Cilka's Journey (The Tattooist of Auschwitz #2)

Cilka's Journey
(The Tattooist of Auschwitz #2)

Heather Morris

To my grandchildren, Henry, Nathan, Jack, Rachel and Ashton

Never forget the courage, the love, the hope given to us by those who survived and those who did not.

This is a work of fiction based on what I learned from the first-hand testimony of Lale Sokolov, the tattooist of Auschwitz, about Cecilia “Cilka” Klein, whom he knew in Auschwitz-Birkenau; from the testimony of others who knew her; and from my own research. 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. There are many factual accounts that document these terrible epochs in our history and I would encourage the interested reader to seek them out.

For more information about Cecilia Klein and her family, and about the Gulags, please turn to the end of this novel. I hope that further details about Cilka and those who once knew her will continue to come to light once the book is published.

—Heather Morris, October 2019


Auschwitz Concentration Camp, January 27, 1945

Cilka stares at the soldier standing in front of her, part of the army that has entered the camp. He is saying something in Russian, then German. The soldier towers over the eighteen-year-old girl. “Du bist frei.” You are free. She does not know if she has really heard his words. The only Russians she has seen before this, in the camp, were emaciated, starving—prisoners of war.

Could it really be possible that freedom exists? Could this nightmare be over?

When she does not respond, he bends down and places his hands on her shoulders. She flinches.

He quickly withdraws his hands. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” He continues in halting German. Shaking his head, he seems to conclude she doesn’t understand him. He makes a sweeping gesture and slowly says the words again. “You are free. You are safe. We are the Soviet Army and we are here to help you.”

“I understand,” Cilka whispers, pulling tight the coat that hides her tiny frame.

“Do you understand Russian?”

Cilka nods yes. She grew up knowing an East Slavic dialect, Rusyn.

“What’s your name?” he asks gently.

Cilka looks up into the soldier’s eyes and says in a clear voice, “My name is Cecilia Klein, but my friends call me Cilka.”

“That’s a beautiful name,” he says. It is strange to be looking at a man who is not one of her captors but is so healthy. His clear eyes, his full cheeks, his fair hair protruding from beneath his cap. “Where are you from, Cilka Klein?”

Memories of her old life have faded, become blurred. At some point it became too painful to remember that her former life with her family, in Bardejov, existed.

“I’m from Czechoslovakia,” she says, in a broken voice.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, February 1945

Cilka has been sitting in the block, as close as she can get to the one stove that provides heat. She knows she has already drawn attention. The other able-bodied women, her friends included, were forcibly marched out of the camp by the SS weeks ago. The remaining prisoners are skeletal, diseased, or they are children. And then there is Cilka. They were all meant to be shot, but in their haste to get away themselves, the Nazis abandoned them all to fate.

The soldiers have been joined by other officials—counter-intelligence agents, Cilka has heard, though she’s not sure what that means—to manage a situation the average soldier has no training for. The Soviet agency is tasked with keeping law and order, particularly as it relates to any threat to the Soviet State. Their role, she’s been told by the soldiers, is to question every prisoner to de termine their status as it relates to their imprisonment, in particular if they collaborated or worked with the Nazis. The retreating German Army are considered enemies of the State of the Soviet Union and anyone who could be connected to them is, by default, an enemy of the Soviet Union.

A soldier enters the block. “Come with me,” he says, pointing to Cilka. At the same time, a hand clutches her right arm, dragging her to her feet. Several weeks have passed and seeing others being taken away to be questioned has become part of the routine of the block. To Cilka it is just “her turn.” She is eighteen years old and she just has to hope they can see that she had no choice but to do what she did in order to survive. No choice, other than death. She can only hope that she will soon be able to return to her home in Czechoslovakia, find a way forward.

As she’s taken into the building the Soviet Army are using as their headquarters, Cilka attempts a smile at the four men who sit across the room from her. They are here to punish her evil captors, not her. This is a good time; there will be no more loss. Her smile is not returned. She notices their uniforms are slightly different from those of the soldiers outside. Blue epaulettes sit on top of their shoulders; their hats, placed on the table in front of them, have the same shade of blue ribbon with a red stripe.

One of them does eventually smile at her and speaks in a gentle voice.

“Would you tell us your name?”

“Cecilia Klein.”

“Where are you from, Cecilia? Your country and town.”

“I’m from Bardejov in Czechoslovakia.”

“What is the date of your birth?”

“The seventeenth of March, 1926.”

“How long have you been here?”

“I came here on the twenty-third of April in 1942, just after I turned sixteen.”

The agent pauses, studies her.

“That was a long time ago.”

“An eternity in here.”

“What have you been doing here since April 1942?”

“Staying alive.”

“Yes, but how did you do that?” He tilts his head at her. “You look like you haven’t starved.”

Cilka doesn’t answer, but her hand goes to her hair, which she hacked off herself weeks ago, after her friends were marched from the camp.

“Did you work?”

“I worked at staying alive.”

The four men exchange looks. One of them picks up a piece of paper and pretends to read it before speaking.

“We have a report on you, Cecilia Klein. It says that you in fact stayed alive by prostituting yourself to the enemy.”

Cilka says nothing, swallows hard, looks from one man to the next, trying to fathom what they are saying, what they expect her to say in return.

Another speaks. “It’s a simple question. Did you fuck the Nazis?”

“They were my enemy. I was a prisoner here.”

“But did you fuck the Nazis? We’re told you did.”

“Like many others here, I was forced to do whatever I was told by those who imprisoned me.”

The first agent stands. “Cecilia Klein, we will be sending you to Kraków and then determining your fate from there.” He refuses, now, to look at her.

“No,” Cilka says, standing. This can’t be happening. “You can’t do this to me! I am a prisoner here.”

One of the men who hasn’t spoken before quietly asks, “Do you speak German?”

“Yes, some. I’ve been in here three years.”

“And you speak many other languages, we have heard, and yet you are Czechoslovakian.”

Cilka doesn’t protest, frowning, not understanding the significance. She had been taught languages at school, picked others up by being in here.

The men all exchange looks.

“Speaking other languages would have us believe you are a spy, here to report back to whoever will buy your information. This will be investigated in Kraków.”

“You can expect a long sentence of hard labor,” the original officer says.

It takes Cilka a moment to react, and then she is grabbed by the arm by the soldier who brought her into the room, dragged away, screaming her innocence.

“I was forced, I was raped! No! Please.”

But the soldiers do not react; they do not seem to hear. They are moving on to the next person.

Montelupich Prison, Kraków, July 1945

Cilka crouches in the corner of a damp, stinking cell. She struggles to register time passing. Days, weeks, months.

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