Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris

In this follow-up to The Tattooist of Auschwitz, the author tells the story, based on a true one, of a woman who survives Auschwitz, only to find herself locked away again.

Cilka Klein is 18 years old when Auschwitz-Birkenau is liberated by Soviet soldiers. But Cilka is one of the many women who is sentenced to a labor camp on charges of having helped the Nazis–with no consideration of the circumstances Cilka and women like her found themselves in as they struggled to survive. Once at the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia, where she is to serve her 15-year sentence, Cilka uses her wits, charm, and beauty to survive.

Cilka Klein was originally introduced to readers in Heather Morris’ award winning novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz as a prisoner and friend to Lale and Gita. Unlike her friends, she didn’t emerge from WWII to establish a new life, find marriage and begin anew. Cilka is a true historical figure who was deemed to be a Nazi collaborator by the Russian Army, and sentenced to 15 years hard labour in Vorkutlag, Siberia.

The conditions under which Cilka and the other women served their sentences was remarkably similar to those of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. That is to say, depressing, dangerous, cold, and inundated with illness, hunger and abuses.

I listened to Cilka’s Journey, narrated by Louise Brealey who did an excellent job portraying the different characters. I have no knowledge of Russian but her pronunciations sounded perfect to my uneducated ears. The end of the audiobook contains an afterword by the author, describing her research process and clarifying which secondary characters are historical figures and which are imaginary, or an amalgamation of several real people.

Ms. Morris had much less first hand research with which to write Cilka’s Journey than she did in writing The Tattooist of Auschwitz. In the tattooist, the story was based on three years of interview between Morris and Lale, whose story she told. Cilka died before Morris ever met her, or indeed Lale, so more of this story is told based on research by the author and professional researchers she hired. As such, this story is inevitably less accurate than The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Cilka seems to have been quite the private person, and no wonder based on everything she was subjected to in her teens and adulthood.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Cilka’s Journey but was disappointed afterwards to learn that several characters and story lines I thought were historically accurate were actually fictional. I felt that too much creative license was taken, whether that is because of a lack of historical evidence or because the author wanted the book to follow a similar path to her previous bestseller. Either way, this information dropped what would have been a five star book in my mind, down to three or four stars.

I still highly recommend this novel, but if you are someone like me who is easily swept up by the story, you might want to learn some of the facts before you get carried away, thinking the story is gospel.

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xx

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