“Morris’s propulsive tale shows the goodness that can be found even inside the gulag.”
— Publishers Weekly
Cilka’s Journey (St. Martin’s Press), Heather Morris’s follow-up to The Tattooist of Auschwitz, illuminates the gut-wrenching story of a Jewish girl who’s captured by the Nazis at age 16 and forced to act as a mistress to SS officers. Her Russian liberators accuse her of spying and collaborating with the enemy, shipping her off for 15 years of hard labor in a Soviet gulag. This is a sobering premise, indeed — even more so because it draws upon real events — and yet Morris has crafted a flinty heroine who actively pursues her own redemption by way of human connection.
Cilka protects her fellow detainees, taking a young girl named Josie under her care and showing her how to use a rudimentary needle to sew their identification numbers upon their uniforms. Morris writes, “Each time [Cilka] stabs the needle through the fabric, she feels the pain of a needle stabbing into her left arm. Another number. Another place.” Cilka exhorts Josie to remain strong even when male prisoners routinely rape them. As the book progresses, Cilka makes a number of sacrifices to protect the weaker, susceptible Josie, tending to her with a near-motherly sense of enduring love.
Morris embeds tiny reprieves from the madness throughout. Through her care for Josie, Cilka encounters a kindly female doctor who recruits her to work in the clinic instead of hauling coal. Upon hearing this offer, Cilka’s resourcefulness and selflessness once again kick in, for she realizes, “the job would mean she could smuggle [leftover food untouched by the patients] to those who need it, or trade it for cigarettes, boots, coats for the others.” Cilka soon earns the trust of many of the doctors, and they teach her nursing skills.
Even as she earns new privileges, she continues watching out for Josie and the other women with whom they room in a decrepit hut. For example, she finds a bolt of fabric at the clinic and fashions rough blindfolds that they use for blocking the near-constant sunlight of a Siberian summer. Finally, Cilka’s nursing position brings her into contact with an alluring messenger whose “kind, dark eyes” haunt her. In spite of her many betrayals, Cilka can still bring herself to embrace love.
Cilka’s journey is, no doubt, an intense and treacherous one, with obstacles that might’ve broken Odysseus himself. I marveled at Morris’s ability to keep the reader engaged even as the savagery increases. Cilka herself captivates from the start; she never loses her ability to trust or empathize. Thus, this poignant tale of survival conveys hope for even the darkest of epochs.