Author: Heather Morris
Publisher: Zaffre Books
Genre: General Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction
Release Date: 14th October 2021
BLURB from Goodreads
A promise to stay together.
An unbreakable bond.
A fierce will to survive.
When they are girls, Cibi, Magda and Livia make a promise to their father - that they will stay together, no matter what.
Years later, at just 15 years old, Livia is ordered to Auschwitz by the Nazis. Cibi, only 19 herself, remembers their promise and follows Livia, determined to protect her sister, or die with her.
In their hometown in Slovakia, 17-year-old Magda hides, desperate to evade the barbaric Nazi forces. But it is not long before she is captured and condemned to Auschwitz.
In the horror of the death camp, these three beautiful sisters are reunited. Though traumatised by their experiences, they are together.
They make another promise: that they will live. Their fight for survival takes them from the hell of Auschwitz, to a death march across war-torn Europe and eventually home to Slovakia, now under iron Communist rule. Determined to begin again, they embark on a voyage of renewal, to the new Jewish homeland, Israel.
As soon as I read online that this author was doing a book about three sisters and their time in Auschwitz, I knew I had to read it. Initially I preferred the cover that features the three sisters, hand in hand running in a field, but the cover with stripes that continue the theme with The Tattooist o Auschwitz and Cilka’s Journey has grown on me and I guess it makes all three books tie in as they are a trilogy. I would imagine they are a striking sight on a book shelf and certainly eye catching in a book store.
I approached reading this book with conflicted, mixed feelings. I feel interest, wanting to learn about the three sisters, as their story needs to be told, remembered and passed on. On the other hand, I feel dread at the inevitable horrors and treatment these girls will suffer.
The book begins with the three sisters, Cibi, Magda & Livi making a promise to their father, Menachem Meller. Menachem is due to go in for an operation and he has a strong feeling he will not survive it. Cibi, the eldest sister is 7 years old, Magda is 5 years old and littlest sister Livi is only 3 years old. Both older sisters Cibi and Magda know they are making an important promise to their father, where as Livi needs a little prompting to understand and say she promises too. It is the eldest sister Cibi that has Livi’s face in her hands, turning her head to look into her eyes. Instructing ‘Livi , say “promise”. Say “I promise”.’ Livi studies her sister. Cibi is nodding, encouraging her to say the words. ‘I pwomise,’ pronounces Livi. ‘Now say it to Father, Cibi encourages Livi repeating “I promise” to Father,’ Livi turns to her father and says ‘I pwomise, Father. Livi pwomises. Neither the sisters nor their father could possibly have known how important that promise would become, nor the difficulties and hardships they would suffer trying to keep it.
Sadly, Menachem’s feeling of foreboding is realised as he dies whilst on the operating table. Leaving his wife, Chaya to care for their three girls with the help of his elderly father Yitzchak. The first time the girls are ever really separated is when Cibi is away at a Hachshara training camp with the hope of emigrating to Palestine. Then Dr says Magda has to go to hospital, it is his way of trying to remove her from her home and avoid her being caught up in the lists of young people being rounded up to go work for the Germans. He explains to Chaya and Yitzchak she will be safer is the hospital for a few days, and they agree. Cibi will be at camp, Magda in the hospital and Livi is too young to be taken, or that’s what thy hope for.
Unfortunately, it seems the Dr wasn’t privy to the changing rules and criteria for rounding up the young people as the Hinkla, local police come with instructions for Livi to report to the synagogue at five o’clock to be sent to work for the Germans. Livi naively tries to comfort her mother and grandfather saying, its okay she will go away, work for the Germans, then come back to them. Sadly, Livi really doesn’t grasp the seriousness of the situation she is now in. When Cibi comes home from her training and is told the news she simply states that she will go with Livi. That’s how the eldest sister, Cibi and youngest sister Livi end up being transported to Auschwitz. Cibi is 19 years old and is tattooed with the number 4558 and as the sisters had stayed clinging to each other and Livi, aged just 15 years old is branded with the number 4559. The two girls try to keep their heads down and go about the work they are given without being noticed, because to be noticed is not good, it usually means a beating or even death. Their Kapo, Ingrid takes them under her wing, and though it is never revealed it is suggested that young Livi reminds her of someone who was in her life before Auschwitz. Ingrid saves the girls and steers them towards better jobs on more than one occasion,
It is quite some time later when the rest of the family are rounded up that Magda finds herself back with her sisters in the midst of the horror in Auschwitz. First it is Cibi & Livi that refer to the promise and keep each other going on every horror filled, hazardous day. They often refer to the promise they made to their father all those years ago. Once again Cibi’s quick thinking and daring results in Magda being with them in their bunk house.
It really illustrates how former friends and neighbours were pitted against each other. One of the two Hinkla guards that deliver the instructions for Livi to go work for Germany, is quite well known to the family, a local boy called Visik. Yet at the same time there is also the kindness and bravery of friends and neighbours evident too. Such as when an older lady who lives nearby to Magda and her family continues to let Magda hide in her loft space when the Hinkla guards come to search her home again and again. Even within the boundaries of Auschwitz small acts of kindness still exist, for example Kapo Ingrid finding a coat for Livi, and the other favours she does for the Meller girls.
To say I enjoyed reading this book seems so very wrong on multiple levels. The book is an honest, powerful, at times hard hitting recollection of what the Meller family went through. Once again Heather has taken the dreadful memories of Auschwitz survivors and created another amazing book. The more I read of the book, the more I wanted to learn what happened to these sisters and their family. There is a certain point in the book when going to the fence and leaving or dying on your own terms is mentioned. Who could blame anyone for choosing to end their time in such a horrific, torturous place!
There were times in the book that I found myself wanting to scream and shout at Chaya, the girl’s mother to do something, to hide Cibi & Livi away from the Hinkla, but how could she? The family had no money to use to flee the country. Also, at the time people genuinely thought their youngsters were going away to work for the Germans for a few months at the most and then that they would be returned home safely to their family. No one truly knew the horrors happening at Auschwitz until it was too late and they were in the midst of the system that was impossible to escape.
Life at Auschwitz, or perhaps a better description would be existence at Auschwitz consisted of being constantly being attacked be it physically, through the back breaking work, and physical beatings given out by the both male and female guards. The mental abuse of seeing train loads of people arrive and head to the gas chambers and being unable to warn or help them. Surviving mentally when you no longer have a name as the Germans give you a number tattooed on your arm and that’s how you are identified. That whole process to de-humanise their prisoners.
You really go through a range of emotions whilst reading this book, and the three sister’s journey. As well as the horrors of surviving Auschwitz the sisters then deal with the survivor’s guilt that they made it through when other didn’t. They each have their specific lowest moment that torments them as well as repeated nightmares when they go to sleep at night. Magda in particular reveals she feels guilty she wasn’t with the sisters from the beginning, but Cibi & Livi explain to her it was the thoughts of her being at home with their mother and grandfather that kept them going some days.
I recently read a dispute online in a “book chat” about what sort of person Cilka “really” was. Cilka, in fact any one person can be described, remembered differently dependent on different peoples’ memories and situations they were in with her. Saying Cilka was harsh and hardened, wouldn’t anyone appear this way whilst existing in Auschwitz? Perhaps she had to put a “hard face persona” on to survive what she was going through. Some people in the chat were pointing out the portrayal of her was romanticised. However, I think there is a place for both writing styles, of the “romanticised” or perhaps a softened telling of a story as opposed to a brutal, blunt, hard-hitting type of telling. I believe that there is a place for both as both are getting the message out about how awful it was, how we should always remember and never forget, and most of all never, ever let it happen again.
I did thoroughly enjoy the descriptions of Heather meeting up with the sisters, who had what I can only describe as a gallows humour, sort of matter of fact, saying which one of them will die first.
My immediate thoughts upon finishing this story were, Wow! That it was an extremely emotional story of three sisters who made a promise to their father when they were very young. Little could know how hard that promise was going to be able to keep. They were quite literally ripped from a loving family home and transported to a place that became a living hell for them.
To sum up I had mixed feelings unsurprisingly emotional, and I aren’t ashamed to admit teary too. The way Heather writes these stories you feel like you have been on a journey and as you read you are almost an eye witness to the atrocities survivors had to endure. It’s sad about the trilogy ending as I would certainly read other survivors stories written by Heather Morris, but I can understand that perhaps this is the last survivor story from Auschwitz that she may write. I will certainly keep an eye out for any other books by the author.
Link to my review of Cilka's Journey
Link to my review of Stories of Hope