Reading Challenge 2020: Cilka’s Journey – Heather Morris

Happy Sunday Lovelies!!

I hope you’re all well. This post comes a bit later than I anticipated really. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this utterly shattered and defeated really. It’s hard at the moment but to keep myself going I’ve just been reading and buying plenty of books! I mean, who wouldn’t? Today I want to share with you a book I have had sat on my shelf since the day it was published: Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris. There’s no particular reason as to why this has sat on my bookcase for a little over a year. It’s more of a case of having to be prepared to read about such sadness and resilience. You’ve got to feel strong enough.

The theme and focus of this month for the reading challenge was: November: Something that has been sat on your bookshelf / TBR list that casts a backwards glance. Well, this book certainly does that! If you’ve been keeping an eye on my reading challenge or would like some more information, click here. For those of you who have been around for a while, you’ll remember my post on Morris’s first novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz (click here!) Anyway, I just had to be prepared for another emotional and potentially heart breaking story.

This book is beautiful in so many ways. I really hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

What’s it all about?
This book is the sequel to The Tattooist of Auschwitz, this time based on the true story of a person who survived Auschwitz Birkenau and ten years in a Russian Gulag in Siberia. Cilka Klein is introduced to us in the first book where we hear Lale Sokolov’s story. Sokolov knew Klein at Auschwitz where she was sent in 1942. She was only sixteen years of age. The tale is retold using research and interviews. Some characters are naturally fiction or an amalgamation of many faces and people she met. The most important and poignant factor is that the story is real. This is a story of survival.

“She is just surviving, Cilka has often thought. There is no one way to do it.”

Cilka quickly learnt that survival meant that she had to give the men in the camp exactly what they wanted. Two Nazi officers take a shining to her and they repeatedly rape her. She stays alive by allowing constant and repeated humiliation and abuse whilst in her role as the Jewish guard in the building in which Jewish women are sent to their death. It is here that she sees her own mother led and killed.

“She hopes she will be able to explain to Josie later that he can have her body and that is all; he cannot have her mind, her heart, her soul.”

From here she is sent to the Siberian Gulag because the Russians see her as a German collaborator because of the ‘relations’ she has had with the two Nazi officers. It is here she spends the next ten years of her life. There’s further rape, hard labour and complete and utter despair. What shines through the book though, more importantly, is friendship, courage, beauty and her will to keep the women in her block alive, as well as herself. Their hut is remarkable. The woman mostly work together to try and make it homely, stitching fabric and putting flowers from outside in a broken cup. Her closest friend, Josie, burns her hand and Cilka acts fast to save her by putting her hand in the snow. It is here that she learns about the hospital wing and meets the woman who will help save her life. Never forget the name Yelena Georgiyevna.

As Cilka learns how to be a nurse we see the narrative split into the past and present. Cilka has regular flashbacks to her life at the concentration camp. These are weaved with what events of the Siberian camp to show us exactly the horrors that Cilka experienced. It’s utterly harrowing. I had to keep reminding myself of her age when I was reading. Her whole youth taken from her.

“She didn’t choose it. It just happened.”

Yelena can clearly see that there’s plenty on this girls mind. But she is a good nurse and in demand from the patients. She experiences life on the main ward, the maternity ward where she learns to deliver babies and ultimately changes how the nursery is ran. She spends time in the ambulance, going to various calls outs where mines have collapsed. She faces these challenges head on, only to really think about what she has achieved later. Cilka opens up to her mentor, Yelena and it is here we learn her true story.

“The first day I saw you I felt there was something about you, a strength, a sense of self-knowledge that I rarely see. And now, with the little you told me, I don’t know what to say except that you are very brave.”

The end of the novel gives the reader hope. Cilka falls in love, escapes and does get to live a life outside of a prison camp. As heart warming as that is, for me it isn’t the most important part of the story. It’s the fact that she is given a voice. She shows how at such a young age she knew she had what it takes to survive. We see her sacrifice herself on so many occasions. She doesn’t harden or become cruel. Quite the opposite. She is given the opportunity to be free: she nominates Josie and her baby. She saves lives. She talks to very sick patients and gives them a soft exit from this world. She cares and she fights and ultimately it saves her life.

“It’s time to live now, Cilka,” he says. “Without fear, and with the miracle of love.” “Is that a poem?” she asks him, smiling through her tears. “It is the beginning of one.”

I hope we never have to live through events like this again. What is just as important is that these heroes, these young people, have a voice today to share their stories which at the time probably didn’t mean anything to them. It was just the daily grind to get through. Now we can share the stories and humbly reflect on how lucky we truly are.

“Stories like Cilka’s deserve to be told, and I’m humbled and honored to bring it to you. She was just a girl, who became a woman, who was the bravest person Lale Sokolov ever met.”

Final Thoughts
This book is moving, beautiful, poignant and utterly compelling. I read it in one sitting because I literally just couldn’t go to sleep without knowing what happened. You can tell Morris researches the historical details yet this doesn’t turn into a heavy book. The beauty of friendship and sisterhood is something that relates to today. All of us have a fight or flight instinct. Cilka’s was definitely to fight and boy, what a fight she gives. Like many, I did wonder if this book would be as good as the first. However, enough time has passed between the two for me to be able to make a fair judgement. It is just as good, if not better. Morris really has created a masterpiece.

Continue to look after yourselves everyone. Stay safe.

Big love all xx