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.