Last year, the whole world dealt with a pandemic. As some of us begin the New Year with renewed hope, we also want to learn and unlearn more about the world around us. There is no way better than starting the New Year with a good book. Now, you can take up any book you want but what about a book which tells us the story of a woman in the midst of a war and the aftermath of war? What is unique of this woman is that, despite facing extraordinary circumstances, she does not give up hope. Who is this woman and what is her story, you ask? This is the story of Cilka, the main protagonist of Heather Morris’s book, Cilka’s Journey.
The book is a sequel to her first book, “The Tattooist of Auschwitz.” Both the books are interconnected with one another by a common thread: it is based on the backdrop of World War II and tells us the story of survivors of Nazi regime’s most notorious concentration camp—Auschwitz-Birkeneau. However, both the books do not share any other similarity, while the former is a love story that reinforces our belief in love, the latter gives us hope, inspires us and above all shows us that if a woman wants, she can achieve anything and everything.
The book begins in 1942. Cilka Klein, the main protagonist of the book, was only 16 years old when she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. In 1945, the War ends, the camp is liberated but she is not. At 16 years of age, when she catches the eye of a high-ranking German officer in the camp, she is allowed to keep her long hair (women prisoners at the concentration camp were not allowed to keep their hair) and is separated from other women.
“Her beauty saved her—but also condemned her.”
In 1945, when she was eighteen years old, the war ended; the camp was liberated but she was not. At 18 years, she is sent to Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia to serve a 15-year old sentence. Her crime was that she chose to save herself from the Gas Chambers through her body. She is not given a choice: for her, it is life or death. Everyday was a day of survival for her, yet she chose to fight.
In the Tattooist of Auschwitz we get a glimpse of her selfless-nature, when she decided to save Lale Sokolov—the tattooist of Auschwitz—who was also her friend Gita’s boyfriend, risking her life so that Gita’s love story does not get ruined. This book not only provides immaculate details about her life but also gives us readers an opportunity to understand the consequences a woman faces for just being born a woman and also makes us realise why there is a need for women to voice their opinions and the society at large.
In Vorkuta, she encounters new challenges and threats but she was also determined to survive. She is taken under the wing of the camp doctor, who recognises her abilities, efficiency and capability of speaking several languages. For the first time, Cilka’s capabilities are recognised beyond her being just a sexual being. She begins to train as a nurse and work. She expected to continue living her life for the sake of it but then she met Alexandr.
“Despite everything that happened to her, there is room in her heart for love.”
Throughout Cilka’s Journey we see her entire path of how she survived the two camps and how she explored herself and her possibilities in life. She was both a victim and survivor.
“How she survived, brought her shame.”
She was a victim of her circumstances. She was even more vulnerable as a young woman. Even in today’s world, the sole quality expected of women is that she should be beautiful and be able to produce children, ideally male children. Cilka was valued because of her beauty and that she could be used as a “sex toy”. She was dehumanised. Life had been biased against her and she continued to mete out insufferable harshness. However, the way she carried herself in the face of adversity and her frustration at her own deprivation make her an unforgettable protagonist. She not only survives but also teaches us an important lesson, “to never give up hope.”
The place where the lives of Cilka and Josie intersect is a fresh wound for Cilka’s already abused and addled life. Cilka has lost everything except her will to survive. Cilka meets Josie on the train which was carrying female prisoners to the Siberian camp. Josie reminds Cilka of her friend Gita. Josie is sixteen-year-old when she meets Cilka: Cilka sees a reflection of herself in Josie and thus unknowingly grows to care for Josie.
The two women fill the void in each other’s lives. The immense sacrifices that the Cilka makes for Josie and the intensity of their affection for one another leaves a long lasting impression on the minds of the readers. We also get several other glimpses of Cilka’s selfless nature, when we see her care for the women who were hostile and misbehaved with her in the camp at Vorkuta. In the end, these very women became her family.
The title of the book, Cilka’s Journey is very apt, as it describes her journey from a young girl, whose circumstances teach her to grow up into a young woman, finally achieving freedom from both being a prisoner at the concentration camp at Siberia and also from her past. The book describes Cilka’s journey in the Siberian prison but also includes flashbacks from her past in the Nazi concentration camp.
It depicts the resonance between instability in the lives of Cilka and women like her and their surroundings. Through this book, we see the complex interwave of emotions that reside in a human heart, especially that of a woman. The author has explored multifaceted human emotions such as love, hate, endurance, and friendship with a profound understanding of the human psyche.
Cilka’s Journey is poignant, thought-provoking and a noteworthy sequel to The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Cilka served two-third of her sentence before being released during Khruschev’s regime. The question that must have arisen in your mind is whether Cilka and Alexandr have a happy ending and what happens after she is released from the camp, but for that you have to read the book.
The book leaves an indelible impact on the minds of the readers and for this New Year, it is a must read!
Disclaimer: There is a mix of characters inspired by real-life figures, in some instances representing more than one individual, and characters completely imagined.” – Author Heather Morris.