Saturday, 28 September 2019

REVIEW - CILKA'S JOURNEY BY HEATHER MORRIS

Title: Cilka's Journey
Series: The Tattooist Of Auschwitz
Author: Heather Morris
Genre: General Fiction, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre, Zaffre, St Martins Press
Release Date: 1st October 2019

BLURB from Goodreads
Her beauty saved her life - and condemned her.

Cilka is just sixteen years old when she is taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, in 1942. The Commandant at Birkenau, Schwarzhuber, notices her long beautiful hair, and forces her separation from the other women prisoners. Cilka learns quickly that power, even unwillingly given, equals survival.

After liberation, Cilka is charged as a collaborator for sleeping with the enemy and sent to Siberia. But what choice did she have? And where did the lines of morality lie for Cilka, who was sent to Auschwitz when still a child?

In a Siberian prison camp, Cilka faces challenges both new and horribly familiar, including the unwanted attention of the guards. But when she makes an impression on a woman doctor, Cilka is taken under her wing. Cilka begins to tend to the ill in the camp, struggling to care for them under brutal conditions.

Cilka finds endless resources within herself as she daily confronts death and faces terror. And when she nurses a man called Ivan, Cilka finds that despite everything that has happened to her, there is room in her heart for love.


PURCHASE LINKS

REVIEW
After reading the story of Gita & Lale in The Tattooist Of Auschwitz and reading a little about the character Cilka, I was eager to know more about her story. In fact, I do remember messaging Heather Morris to ask if there would be a book about Cilka, her reply was something along the lines of “never say never” and “it’s a possibility”. As soon as I found this book was available, I knew I absolutely had to read it. The Tattooist Of Auschwitz had stayed with me long, long after finishing reading it and yes we had an end for Gita & Lale, but I kept wondering but what about Cilka? I like the cover of this book and feel it really represents the book well.

The book is a mixture of “present” and “past. The present is based in the Siberian hard labour camp that the now 18 year old Cilka Klein is sent to. The past is in the form of flashbacks to her time in Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The book begins in the present at Auschwitz and the arrival of the Soviet Army. A soldier tries to explain to Cilka that she is free now, sadly that does not turn out to be the case for Cilka. Soon the Army is joined by counter intelligence officers who question all those that remain in the abandoned camp. As the retreating German Army are considered the enemy so is anyone who has helped or worked with them in any way. Cilka is accused of fraternising with the enemy. The “fraternisation” being that she slept with the German Officers. She is charged as a collaborator and sentenced to 13 years hard labour. Of course, Cilka tries to protest her innocence but it is to no avail, it seems someone has reported her and the Russians believe what they have been told. Cilka sets off on yet another long arduous train journey. As before Cilka and the other prisoners are all packed into rail carriages and given the bare minimum. Every time the train stops the heavy door is opened and the dead bodies are passed out and bread is thrown in, water is also given but there is never enough of either for everyone. The women quickly come to a decision and work out a system to share what they have, giving the youngest the first food and water. They then take turns receiving the bread and water. It is on this long sometimes horrific journey that Cilka meets Josie. Josie has dark brown eyes that remind Cilka of her best friend Gita. Josie is with her grandmother but does eventually speak to Cilka. When Josie’s grandmother becomes ill and dies it is Cilka that comforts the young Josie. Josie’s grandmother is by no means the first, nor the last one to die on the train journey. Once they arrive at the Siberian camp, Cilka sort of takes Josie under her wing. Attempting to guide her through the following degradations of being shaved, de-loused, given prison uniforms. They are placed in the same hut that accommodates 20 women. The woman in charge of them introduces herself as Antonina Karpovna and she wastes no time in laying out the rules and what she expects of them. Once again Cilka finds herself at the bottom of the prisoner hierarchy. It soon becomes apparent in the Siberian camp that some seem to think that Cilka had it easy in Auschwitz-Birkenau, that she had better clothes than everyone else, better food to eat and generally an easier time than everyone else.

Sadly, one thing that the Siberian camp has in common with Auschwitz-Birkenau is that the women can be chosen by the male trustees as “wives”, “girlfriends” or basically picked out to have sex with. The women have no choice in the matter, so once again Cilka finds that her beauty attracts her attention she would rather not have. Having said that by being chosen as a “wife” neither Cilka nor Josie are touched by any other men. Still there are women who make snide remarks as if Cilka, Josie and the other chosen women are somehow enjoying being repeatedly raped!
It’s not long until Cilka is offered a job at the hospital, after it is noticed how quickly she reacted and treated her friend Josies burnt hand. At first Cilka does not wish to be “chosen” she doesn’t want the extra food or so- called perks that come with the job. Finally, she gives in and takes the job and manages to smuggle out some of her extra food to share with the women back at her hut.
The book tells of the back-breaking work even the women are expected to do, filling buckets with coal that the men from the neighbouring camp have mined and moving it. It is as if even the weather has it in for the prisoners with its bitter coldness, snow, rain and almost constant night time. Then in summer the continual light preventing them from sleeping. The book covers a lot the harshness, the degradation, hostility and indignities the prisoners had to suffer. It also re-tells the friendships the women make, how they band together to help each other when they can.

Cilka’s beauty really ends up being a mixed blessing as it draws the attention of German Officers in Auschwitz-Birkenau and then the trustees in the Siberian camp. This means she is repeatedly raped, over and over again, whenever the men wish. Cilka is called a slut on more than one occasion. The whole reason she is in the Siberian camp is because the German Officers singled her out in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it wasn’t her choice. She would have been raped either way. Cilka tries to block the repeated rapes out, to go somewhere else in her head whilst it is happening. Cilka also tries to help Josie do the same when she is chosen, she explains if you fight it, you will end up with a beating too. In Cilka’s mind she is not giving the men anything, she certainly doesn’t feel love for them, even though one professes his love for her! Cilka is an extremely brave young women who is made old before her time. With her job she realises that she can use her elevated position to help others, she quickly learns how to help the patients she helps to care for as well as the women that live in the same hut as her.

As it was in Auschwitz-Birkenau Cilka witnesses, death from starvation, from mines collapsing with the prisoners still in them, working accidents, fighting injuries and more. Cilka also see’s new life being born when she works in the maternity ward of the camp hospital. When Cilka has the chance of a favour from the Commandant and his wife, she choses to use it for someone else securing an early release for her friend and the baby she has given birth to whilst in the camp.
I couldn’t believe that Cilka was sentenced to 13 years hard labour for the “crime” of being repeatedly raped in Auschwitz-Birkenau. A weaker minded or weaker bodied person would have either just given up and died or even committed suicide but not Cilka. Not only did Cilka stay strong in her mind, she tried her very best to help all those around her. I adored the way she looked back on the friendship between herself and Gita to draw strength from. The way a small smile during an accidental meeting gave her the encouragement to think there may well be a life for her after her sentence. Cilka survives despite everything the Germans and Russians could throw her way.
I finished reading this book which was very late, late/early hours of the morning as I got to a point, I couldn’t put the book down I had to know how Cilka’s story ended. My immediate thoughts were that Cilka Klien was a brave, brave woman that went through hell at Auschwitz, then Auschwitz-Birkenau and then after surviving that she was given 13 years hard labour at Siberia. An amazing story of what is known of her life.

What more can I say, Cilka’s beauty not only possibly saved her, it condemned her to being repeatedly raped. Having said that I suppose you would have to say that Cilka’s beauty also saved others around her. Cilka learnt early on in her experience that she couldn’t stop the men, so she blanked out her trauma and whatever perks, if any she received, she shared with those around her. She quite literally “turned the other cheek” on many, many occasions.

So, do I have any questions for the author, Heather Morris this time? Yes, please, please tell me there will be more survivor stories? Personally, I would love to know more about Josie and her family? I want to read about more survivors of the holocaust, their stories must be heard, must be told and remembered.

The research done for books such as these must be incredibly interesting, emotionally moving yet harrowing too. When I read a blurb, such as this one, that the book is based on real people like Cilka, Gita & Lale, or even a book with fictional characters based on the real events they seem somehow attract and draw my attention I feel I have to read them. These stories need to be read and handed down the generations so that they are never ever forgotten.




COVER COMPARE
Which one do you prefer?


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