I am reading one of the most heart-wrenching novels I have ever read. “Cilka’s Journey” by Heather Morris (sequel to her New York Times’ bestseller, “The Tattooist of Auschwitz”) is the story of Cilka, a survivor of the concentration camp of Auschwitz Birkenau, who is forced to become a sex slave of an SS officer in the camp. After the liberation by Allied forces, Cilka is convicted as a prostitute and spy of the Nazis, resulting in a 15-year sentence in a Soviet gulag in Siberia.
The book is historical fiction based on the true story account of Cilka, as recounted by Lale Sokolov, and Morris’ research of the concentration camps and gulags to recreate the horrifying experience of a real-life nightmare.
The hardest part of the book is that it is based on a true story. It isn’t a horror film. It isn’t some fantasy or dystopian novel.
It is real.
Men, women, and children (Cilka was brought to Auschwitz as a 16-year-old) had tattoos scarred into the arms. Forced into hard labor. Forced to surrender their bodies to sexual abuse by their captors. Many of the people who came to the camps were immediately sent to death chambers, where poisonous gas was dispensed on them from above in a locked cell.
Going from that dark place, where death looms imminent around every corner to a Soviet gulag under only slightly better conditions is like jumping from one form of hell to a different kind with similar prospects.
It is a lesson on human evil and how far someone filled with hate can go de-humanizing other people.
But also, the story is one of the resiliency of the human spirit to survive, to overcome, to refuse to give in to the torture, the abuse, and mankind’s evil inside.
I am only a few chapters in and I know I will love this book. It will likely include many moments of weeping and pain, empathizing with these women enduring such a trial. It is an important story to tell. It needs to be told because Cilka mattered. Her story and the story of those like her are very important, especially in this day and age.
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