Cilka’s Journey Q&A
Want to know a bit more about the story behind Cilka’s Journey? The following questions have been asked of Heather about the book and Cilka’s life in general. Just click the down arrow beside each question to see Heather’s answer.
What is the book about?
Cilka’s Journey is the story of a 16 year old girl who was sent to Auschwitz from eastern Slovakia in April 1942. Cilka survived because she was kept as a sex slave by Schwarzhuber, the commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau. When discovered by the Russians at the end of the war, Cilka was accused of collaboration – sleeping with the enemy.
And so having survived Auschwitz, this 19 year old girl was sent from the horror of the Nazi death camps to the gulag system in Siberia, where she served ten years of a fifteen-year sentence. But in Siberia amid the brutality – and, yes, again, rape – she found herself
and found friendship with the other women there. She also met a female doctor who took her under her wing and trained her to be a nurse, work that helped her to survive.
Above all though, this is a story of love. Cilka must have felt she would never find love, after years of sexual abuse and brutality. But she met a man in the gulag and they were married on their release, and returned to Slovakia, very near to where Cilka grew up, and lived the rest of their lives there.
Why did you want to tell her story?
It was Lale who told me about Cilka – “she was the bravest person I ever met”, he told me, “she was a tiny young girl. And she saved my life”. Among all the wonderful letters, emails and questions I get from readers, it is the question I am asked over and over again – “what happened to Cilka?”.
And after having written about Lale, I wanted to write about women’s experience of Auschwitz, and of war – including the often untold stories of sexual abuse and violence. As for Cilka herself, the more I found out about her, I realised just how extraordinary she must have been, to survive all that she did, and find life and love after her time in two of the most brutal places on Earth.
Does Cilka have any family?
All of Cilka’s immediate family were sent to Auschwitz and murdered there. I can find no record of any extended family, cousins etc, who survived. She and the man she met in Vorkuta never managed to have children. I have kept the name of this man out of this novel out of respect for the privacy of his extended family.
Why write another novel rather than a history book?
I’m a fiction writer, not a historian – that’s the writer I am. I decided to write Lale’s story, because it allowed me to breathe life into the stories this man who became my friend had told me, and imagine all that he and Gita and the others experienced. And with Cilka, I’ve chosen to work in the same way. There are wonderful history books that readers can use to find out more about the Holocaust, and the Soviet gulag system. I hope my novels will tell something of these times through the perspective of individual characters and I hope that this is a way of bringing these stories to more people.
What is a gulag?
Gulags were a system of forced labour camps maintained in the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1950s in which many people died. Anyone who was seen as an enemy to the Russian Communist government could be sent there and we have no idea how many millions died within this system as the records are so incomplete.
What research did you do?
It all began with Lale. He told me Cilka’s story over a number of years, often circling round to her over and over again in our conversations. She was clearly someone who meant a great deal to him and to Gita. Since then, I have visited eastern Slovakia four times and seen the records of Cilka’s birth, her school records, visited her grave, the synagogue she would have worshipped at (now in ruins), the street her family lived on, met and spoken to people who knew her. I have also spent time at Yad Vashem and looked at many archives of Holocaust survivors.
The gulag story is less well-documented: there are no open records of prisoners sent to Vorkuta. But I used a researcher in Moscow who provided me with an enormous amount of information on the system and how it works, and the experiences of women in particular.
Are there any photos of Cilka?
We have seen images that we believe to be of Cilka, but have been unable to verify the ones of her as a child, or confirm the copyright position of the ones of her taken after her time in Vorkuta, and so it has not been possible to include them in the book at this stage. I hope that further information may come to light after publication of Cilka’s Journey.
What’s next for you?
One of the most wonderful things about the success of The Tattooist of Auschwitz is how many people contact me with the desire to tell their own story of hope. I’m a fiction writer who loves writing about untold stories. And in Cilka’s Journey I’ve found writing about the experiences of women in war – so much less well-documented than the experiences of men – so interesting, that I wonder if this is where I’m headed next. But it’s too early to know for sure – I’ll see where this magical journey takes me.