I was introduced to the character of Cilka Klein in Heather Morris’ first, best selling book The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
Morris, New Zealand born but now living in Australia, met Lale Sokolov and told his story of surviving the Auschwitz concentration camp in WWII. Cilka appears in Lake’s story because in 1942 she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was 16 and beautiful and chosen by one of the camp’s Nazi commandants to perform a role that was essentially to be his sex slave. She survived Auschwitz- Birkenau and Cilka’s Journey opens with the liberation of the camp in 1945.
Now 19, Cilka can scarcely believe her ordeal is over and as it turns out, fate deals her a cruel hand. Instead of being given her freedom, she is charged by the Russians for the crime of ‘collaborating with the enemy.’ Once more she is herded onto a railroad truck along with women of all ages and many nationalities, to endure an arduous journey north – to the prison camp of Vorkuta, inside Siberia’s Arctic Circle.
The conditions she faces there are appalling. Prisoners, men and women alike, are forced to labour in the freezing conditions of the coal mine there. They sleep at night in huts with only one blanket each for warmth and a single bucket for a toilet. Meals are a thin watery gruel. Much of this is a repeat of Cilka’s experiences at Auschwitz- Birkenau.
To add to their degradation, the women are subjected to brutal attacks by male prisoners, who regularly force their way into the huts and assault and rape who they please.
The theme of rape – as a weapon of war, as a tool to pacify male prisoners, as a threat to ensure compliance by women – is starkly presented. A horrifying fact of a horrifying life. Cilka, after all, is in this second prison camp because the repeated tapes she endured at the hands of a Nazi officer are seen by Russian authorities as evidence of ‘fraternisation’ and collaboration with an enemy. She is Czech, not Russian, but subject to the laws of the then USSR. And so on top of the three years in a Nazi camp she spends another eight long years of a fifteen year sentence in Vorkuta until her early release after Stalin’s death.
Morris has received some criticism for her telling of Lale’s and now Cilka’s stories. However she maintains that she was not trying to tell the Holocaust story or the Russian gulag story: rather the stories of two individuals. Also, Cilka’s Journey is fiction, though fiction inspired by the story as told to her by Lale Sokolov, recollections of female prisoners of Russian camps of this era, and by research in Germany, Slovakia and Russia. A lengthy author’s note makes clear the line between historical fact and fiction and an additional information section gives more detail about the Russian prison camp system.
The story is beautifully told. It is tragic, frequently harrowing, but also a compassionate and sensitive examination of the depths and heights that humans can reach, and the varying ways in which people respond to circumstances which are to modern minds, unimaginable. It’s also a story of friendship, strength and survival.
After reading this book I will never hear the quip ‘Sent to Siberia’ in quite the same way again.
Cilka’s Journey was published in October 2019. I heard the Audio version which was narrated by Louise Brealey and published by Macmillan Audio.
A whole day to listen to women’s stories. Told by women about women. That’s what the Heroines Festival promised, and it delivered. A day to nurture the creative in all who attended, to be part of the community of women and men who gathered to listen to speakers tell tales of grandmothers, daughters, dancers, teachers, brewers, religious hermits, refugees, immigrants, explorers and lace weavers. And many, many more.
Tea Cooper, pictured here signing her books, spoke about giving voice to women whose history has not been recorded. And Karen Brooks assured us that women have always been there: as crafts women, running businesses, performing skilled trades work- even if they were not named or acknowledged.
Little rebellions are the lovely truths we search for…women were always, always there…
Karen Brooks in the ‘Herstories’ session
Both Shankari Chandran and Monica Tan write to explore what it means to be Australian, to be part of a minority but not indigenous…what it means to live on colonised land and make a home there. They discussed their experiences and insights in the ‘Home – Lost and Found’ session.
Shankari, of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage, wrote her novels Song of the Sun God and Barriers ‘to write my way home’ and to say thank you to those that came before her for their courage and resilience. Monica (of Chinese heritage) travelled around Australia on ‘a great big road trip’ in a quest to better understand this country and to represent marginalised stories that the gatekeepers try to keep out. The result was her book Stranger Country.
Both women explored the crucial role language plays in our identity and connectedness. Language is used to express power, relationship, history and it’s no coincidence, said Shankari, that the erasure of language is a key tool and feature of colonisation.
Chloe Higgins’ debut book, The Girls, was published just two weeks prior to the festival. It’s a ‘memoir of family, grief and sexuality’ and Chloe discussed how it felt to tell her story with all its intimacies, not knowing how it would be received. I was happy to hear her say that she’s been overwhelmed by the messages of support and understanding she’s received so far.
Melissa Fagan has also published a memoir, What will be worn, in which she explores the gaps and secrets within her own family story, woven in with an account of an iconic Brisbane department store owned by members of her family for many years.
It was interesting to hear both Chloe and Melissa speak of the ‘emotional inheritances’ bequeathed within families, often over generations.
Jesse Blackadder’s session centred around the motivations prompting her to write her two historical fiction works, The Raven’s Heart (set in sixteenth century Scotland) and Chasing the Light (about the first women to go to Antarctica in the 1930’s.) Jesse said that apart from the pull of travelling to the icy continent to research that story, the thing that made her want to write about these women was learning that women had been barred from going there. Jesse said:
How can a whole continent be closed to half the human race?
Jesse Blackadder, in ‘The Explorers’ session
She applied for and won an Antarctic Arts Fellowship and embarked on a six week round trip voyage (exactly as those women had done eighty years earlier)
Other fascinating sessions included Lauren Chater (The Lace Weaver) and Robyn Cadwallader (The Anchoress) as they discussed women barely mentioned in the historical record: Estonian women caught between the competing horrors of Nazi and Soviet oppression, and the medieval religious hermits known as ‘anchoresses.’ In answering the question ‘What makes a strong woman?’ they agreed that:
Sometimes they are the women quietly working away, making change in the background, trying to survive, remaining true to their own beliefs and experiences.
Lauren Chater, in ‘Hearing our Grandmothers’ Voices’
It was a day filled with riches of thought, conversation and intriguing ideas. I hope I can get there again next year. If you’d like to find out more, or purchase a copy of the terrific anthology Heroines: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Poetry (ed Sarah Nicholson and Caitlan White), launched on the day, go to the website:
#Heroinesfestival #heroinesfest19 #AusLit #AustralianWomenWritersChallenge
This is a short story I submitted in the ‘Furious Fiction’ at the Australian Writers Centre in August 2018.
The prompts for that month were:
The story had to be 500 words (or less)
The sentences “The door was locked” and “It felt familiar” and “She laughed” had to be included.
To find out more about Furious Fiction, go here: https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/
It’s free, fast and fun.
Here’s my story.
I didn’t know what to do. The door was locked. I rattled the handle, twisted it hard. Emma, behind me on the step, jostled my elbow. I turned to her, scowling.
“We can’t get in,” I muttered.
She laughed. “What’s it matter?” she called as she bounced back down the stairs, landing on the pavement with a “Ta da!”
Emma always found the laughter. It’s what most people love about my sister. She is slow, and a bit chubby, and her face has that flattened look. And she knows how to be happy.
“Emma, it’s not funny.” I tried to scold, and failed as usual. Emma never allows words to penetrate when she is in her happy place.
She said “Let’s go to the park!”
“We promised Dad we’d clean up this afternoon,” I reminded her.
“We can do that later!” She was off, running down the street towards the park; one of her favourite places.
Sometimes, Emma can be very tiring.
Mum’s house was too far to walk to, and she wouldn’t be back to pick us up for another two hours – which would’ve been plenty of time to clean up the mess in Dad’s kitchen that we – or really, Emma – had made yesterday. He’d been angry when he got home. I could understand why. It couldn’t have been great, getting home after work to find Emma, dusted head to foot with flour, looking like a walking snow cone, with egg shells, vanilla essence, mixing bowls and dirty spoons scattered all over the bench tops. The look on his face… poor Dad.
Mum had arrived then, and the tension between them was a razor blade, invisible but deadly. It felt familiar. I’d said, quickly “We’ll come tomorrow after school, Dad, we’ll clean it up, promise!”
And now, here we were: locked out.
I heard the low throb of Dad’s car and spun around, grabbing Emma’s elbow to steer her back to the house. She beamed at Dad and rushed to him, her little arms hugging his legs as he tried to get out of the driver’s seat.
“Hey, Daddy!” He put his hand out to smooth her hair, his eyes meeting mine above her head.
“Hey, baby,” he said softly. I could tell he had forgiven her. That felt familiar, too.
Here is another of the short stories I entered in the Australian Writers Centre ‘Furious Fiction’ short story competition. For this one, the guidelines were: 500 words or less, the topic was “The Lost Hour”, and the story had to include one sentence with three colours mentioned, plus the phrase “It is lighter.”
As always with this competition, it was great practice for thinking imaginatively about a prompt and writing to some guidelines – and good fun. Here is my story:
The Lost Hour by Denise Newton
Splinters of light stab at my eyes. I try to open them. The right eye opens. Can’t see much, but it must be nearly morning. Darkness lifting: it is lighter. My left eye stays closed. I try again, concentrating. Jesus, it’s stuck. What the freaking hell? My mouth is stuck – I can’t open it, either. My tongue feels huge, like a thick furry lizard inside my mouth. I try to lift my head. Someone groans nearby. So close to me. Who is that? I try to lift my head again. Shit, it hurts. I hurt. That dude groans some more. Carefully, I roll my head to the right and open that eye a crack. I can’t see properly. Pieces of something green and shiny scattered about. Glass? Roll my head back to the left. Another moan. There’s no one there. Is it me making those noises? What the hell?
OK, try to sit up, Luke. Slowly, slowly, like an old man, I roll to one side and push myself up to sit, hunched over like a turtle. My left eye is screaming now, throbbing. God, my head. There’s a piece of broken green glass embedded in my left palm. Blood oozes around the sides of the wound. Looks deep – but what do I know? I can hardly see properly. I try to focus my one good eye on the wound, staring hard. It’s all blurry: a pink, green and red palm. I can feel it now. Maybe because I’m looking at it. Stinging, where the blood is leaking. I turn my hand over. The knuckles look grazed and swollen. Like something hard has hit them. Or… like they’ve hit something hard.
Jesus. I’m scared now. What happened here? I search my mushy brain, trying to remember. Flashes of the night before: Jason’s big party, his buck’s night at The Royal. All the guys there, I remember that. A big night. Huge. Then nothing. Jump to now. Sitting here with a triangle of green glass in my palm, a swollen eye and knuckles that have seen some action. The rest of the night lost to me.
I try to stand up. Sit down again, in a hurry as the concrete under my feet rises, threatens to slam into me. My head drops between my knees. I’m trying to think the nausea down; I want to look up but the bile rises. So I lean one ear on my knee and send my gaze out. To my right, on the other side of the broken glass, something lies crumpled on the pavement. Oh. Jesus. A body, lying there, very still. Concentrating, commanding my right eye to focus, I make out a pale green t shirt and jeans, a bearded face turned to me, eyes closed. The top of the shirt is splotched with stains. A dark red trail of liquid oozes from the ear above.In the distance I hear a siren.
This is the printout of my first draft…it’s probably 10,000 words too long and needs a great deal of tender nurturing and care (also known as word whittling, re-writing, re-drafting) to become a second draft, then a third…and so on. Still it is comforting and reassuring to see the pages in front of me. Proof that I didn’t just imagine all those words!