I have had the author’s previous novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz on my to be read list for quite some time. I would have liked to have read it before starting Cilka’s Journey, but as soon as I received this book, I started reading. This novel was fine as a stand-alone, although part of me wanted to know more about some of the characters mentioned by Cilka (especially Lale and Gita).
The author is clear that while the story is based on actual events, it is still a novel of fiction.
“Although it weaves together facts and reportage with the experiences of women survivors of the Holocaust, and the experiences of women sent to the Soviet Gulag system at the end of the Second World War, it is a novel and does not represent the entire facts of Cilka’s life. Furthermore, it contains a mix of characters: some inspired by real-life figures, in some instances representing more than one individual, others completely imagined.”
In 1942, Cecilia ‘Cilka’ Klein was taken to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. She was only sixteen years old. Cilka was eighteen after liberation, but she was not free. Cilka had hoped that they would see that she did what she had to do in order to survive. She just wants to go home to Czechoslovakia. But they say Cilka prostituted herself to the enemy and because she can speak other languages including German, they say she is a spy.
She’s charged as a collaborator for sleeping with the enemy and sent to a prison camp in Siberia.
“You can expect a long sentence of hard labour”
She’s lost everything and endured so much. Now she is being punished for it.
Cilka ends up in another place where power is essential for survival. She wonders how she can possibly go on. There are times when the despair overwhelms her, but there is a fire inside her that helps her to keep going.
In Siberia, Cilka impresses one of the camp’s female doctors with her skills and capacity for languages. The doctor offers her a job. A job like this has its advantages, but it may cause jealousy among the other women.
Cilka carries the shame of what went on, of what she did to survive in the other place. She worries that others will find out what she did there.
Cilka tries to get through each day as best she can. There are only two choices, survival or death.
This was an engrossing and heartbreaking read. I read this novel in just a few sittings. At times the suffering was very hard to read but then I thought about what people had gone through. I am always amazed at the resilience of those who endured so much. Although there was so much cruelty there was also compassion and bravery.
Most of the story is about Cilka’s time in the prison camp in Siberia but also includes flashbacks to her time at Auschwitz.
How does someone survive such brutal conditions? I can’t even imagine the cold, the hunger, the abuse, and terror. I don’t think you can possibly know how you would react unless you’re in a similar situation.
A deeply compelling and thought-provoking read with complex and well-developed characters. An emotional story about survival, resilience, hope, and the human spirit.
Cilka’s Journey will stay with me for a very long time.
I’d like to thank St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an advanced copy of this novel. All opinions are my own.