If you only read one book in 2019, it should be Cilka’s Journey. It tells the devastating true story of Cilka Klein, who was not only a concentration camp survivor, but was also sentenced to hard labor in Siberia after the Soviet Union liberated Auschwitz.
The story begins where most WWII novels end: the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Cilka, a camp survivor, is interviewed by the Soviet army and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in Siberia for “lying with the enemy,” despite the fact that she was only 16 years old and repeatedly abused by the SS officers running the camp. The early chapters outline the brutal journey to a land where the winters remain dark 24 hours a day, and atrocious working conditions abound. Through flashbacks, Cilka’s life at Auschwitz is also remembered, and some of the similarities to the concentration camp and the work camp, despite the fact that the Soviet Union “recused” the camp survivors, are horribly represented.
Cilka, thanks to her affinity for languages, is quickly given work at the camp hospital, where she forms tentative friendships with the staff and her hut-mates, seeing as her higher position creates more opportunity for the women she lives with to obtain food and resources. And despite the horrendous tragedies she has suffered in her short life, she finds that despite her previous role at Auschwitz, and all that she has had to do to survive, she still has the capacity for love and the ability to help others.
I am in awe of Cilka, and all of those like her, who despite the terrible things they lived through never quit trying to alleviate the suffering of those around them and care so deeply for all human life. Cilka herself struggles with her past, and constantly feels the need to prove to others that she can be selfless, despite the fact she always has been, and what she did before was only to survive in the face of certain death. She is a complex and compassionate woman, and I hope those who read this book can understand how incredible she was.