Cecilia (Cilka) Klein was a pivotal character in Heather Morris’s best-selling debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz. The teenage Cilka was credited by Lale Sokolov – the ink artist of the first book – with saving his life, and Morris was so affected by this tale that she decided to honour Cilka with this novel. Ostensibly a sequel, the book can also be taken as a discrete unit, but reading it together with its predecessor offers a breadth of field that takes in both the Holocaust and the Soviet gulags. In the author’s note, Morris is quick to clarify that, although Cilka’s Journey has been woven from strands of historical facts, reportage and testimony, the narrative and the characterisation of its Jewish Slovakian protagonist remain fictional.
Written in the third person, the novel begins in 1945 at Auschwitz, where Cilka is peremptorily told by a Russian soldier that she’s free, after being imprisoned there for nearly three years. But this declaration is pitilessly short-lived. Not long after, the 18-year-old is accused of being a Nazi collaborator and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour. Along with other women of varying ages and nationalities, Cilka is literally and metaphorically branded as an enemy of the state – on false and risible grounds – and herded, once again, on cattle trains to another prison. When they arrive at the remote Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia and are directed towards concrete bunkers, Cilka wonders whether the showers will rain water or gas.
There is a definite sense of deja vu for Cilka, and for the reader. Both camps are predicated on the same premise: to purge perceived enemies but also, before that final solution, to extract as much slave labour as possible from them.
It’s impossible for this journey not to evoke a visceral reaction. The horrors of Cilka’s and her fellow captives’ experiences do not require any embellishments, and Morris’s prose eschews linguistic pyrotechnics – instead her sentences are often tonally flat and shorn of excess fat. There is still too much signposting, however, in lines such as “Cilka can see that she has gone from one cruel, inhuman place to another”.
In tracking life under the Third Reich, and then under the Soviets, Cilka has one precious commodity to draw on: experience. Staying alive is the only form of resistance she has at her disposal.
Echo, 324pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 26, 2019 as "Heather Morris, Cilka’s Journey".
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