Books and reading,  History,  Uncategorized

One woman’s experiences of wartime incarceration: ‘Cilka’s Journey’ by Heather Morris

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.

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