Untold Holocaust story comes to life in new book

Heather Morris (Lori Magyer photo)

New Zealand author Heather Morris has followed up her bestselling debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, with another book set during the Holocaust. Cilka’s Journey is a fictionalized account of the story of the real-life Cecilia (Cilka) Klein, a character who appeared in Morris’ first book, which was based on the stories of Holocaust survivor Lale Sokolov.

Morris hadn’t planned on becoming an author of Holocaust novels. In 2003, she caught up with a friend over coffee who knew of an old man, a Holocaust survivor, who wanted to share his story with someone. But there was a catch – that someone couldn’t be Jewish.

At the time, Morris was working in the social work department at the Monash Medical Centre in Melbourne. She had also been studying as a screenwriter since 1996, when she enrolled in a professional scriptwriting course. But she didn’t know what would come out of it when she agreed to meet the man, Lale Sokolov.

“I just went and sat and listened to him. I never recorded anything he said. I didn’t know that there was going to be a story there. But I was sitting with a beautiful old man. And it seemed to help that I would just sit there and listen,” she said.

Eventually, after many years of friendship and even getting to know Morris’ family, Sokolov began to open up about the emotional burden of his experience in the Holocaust. Morris wrote his story as a screenplay, which Sokolov read several drafts of before he died in 2006.

The screenplay got sold, but it never got made. A few years ago, with the rights returned back to her, Morris’ sister-in-law asked her why she didn’t just write it as a novel. So Morris decided to adapt it herself, since nobody else seemed to be interested in telling Sokolov’s story.

The result, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, sold four million copies worldwide. Once she realized people were interested in Sokolov’s story, Morris knew what she had to do next.

“Very early on in my time with Lale, he said to me, ‘Have I told you about Cilka yet?’ ” Morris recalled. “And he said, ‘She saved my life. She was the bravest person I ever met.’ And he would wag his finger at me, ‘Not the bravest girl, the bravest person.’ He and I were only sitting there talking because she saved his life.”

“ ‘When you finish writing my story, you write Cilka’s, because the world needs to know about her,’ ” Sokolov told her. So Morris wrote Cilka’s Journey.

Sokolov encountered Cilka Klein when the two were prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Klein held a privileged position in the camp, which she used to protect Sokolov when he angered some Nazis. But Klein didn’t ask to hold that position.

“The commandant there took a fancy to her. There is no nice way to say that she was raped and a sex slave for over two years,” Morris said.

When the camp was liberated by the Soviets, Klein was charged as a collaborator for sleeping with the enemy and sentenced to a gulag in Siberia, where she was imprisoned for 10 years.

Morris couldn’t speak to Klein directly, as she had died in 2004. But she did speak with Holocaust survivors who knew her, as well as people who lived in her town. Morris also hired a professional researcher to provide her details of what life would have been like for Klein in the gulag.

Morris said it was important for her to share Klein’s story to honour her and all the girls and women who were victims of similar atrocities.

“Her story represents hundreds of thousands of women and girls who have been abused in this manner and continue to be abused. We consider girls and women to be spoils of war. And we just take that phrase as if, ‘OK, well, that’s all right. They’re spoils of war. They’re comfort women.’ No, they’re not. They’re rape victims,” said Morris.