Cilka Klein was a real woman who endured not only Auschwitz but also the Russian gulag: two of the most brutal places of the 20th century. We first met Cilka Klein in The Tattooist of Auschwitz, but one need not read the first in order to understand and appreciate Cilka’s Journey.
As a sixteen-year-old, Cilka was sent to Auschwitz, where she became the mistress of an SS commandant. Because she was Jewish, it “stained” the commandant to be with her, so she was kept out of sight at the bunkhouse where condemned women slept the night before the gas chamber.
After liberation, the Russian Army decided she had collaborated with her rapists. She was then condemned to fifteen years in the Soviet Vorkuta Corrective Labor camp, located nearly 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, near the White Sea. It is at Vorkuta that the bulk of this story takes place, showing Cilka’s wit and strength, her fears and failures.
There are many stories about specific atrocities suffered by those in concentration camps and the gulag. What makes this novel worth the read is its clarity in showing the physical as well as psychological brutalities that women prisoners endured. Cilka Klein was sent to Auschwitz because she was Jewish. She was sent to the gulag because her oppressors found her desirable.
While reading a novel full of such horrific content can be upsetting, Cilka’s resilience keeps the reader hooked and hopeful. It isn’t a book of oppression and failure – this is a book of strength and compassion. This should be required reading for everyone.