I wasn’t a huge fan of The Tattooist of Auschwitz for a few reasons (embellishments, lack of clarity on whether it was fact or fiction, lack of research in some areas etc), but I wanted to give Cilka’s Journey a try as I wanted to know more about the woman who had found herself in such a difficult position in such a terrible place in Auschwitz at the young age of 16. I finished this novel feeling the same way I felt with the first: unfinished, slightly discontent, but also feeling guilty about not feeling better about the novel.
Cilka Klein arrives in Auschwitz at the age of 16 and survives three years of the hell that it was, enduring the “special treatment” of rape and assault by camp commanders. After Auschwitz is liberated she is tried and convicted to 15 years of hard labor by a Soviet court, her crime being that she slept with the enemy. Cilka then goes on to survive 10 years of the Vorkuta gulag in Siberia, where she ends up meeting her future husband. After their release they spend the remaining 5 decades of their life together in (then) Czechoslovakia. This novel however only really depicts Cilka’s life in the gulag, with some flashbacks to Auschwitz, and a few others to her life before WW2.
There are so many parts of Cilka’s story that need to be told (her role in Auschwitz and why she did what she had to do to survive, the fact that rape is used as a weapon in war, Stalin’s gulags and purges etc), but in order to give readers a real, detailed overview of the horrors that everyday people were forced to survive I feel that one 400 or so page novel just can’t do it. In Cilka’s Journey we see the world she is forced to live in through her eyes, we see the conditions of the gulag and the set up through her eyes, but there is not enough information provided on exactly how, where, why, and who. Criminal trusties appear, but how did they get there in the first place? What happened to Cilka’s friends after her release? How do the doctors and nurses get there and where do they go next? How are the prisoners convicted in the first place (Cilka’s trial is barely depicted, there are more pages on her journey to Vorkuta than on the conviction). And so on. I feel like I needed more, rather than a sort of passing overview.
We MUST talk about the gulags and the way they caused generations of trauma that is still very visible today (my stepfather’s parents and grandparents were ripped from their homes and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia, and that time spent there is still visible generations later). And we just talk about how women were sent to Siberia and how they survived the camps. But there is so much more to tell. Maybe I am asking too much from one book, but maybe I am just not content with the mix of fact and fiction, and feel like this novel would be better as a TV series, in the same way that I thought The Tattooist of Auschwitz would too.
Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance copy of this book!