Cilka's Journey by Heather Morris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Even more so than with its predecessor The Tattooist of Auschwitz, I have struggled with how to review Heather Morris' novelization of the life of Cecilia "Cilka" Klein Kovac. Unlike the story of Lale/Lali Sokolov,* with whom Morris spent an ample amount of time, Cilka died in 2004, long before Morris undertook Lali's story. Morris never knew her, and there is precious little information about her. Cilka Klein arrived at Auschwitz in 1942, survived to be liberated, and was then tried as a Nazi collaborator for "sleeping with the enemy" and sentenced to fifteen years hard labor in Vorkuta, a Soviet gulag. While Lali Sokolov called her the bravest person he ever knew (she saved him, according to his account), others have called her a murderer in Shoah Foundation testimony:
"The Shoah Foundation testimony of a contemporary from Bardejov alludes to a darker side to her role as block leader. He said that while she had smuggled him some much-needed food, she was also “an absolute murderer. There is probably more blood on her hands than anybody else”."*
This novel in part presents a redux of the questions I had about collaboration and the right to survive. Lali and Gita Sokolov believed that Cilka was forced into a sexual relationship with several SS officers. It's important to note that Peter Juscak, a Slovakian writer who had talked to Cilka Klein Kovac after her husband's death and before her own, said that Cilka firmly denied that she ever slept with any of the SS.* She entered Auschwitz at age sixteen and it's not entirely clear what she could have done to avoid the situation if the SS officers wanted to rape her. It is impossible to know if her denials to Juscak were due to the shame of rape, the shame of appearing to consent, her suppressing the memories to protect herself from her painful history, or whether, in fact, the claims that she slept with SS officers were entirely false and the Sokolovs were wrong. (To which I add, would it ever truly be possible to have a consensual relationship under such conditions, no matter how old she was?) If we believe the Sokolovs' and Morris' version of events, Cilka was definitely a sexual abuse victim who chose to survive as best she could. She could have fought back and died. But like many sixteen-year-olds, she understandably wanted to live and apparently tried to adapt to her situation not just once but a second time at Vorkuta. Put in charge of the dreaded Auschwitz Block 25, where female prisoners were held prior to being gassed, she apparently did her job, just like Lali did his. (I will say it is noticeable that there is no specific reference in the Shoah Foundation testimonies to Cilka having killed anyone or having been directly responsible for the deaths of anyone, despite the statement of the one man from Bardejov.) For these things, she got more food (which even according to the Shoah Foundation testimony she may have shared), warmer clothing, and an indoor job in the administrative building. Even with these "niceties," she was in a death camp and her life could have ended at any moment at the whim of any officer in a mood to do so. I do not feel I am in any position to judge her or her actions and choices. I wasn't there and have never come even close to having to survive what she survived either in Auschwitz or Vorkuta. Almost any version of these events that Morris could offer would be a searing story of survival no matter what the protagonist did to do so. What I do have questions about is Morris using Cilka Klein's story when apparently she was an extremely private person who explicitly told another writer that she did not want her story told.* She is no longer here to say whether her name can be used in this novel and she left no heirs to consent for her, either. I understand Morris' intent to satisfy reader curiosity and her coming from the position of Lali's saying that Cilka was very brave. But still, I question the ethical choices made here.
Morris gives us a largely fictionalized account of Cilka's life at Auschwitz and Vorkuta because no one really knows the full set of facts about what she endured in either setting. She could be canonizing her or vilifying her and we would not have facts to say so. We, as readers, and the author, have no clear picture of what true justice for Cilka would look like. Was she a Nazi collaborator or merely a survivor who was further abused by a Soviet criminal system looking for scapegoats? Morris works off of research accounts of life in the camps and gulag, along with the information she learned from Lali and Gita's first-hand experience of knowing Cilka. While the book is fairly well-written, I am still turning over in my mind whether it was the right thing to call this novel Cilka's story. Honestly, I'm pretty much siding on the idea of creating a character of a different name and saying in an afterward that the story was "partly inspired" by the real-life story of Cilka Klein. So that's my take. Read this book and then read the facts that are known and think about what this woman endured no matter what the facts were. But remember- this isn't just a novel of historical fiction for the many who survived the Shoah and for those who seek to safeguard their legacy. At its best, let Morris' novel be the spur to get you to learn more about the real people behind the characters in her novel.
*A reader seeking information about both the issues with Lale/Lali and Gita Sokolov's and Cilka Klein's stories can read this well-researched article: https://www.theaustralian.com.au/week...
It is also important to understand that an accurate accounting of the events of the Shoah is incredibly important to both the remaining survivors and to those who seek to preserve their legacy. There is great fear that fictionalizing these stories feeds into Holocaust denial. An accuracy assessment of "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" by Wanda Witek-Malicka, the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center, can be found here: https://view.joomag.com/memoria-en-no...
I received a Digital Review Copy and paper review copy of this novel from St. Martin's Press in exchange for an honest review.
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