If you think the story of Gita and Lale in The Tattooist of Auschwitz was heart wrenching, you will be much more depressed after reading Cilka’s Journey. So, if you are looking for a happy and light-hearted, cheerful read for the incoming festive season, this is not the right book for you. It’s dark, sad and sorrowful, yet it paints a realistic picture of a time not long ago in history, and the suffering of those people who were unlucky caught and trapped in that time and place. It’s depressing, but at the same time it proves once again that human has the strength to fight against all odds and overcome the greatest obstacles in their quest to get back their right to live a normal life.
If you have read The Tattooist of Auschwitz, you will likely remember Cilka, Gita’s friend and the girl who helped save Lale from a doomed fate. It turned out that she was not as lucky as her friends, and suffered much more and longer than them for a crime that she never committed. Her only crime, if it is considered a crime, is trying to stay alive against all odds. And because of that, she was sent to another hell on Earth: The Soviet Gulag in Siberia.
Not many people can survive one concentration camp, but poor Cilka had to endure not just one, but two of them, and they were both notorious for their poor living condition. The only consolation, if you can consider it so, is that at least before being sent to the gulag, Cilka knew how much time she would be spending there, which was 15 years as of her sentence, and that she would be less likely to receive a bullet on her head out of nowhere than in Auschwitz. Other than that, things seemed to be quite the same, and the hard labor and sexual abuse and malnutrition, which was enough to kill even the strongest man, was helped by the bitter cold of the arctic circle. How could a young girl, just barely out of the most infamous death camp ever, manage to survive another ordeal like that. But then she did, and that was the silver lining that made the book not just all gloom and doom in the end.
Unlike the previous book, this story is more fiction than fact, and only based loosely on the life of Cilka. The milestones are correct, but some characters where made up, and the details of what happened to Cilka in the gulag were filled in by the author as she did not have as much first hand material as the first book. However, it was still a riveting read, and it painted a very clear picture of the brutality of the Soviet gulag, a place decided to condemn those who were deemed guilty of the most serious crimes.
In summary, it was a heavy and dark read, but it was insightful to me, and helped shed light on what life was like in the Soviet gulag. And what I felt was most encouraging was that, in spite of all those hardships, there was still love and humanity shining through. Cilka might not have survived had she not received the help from the kind doctor at the camp, who took a big risk taking her in and training her up as a nurse and caregiver. And her time there would be much more miserable without the genuine love and care from her roommates, who were willing to share whatever little they had left, not knowing what would happen the following day. It was moments like those that makes the story more bearable. People are really more selfless and united when they share the same hardship and have to endure a tough life together.
Cilka’s Journey may not be suitable for everyone, but it will be enjoyable for those who crave a love story with a happy ending, and don’t mind going through some dark chapters with brutal facts of tough lives. It will be even more enjoyable for those who have some background in history, or love those stories based on real life events, or want to learn more about history through the lives of those who have lived through the period themselves. And no matter what your decision is, you should feel grateful and lucky that those camps are no longer exist, and contribute to making sure that no such camp exist or no such awful living condition and violation of human rights is tolerated anywhere in the world. We have gone through a dark period in our history, and we should try our best to let it be history and not current affair.