In Cilka’s Journey, we are introduced to Cilka Klein, who first appeared in the bestselling The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Cilka survived the Nazi death camp after senior officers took a liking to her, where she was regularly raped and witnessed the final hours of the sick and weak women destined to be murdered.
When the camp was liberated by the Soviet army, she was sentenced to 15 years at a notorious Siberian gulag for being a ‘collaborator’.
The cruelty of the situation seems incomprehensible, and would be difficult to believe if author Heather Morris not been told Cilka’s story by another holocaust survivor – Lale from The Tattooist of Auschwitz. While the novel is considered fictional, it is based on the true stories of these characters, and blended with fiction where the truth could not be known.
Even stranger than the cruelty of the situation is the unrelenting goodness of Cilka in the face of such evil and cruelty. While I admired Cilka throughout the book – who wouldn’t? – I found it difficult to believe the extent of her selflessness. According to the story, Cilka traded her freedom for that of another inmate, saved babies in the hospital, entered collapsing mines to rescue the injured and held the hands of prisoners who had tormented her when they found themselves in her care in the gulag hospital.
In the afterword, Morris wrote that Auschwitz prisoners had given mixed reports about the real Cilka. While she had yelled at condemned prisoners, she had also shared her rations with a prisoner who hailed from the same hometown. Lale said she was the bravest person he knew. To me, these reports suggest a more complex person, rather than the saintly Cilka we are introduced to in the book.
Perhaps I’m a cynic to doubt the level of goodness attributed to Cilka could be possible. And maybe I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about the representation of women in literature as beautiful and relentlessly brave and kind.
It all just seems a little too much. I recently finished reading the Harry Potter series and one reason I loved them so much was JK Rowling’s complex and ambiguous representation of characters. So many were good, but imperfect. Many were bad, but not entirely evil.
And in Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge books, I enjoyed reading about a women who was flawed, but still lovable and interesting. I don’t think characters need to be perfect to be respected and loved.
Apart from this sense of exaggerated goodness, I thought it was incredibly valuable to read about the story of this woman who had survived such brutality in two hellish places. I didn’t know much about the Siberian gulags beforehand, and was interested to learn more about this time in history. Morris did a wonderful job of evoking the cold and the physical hardships of imprisonment in the gulags, and of the injustice that led to many being imprisoned there.
It was also satisfying to find out more about Cilka, a character who had piqued my – and many other readers’ – interest in the Tattooist.
But, while I enjoyed reading Cilka’s Journey, ultimately I felt the book was let down by the degree of Cilka’s heroism. Perhaps if she hadn’t rushed into the mines or had just once put her needs or comforts before that of others, I would have believed in this real-life character whose survival alone made her enough of a hero for me.