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Cilka's Journey: A Novel
by Heather Morris

Published: 2019-10-01
Hardcover : 352 pages
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From the author of the multi-million copy bestseller The Tattooist of Auschwitz comes a new novel based on a riveting true story of love and resilience.

Her beauty saved her ? and condemned her.

Cilka is just sixteen years old when she is taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp ...

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From the author of the multi-million copy bestseller The Tattooist of Auschwitz comes a new novel based on a riveting true story of love and resilience.

Her beauty saved her ? and condemned her.

Cilka is just sixteen years old when she is taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in 1942, where the commandant immediately notices how beautiful she is. Forcibly separated from the other women prisoners, Cilka learns quickly that power, even unwillingly taken, equals survival.

When the war is over and the camp is liberated, freedom is not granted to Cilka: She is charged as a collaborator for sleeping with the enemy and sent to a Siberian prison camp. But did she really have a choice? And where do the lines of morality lie for Cilka, who was send to Auschwitz when she was still a child?

In Siberia, Cilka faces challenges both new and horribly familiar, including the unwanted attention of the guards. But when she meets a kind female doctor, Cilka is taken under her wing and begins to tend to the ill in the camp, struggling to care for them under brutal conditions.

Confronting death and terror daily, Cilka discovers a strength she never knew she had. And when she begins to tentatively form bonds and relationships in this harsh, new reality, Cilka finds that despite everything that has happened to her, there is room in her heart for love.

From child to woman, from woman to healer, Cilka's journey illuminates the resilience of the human spirit?and the will we have to survive.

Editorial Review

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Auschwitz Concentration Camp, January 27, 1945

Cilka stares at the soldier standing in front of her, part of the army that has entered the camp. He is saying something in Russian, then German. The soldier towers over the eighteen-year-old girl. “Du bist frei.” You are free. She does not know if she has really heard his words. The only Russians she has seen before this, in the camp, were emaciated, starving—prisoners of war.

Could it really be possible that freedom exists? Could this nightmare be over?

When she does not respond, he bends down and places his hands on her shoulders. She flinches.

He quickly withdraws his hands. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” He continues in halting German. Shaking his head, he seems to conclude she doesn’t understand him. He makes a sweeping gesture and slowly says the words again. “You are free. You are safe. We are the Soviet Army and we are here to help you.”

“I understand,” Cilka whispers, pulling tight the coat that hides her tiny frame.

“Do you understand Russian?”

Cilka nods yes. She grew up knowing an East Slavic dialect, Rusyn.

“What’s your name?” he asks gently.

Cilka looks up into the soldier’s eyes and says in a clear voice, “My name is Cecilia Klein, but my friends call me Cilka.”

“That’s a beautiful name,” he says. It is strange to be looking at a man who is not one of her captors but is so healthy. His clear eyes, his full cheeks, his fair hair protruding from beneath his cap. “Where are you from, Cilka Klein?”

Memories of her old life have faded, become blurred. At some point it became too painful to remember that her former life with her family, in Bardejov, existed.

“I’m from Czechoslovakia,” she says, in a broken voice.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, February 1945

Cilka has been sitting in the block, as close as she can get to the one stove that provides heat. She knows she has already drawn attention. The other able-bodied women, her friends included, were forcibly marched out of the camp by the SS weeks ago. The remaining prisoners are skeletal, diseased, or they are children. And then there is Cilka. They were all meant to be shot, but in their haste to get away themselves, the Nazis abandoned them all to fate.

The soldiers have been joined by other officials—counter-intelligence agents, Cilka has heard, though she’s not sure what that means—to manage a situation the average soldier has no training for. The Soviet agency is tasked with keeping law and order, particularly as it relates to any threat to the Soviet State. Their role, she’s been told by the soldiers, is to question every prisoner to determine their status as it relates to their imprisonment, in particular if they collaborated or worked with the Nazis. The retreating German Army are considered enemies of the State of the Soviet Union and anyone who could be connected to them is, by default, an enemy of the Soviet Union.

A soldier enters the block. “Come with me,” he says, pointing to Cilka. At the same time, a hand clutches her right arm, dragging her to her feet. Several weeks have passed and seeing others being taken away to be questioned has become part of the routine of the block. To Cilka it is just “her turn.” She is eighteen years old and she just has to hope they can see that she had no choice but to do what she did in order to survive. No choice, other than death. She can only hope that she will soon be able to return to her home in Czechoslovakia, find a way forward.

As she’s taken into the building the Soviet Army are using as their headquarters, Cilka attempts a smile at the four men who sit across the room from her. They are here to punish her evil captors, not her. This is a good time; there will be no more loss. Her smile is not returned. She notices their uniforms are slightly different from those of the soldiers outside. Blue epaulettes sit on top of their shoulders; their hats, placed on the table in front of them, have the same shade of blue ribbon with a red stripe.

One of them does eventually smile at her and speaks in a gentle voice.

“Would you tell us your name?”

“Cecilia Klein.”

“Where are you from, Cecilia? Your country and town.”

“I’m from Bardejov in Czechoslovakia.”

“What is the date of your birth?”

“The seventeenth of March, 1926.”

“How long have you been here?”

“I came here on the twenty-third of April in 1942, just after I turned sixteen.”

The agent pauses, studies her.

“That was a long time ago.”

“An eternity in here.”

“What have you been doing here since April 1942?”

“Staying alive.”

“Yes, but how did you do that?” He tilts his head at her. “You look like you haven’t starved.”

Cilka doesn’t answer, but her hand goes to her hair, which she hacked off herself weeks ago, after her friends were marched from the camp.

“Did you work?”

“I worked at staying alive.”

The four men exchange looks. One of them picks up a piece of paper and pretends to read it before speaking.

“We have a report on you, Cecilia Klein. It says that you in fact stayed alive by prostituting yourself to the enemy.”

Cilka says nothing, swallows hard, looks from one man to the next, trying to fathom what they are saying, what they expect her to say in return.

Another speaks. “It’s a simple question. Did you fuck the Nazis?”

“They were my enemy. I was a prisoner here.”

“But did you fuck the Nazis? We’re told you did.”

“Like many others here, I was forced to do whatever I was told by those who imprisoned me.”

The first agent stands. “Cecilia Klein, we will be sending you to Kraków and then determining your fate from there.” He refuses, now, to look at her. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. After reading the author’s note about her conversation with Lale Sokolov, the Tattooist of Auschwitz, did knowing that Cilka’s story is based on a real person change your reading experience? Does the author weave fact and realistic fiction into the story effectively? In what ways?

2. What drew you to this time period and novel? What can humanity still learn from this historical space—from the front lines of an infamous concentration camp to the brutal Russian Gulags? How was this story unique in its voice and characters?

3. Is Cilka’s prison sentence in Vorkuta as punishment for “sleeping with the enemy” in the concentration camp cruel? Was she forced into this role in order to survive as a mere sixteen-year-old girl? How might Cilka’s outward behavior compare to her inner intentions?

4. “What you are doing, Cilka, is the only form of resistance you have—staying alive. You are the bravest person I have ever known, I hope you know that.” (Chapter 32) Is Lale right? Is Cilka brave, and were her acts of resistance the best course of action she had? What does Cilka feel guilty about or complicit in? How is she suffering because of it?

5. Could you imagine having the fortitude to survive one death sentence and then another? How do these two hells—the camp and the prison— compare? Were your perceptions challenged or expanded on what life in the Gulag was like after reading this book? In what ways?

6. What strategies does Cilka use to survive? Which ones does she teach the others, including Josie? How could her body be her ticket? What does she sacrifice in giving of her body but not her mind?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

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