by HEATHER MORRIS
“The bravest girl I ever knew.”
That is how Lale Sokolov described Cilka Klein, a fellow Holocaust survivor, to Heather Morris in an interview for The Tattooist of Auschwitz. This comment clung to Morris and soon became the focus of many months of intense research and resulted in this gut-wrenching story.
Note: This book has been referred to as both a “sequel” and as a “companion novel” to The Tattooist of Auschwitz, I read this book before reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz, and I did not have any trouble following the story.
After surviving Auschwitz, Cilka is found guilty of “crimes against the regime” and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a Russian gulag. The story is told both in flashbacks as Cilka describes how she survived Auschwitz and the present. My heart broke for Cilka as she coped with near-constant physical abuse and was then hated by her fellow women. While Cilka was warm and “safe” in her private cabin, the other women were starving and cold in the crowded cabins.
In the gulag, Cilka tries her hardest to become invisible but finds herself guiding the women around her – after all, Cilka had already lived through this once. What was one more time? Even in the horrible circumstances, Cilka finds that she has a talent for nursing and is given a job at the camp hospital. It’s in the hospital that Cilka finds herself remembering who she used to be before the war and choosing whom she will become when she is free. WHEN she is free. My favorite part of this book is Cilka’s relentless choice to survive.
As I read Morris’ words, I gasped in horror, I cried, I held my breath, and I even laughed once. Cilka’s story is unique, powerful, and beautiful. Her journey deserves to be known.
Salt to the Sea, The Book Thief, The Lost Girls of Paris, or The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Sexual assault – Women in the gulag are consistently raped by the men in the encampment.
Child loss – There is one occurrence of miscarriage and several comments about children under the age of 2 dying from exposure and malnutrition.
18+ due to the prevalence of sexual assault. If you’re giving this book to a younger reader, I would encourage you to have conversations about why/how women are taken advantage of this way during times of war and how the trauma of such abuse can change how victims see the world around them.