Cilka’s Journey- A Book Review

By: Heather Morris

Cilka’s Journey is a sequel to the bestseller, The Tattooist of Auschwitz.  I have not read The Tattooist of Auschwitz, and I was a bit concerned that I would be confused reading Cilka’s Journey, but that was not the case at all.  This book stands on its own very well.  Heather Morris includes a bit of information about the characters from The Tattooist of Auschwitz.  These small details made me curious and interested in reading it.

I must admit, though, I won’t be jumping right into The Tattooist of Auschwitz anytime soon.  After reading such an emotional story, like Cilka’s Journey, I need to give myself some time to recoup before I dive into a similar story.  I usually like to follow that genre of book with a fun, light hearted and easy to read book.

What is the book about:

The book follows the life of a young Jewish Czechoslovakian woman named Cilka Klien, who is actually a real person.  Heather Morris, the author, explains that she uses the true story of Cilka Klein to inspire some aspects of the book. Therefore, this a historical fiction novel, not a biography.  However, that should not dismiss the events in the story because what she experienced did happen to many women during this terrible time in history.

We are first introduced to Cilka near the end of World War II when Auschwitz is liberated by the Red Army (the Soviet Union).  The Red Army soldiers liberate this camp on their march to Germany.  During this time, the Soviet Union, now under Joseph Stalin, had created “labour camps” all over Russia, mostly in the northern regions.  These camps were for political prisoners, people Stalin believed were betraying the communist state, and prisoners who had actually committed crimes.  When the Red Army arrived in Auschwitz, they began questioning the prisoners to find out more information about each of them.  The Red Army learn that Cilka had been a prisoner of the camp for many years and that she had sexual relations with some of the Nazi guards.  However, these sexual encounters were not consensual; the camp guards were raping Cilka.  This allowed for Cilka to survive all her years at Auschwitz.  For these reasons, astonishingly, Cilka is considered a Nazi collaborator by the Red Army and, therefore, an enemy to the Soviet Union. The Soviets are suspicious of prisoners who managed to stay alive in the camps, sadly suspecting many of them to be collaborators (to the Red Army, this is the only answer as to why they survived these camps). Therefore, she is sent directly from Auschwitz to the Soviet Union to complete a 15-year sentence of hard labour in the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia.  She is pushed onto another train for her long journey from Auschwitz to northern Russia.  This train ride reminds her of the train ride she took many years prior to Auschwitz.

Once she arrives at the Gulag, she experiences many of the same events that she endured when she arrived in Auschwitz for the first time.  Cilka has become numb to humankind’s brutality and follows along with what is told and asked of her. Cilka’s only focus is to survive the Gulag camps just as she survived Auschwitz.

Most of the book is focused on Cilka’s time in the Vorkuta Gulag camp, but Morris also includes short memories Cilka has of Auschwitz to paint a picture of Cilka’s past.  These memories also show us how her experiences at Auschwitz influences her life at the Vorkuta Gulag camp.  It brings so much sadness knowing that this poor young woman endured such brutality at Auschwitz, and then to be forced to undergo more brutality at a new camp seems unimaginable.

Cilka’s time at Vorkuta is extremely difficult.  However, she meets many new people that end up playing a significant role in her life.  She learns a lot about herself and the courage and determination she has.  Every day she fights to survive and live, hoping to return to her home in Czechoslovakia one day.  

My thoughts on the book:

Heather Morris creates a captivating story about suffering, loss and love.  She writes with such detail that every scene seems to come to life; I felt that I could picture every part of the camp and how Cilka fits into it.  What is so incredibly moving about this story is how Morris shows you the courage of these characters, and although these are fictional characters, the reader knows that the real prisoners of the camp had to have the same resiliency if they had any hope of surviving.   Although there is so much evil and sadness throughout this story, Morris also includes incredible stories of heroism, compassion and tenderness.  I also like that it is focused on a topic that many people probably don’t know much about; it sheds light on another dark part of history.

Additionally, this book’s main events, the Gulag Camps, are a very familiar topic for me.  As a history major in university, I chose to write my mock thesis on the Soviet Union’s Gulags.  Therefore, I had an added interest in this book.  


City of Girls – Book Review

Book by: Elizabeth Gilbert

My Rating: 3/5 Stars — Genre: Romance, Historical Fiction, Adult Fiction — N. of Pages: 496

What was this story about:

City of Girls is written as one long letter.  A woman named Angela asks Vivian Morris, the main character, to explain Vivian’s relationship with Angela’s father. Vivian responds to this letter with the story of her life beginning at age 19.

Vivian Morris is from a wealthy family who lived in the suburbs a couple of hours away from New York City.  Vivian is a lost teenager when we meet her; she specifically calls herself “an idiot” at the beginning of chapter one. She fails out of college and needs to return home to her disappointed parents.  Her parents are at a loss as to what to do with their teenage daughter, who doesn’t seem to fit in in the high society surrounding her and is not academically successful.  They decide to send Vivian to live with her Aunt Peg in New York City. Therefore, in 1940 Vivian Morris gets onto the train and heads to New York City. 

Aunt Peg lives and owns a theatre in a poor neighbourhood in New York City.  The theatre is not in good shape and is not really in the centre of the ritz and glamour of theatre in New York City, but Vivian loves it! Vivian is in amazement of The Lily Playhouse, Aunt Peg’s theatre.  She is impressed and fascinated by the showgirls, the dancers, the actors, the play writers and everyone else involved in this theatre. Aunt Peg discovers Vivian’s sewing skills and asks Vivian to be the seamstress for the theatre.  She then becomes consumed with making, fixing and purchasing fabrics for the costumes in the plays.  This is when she begins to create friendships with the showgirls, specifically Celia.  Celia is a beautiful showgirl who seems to take a liking to Vivian.  Celia teaches Vivian how to showcase her beauty, go out in New York City, and have sex with lots of men.   Vivian adapts this new way of life and thrives in it, until one horrible night where she makes a mistake that will derail the life she built and loved in New York City at the Lily Playhouse. 

After a brief return to her parents’ house and a pivotal interaction with her brother, Walter, who is about to go to war, she eventually returns to New York City with Aunt Peg.   She returns to New York City to help her Aunt Peg with a new theatre job supporting the war effort.  This is where we begin to see Vivian’s character mature a bit and better understand who she is. 

My thoughts on the book

What I liked:

I loved the description of New York City in the 1940s.  The glamour, the parties, the social scene all were described perfectly.  I have only been to New York City once, during Christmas time, and I loved it, but it seemed even more amazing how Gilbert told it.

I also loved the fun and excitement that was described in theatre life at the Lily Playhouse.  It seemed like such a fun place to work and live.  Most importantly, the characters who lived and worked at the Lily Playhouse were all interesting in their own way.

The relationships that Vivian made with the other characters were the best part of this book.  There was something Vivian learned from every person that came into her life.  Sometimes people came into her life for a brief moment, and sometimes she created lasting friendships with people she grew to love.  However, it was clear that every relationship, whether long or short, played a role in creating who Vivian Morris was.  I have always believed that everyone who comes into your life plays a role.  It could be a brief one, someone you enjoy at that time, or a life long friendship. I feel this was one of the most critical messages from City of Girls.

What I didn’t like:

Unfortunately, there was quite a bit that I didn’t like about this book. Vivian’s character was just not that interesting.  I feel she lacked depth, excitement and maturity.  I was more interested in the characters around her; then I was in her story.  About halfway through the book, I realized I didn’t care what happened to Vivian’s character, and I found her kind of annoying.  Her character growth was so focused on her sex life that it became redundant to keep reading about. Vivian’s central character trait seemed to only be about her love for sex, and it is tough to keep the book interesting when you’re solely focused on that.  At the beginning of the book, I found Vivian to be extraordinarily naive, but that never seemed to go away, even as she grew older.  She got herself into dangerous situations with men but, for some reason, never really learned from these experiences; what’s worse, she never seemed to care.  I knew pretty early on that I wouldn’t love this book, but I was able to keep reading based on the character development of the people around Vivian.  The book is also very long, and it seems it could have been summed up in far fewer pages. It was also challenging to keep reading when the main character seemed to lack depth.   

If you have read this book, what are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with my comments?


How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division – Book Review

Author: Elif Shafak — My Rating: 5/5 — Genre: Current Events, Non Fiction — N. of Pages: 90

This is a very short read but an important one.  I find that in today’s world of division it is sometimes hard to see where you fit.  To see where your ideas, values and opinions meet.  Society focuses on the “us vs them” narrative leaving little room for people in the middle. How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division by Elif Shafak encourages people of all different opinions to communicate. 

This book was very recently published, so recent, that it includes commentary on the current protests in the United States and the ongoing global pandemic- COVID.  I recommend everyone read this book, in hopes that it will underline the importance of understanding the views of others.

Since this book is short, I will not detail what it is about (the title gives the plot away anyway!).  Instead, I will list below the quotes that impacted me the most.

Book Quotes:

Part 1: Introduction

“We are made of stories — those that have happened, those that are still happening at this moment in time and those that are shaped purely in our imagination through words, images, dreams and an endless sense of wonder about the world around us and how it works.  Unvarnished truths, innermost reflections, fragments of memory, wounds unhealed.  Not to be able to tell your story, to be silenced and shut out, therefore, is to be dehumanized.  It strikes at your sanity, the validity of your version of events.  It creates a profound, and existential anxiety in us.” (page 9)

“… when you feel alone don’t look within, look out and look beyond for others who feel the same way, for there are always others, and if you connect with them and with their story, you will be able to see everything in a new light.” (page 14)

“The moment we stop listening to diverse opinions is also when we stop learning.  Because the truth is we don’t learn much from the sameness and monotony.  We usually learn from differences.” (page 16)

Part 2: Disillusionment and Bewilderment 

“Whether in public or digital spaced nuanced debates are not welcome anymore. ”  (page 29)

“In the aftermath of the pandemic fewer tourists will be able to take overseas trips, fewer international students will apply, and fewer immigrant workers will be welcomed.  It worries me immensely, seeing the walls rise higher and higher.” (page 45)

Part 5: Apathy

“When we are indifferent, disconnected, atomized.  Too busy with our own lives to care about others.  Uninterested in and unmoved by someone else’s pain.  That is the most dangerous emotion —  the lack of emotion.” (page 77)

“One of the greatest paradoxes of our times is the hardliners are more passionate, engaged and involved than many moderates.  When we do not engage in civil discourse and public space, we become increasingly isolated and disconnected, thereby breeding apathy.” (page 77)

Part 6: Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

“Perhaps in an era when everything is in constant flux, in order to be more sane, we need a blend of conscious optimism and creative pessimism.” (page 87)

“It is natural to seek out a collegial and congenial group who will reinforce our core values and primary goals, and bring us closer to the stories we want to hear and prioritize.  That can be a good starting point but it cannot be the entire destination.” (page 89)

About the Author:

Elif Sharak is a British – Turkish author, that has published 17 books.  She advocates for women’s rights, minority rights and free speech.  Sharak is a founding member of the European Council of Foreign Affairs.  She has also spoken at TED Global.

Other books she has published: 

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World 

Three Daughters of Eve

The Forty Rules of Love