most appalling brutality.

(Zaffre, hardback, £14.99)