Sunday, December 22, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Cilka's Journey by Heather Morris

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Cilka’s Journey is a new historical novel by Heather Morris, author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. It tells the story of one of the characters from The Tattooist: Cecelia Klein, known as Cilka. At the age of sixteen, Cilka was sent to Auschwitz with her mother and sister. Young and pretty, she was singled out by men in charge at the camps and repeatedly raped. If that wasn’t traumatic enough, she was then put in charge of the female prisoners who were sent to the gas chambers.

Cilka survived the experience riddled with guilt and shame.

After the concentration camp was liberated by Russian soldiers, Cilka was accused of collaboration--sleeping with the enemy--and sent to Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia.

Once again, Cilka was sexually abused. She was chosen by one of the soldiers to be his exclusive “mistress,” and was housed in a hut full of women who were visited regularly by guards who assaulted them.

Cilka was a survivor. She developed bonds with other women in her hut. She found her way into the camp hospital where she was trained as a nurse, working in the medical ward, then in the obstetric ward, and finally accompanying ambulances to accident sites. This was a privileged position. She worked in relative warmth and had access to better food which she shared with the women in her hut. Yet she lived in constant fear that her friends would discover why she had been sentenced to the Gulag–that she had been in charge of the “death block” at Auschwitz–and that her friends would shun her.

Cilka’s suffering and struggle to survive makes for difficult reading. (Perhaps not the best choice for Christmas season.) Yet, like all books in the WWII/Holocaust genre, it’s important. What makes this story unique is its focus on the war’s aftermath--the prison camps in Siberia. A caveat is that the prose is a bit plodding at times and the dialogues are sometimes stilted. Nevertheless, like The Tattooist, Cilka’s Journey is based on a real person. It’s a compelling story that should be heard.

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