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'I'm honouring her and other women who were abused': Tattooist of Auschwitz author returns with Cilka's story

We spoke to the best-selling New Zealand author during her recent trip to Ireland.

Heather Morris
Heather Morris

MEETING A MAN called Lale Sokolov changed New Zealand native Heather Morris’s life.

It all happened because he told her his story: about being a Holocaust survivor and how he was a tattooist in the Nazi death camps. Morris turned his story into a book – The Tattooist of Auschwitz – which wound up being an international best-seller. So far, over 1.25 million copies have been sold, and it was number one here in Ireland. 

Now Morris has taken another element of Sokolov’s story, that of a woman he met named Cilka, who spent time in Auschwitz-Birkenau and a Russian gulag, and turned her experiences into historical fiction.

In Cilka’s Story, we meet a woman who was sent to Auschwitz at 16, in 1942, and ‘learns quickly that power, even unwillingly given, equals survival’ – meaning she ends up having a sexual relationship with a prison staff member. She is sent to Siberia due to this, and the book looks at the impact of what happened on Cilka and her experiences in the gulag.

When TheJournal.ie meets Morris at a city centre hotel, she impresses on us that the book is based on Cilka’s story, but is fictional. The novel has been criticised by Cilka’s stepson, who is unhappy with how it has been presented. But Morris maintains the book is a blend of historical fact and research, and Cilka’s life. For her, there is a joy in sharing Cilka and Sokolov’s stories. 

“He would say, ‘you write my story and then you tell Cilka’s',” recalls Morris of her meetings with Sokolov. “But then life got in the way.” The pair first met in Melbourne, and Morris spent three years recording Sokolov’s story (he died in 2006). It was a story he had not told before, and she says he had a lot of fear around telling it.

Morris wanted to get his story out to the world. She took screenwriting classes, and wrote Sokolov’s life as a script. It was optioned and spent six years out of her hands.

Then on a holiday to San Diego, Morris’s sister-in-law told her to “write the bloody thing as a book and get on with it” after hearing about Morris’s struggle.

Morris says she “had no idea” what to do, as she’d never written a book before. The publishers saw it as a memoir, but she didn’t. Eventually things came around to her writing the book as she wanted to write it – through a fictional lens.

“The only way I knew how, because I didn’t know how to write a book, [was to use] very simple language,” says Morris.

After hearing about Cilka’s story, during the writing of her first book she was “a little bit naughty” and asked the professional researchers employed to look into Sokolov’s story to look at elements of Cilka’s too. She held onto that research, and put a mention of Cilka into the first book, presuming – rightly – that the breadcrumb trail would lead to a second novel being commissioned. 

‘What happened to Clika?’

After the Tattooist came out, she says that “thousands of people were writing to me and to the publishers. ‘Thank you for this amazing book. It’s wonderful. Yeah. What happened to Cilka? I need to know about Cilka.”

She says she “promised Lale” she would tell Cilka’s story. Research began into the gulag where Cilka lived. “[A researcher] got me many documents. She got me testimonies of women who had made testimonies and she got them translated. So being able to weave Cilka’s story using the people who were there and what their experiences were, that was easy,” says Morris.

While researching the book, Morris went to meet friends and neighbours of Cilka’s in Slovakia, where she had lived later in life. “She told several of them a little bit [about her life],” says Morris. “And so the storyline about being a nurse and trained as a nurse, about the female doctor from Georgia who she credits as saving her life, about meeting the man there that she ultimately spends the next 50 years with; that she’d worked in the nursery… so those storylines and her story are true, they have come from people who knew her.”

Morris describes her writing approach: “What I did was read their testimonies and then read the facts and the research, visit the people in Slovakia. And then threw it all away.”

She says it was “a classic case of research, research, research – now throw the bloody research away and write it”.

The books are not, despite their horrific subject, full of grim detail. Instead, Morris concentrates on the positives of human behaviour, and in particular on love stories. Part of Cilka’s Journey is about how she fell in love with her husband (given a different identity in the book) who was in the same gulag.

“I’m telling their story when I’m fiction writing. But I’m basing it on historical facts,” says Morris. 

Timely

Morris believes that it is a good time to tell a story like Cilka’s, given how she experienced sexual abuse during her time in the gulag.

“I think it is so timely right now, to be able to come out and declare our shame as having allowed, not only Cilka, but hundreds of thousands of other woman who were treated abysmally. And I’m talking sexually and being raped in wars and conflict,” says Morris. “And we just let it go.”

Women are still the victims of sexual abuse in war, and Morris understand why many have not talked about it in the past. “They were too ashamed to say anything.”

And we know that from studies and research done in America and Canada taking to Holocaust survivors. Now asking them the question 60 years later, were you sexually abused. And they say yes  – and they never even told their family because they were too ashamed.

Horrors and evils

Cilka apparently only spoke to some people about this aspect of her life. “She wasn’t an open book,” says Morris. ”But she didn’t need to tell them of the horrors and evils perpetrated on her, because they’re documented, factually. So don’t try and say to me folks that she wouldn’t be sexually abused in [the gulag]? Hell yeah. Because here are the realities of life in that camp.”

She says that to read about life in the gulag, “and to suggest that Cilka could have survived there and not been subjected to them – now, that’s being naive”.

“Spoils of war we call it – comfort women. No! How dare they.”

To Morris, Cilka “represents probably hundreds of thousands of women who were abused”. 

“I think I’m honouring her and all of those other women and starting a conversation about how women are treated,” she says.

Morris describes how in the gulag, “men and women did the same work, were fed the same food, were punished the same way and were imprisoned at the same rate. But women stood out because they were being sexually abused on top of it.”

Yet she doesn’t go into a lot of detail in the book. “It’s very clear in the book what all of that takes on the women, especially the sexual abuse, like psychologically. It was too horrific for me give you the full spell it out. You wouldn’t want to turn the page.”

In both her books, she brings us people who are in a conflicted place – the tattooist survives because of his role, and Cilka was also given roles that helped her, while their peers were not always so lucky.

“For Cilka being trained as a nurse given what she was doing in Birkenau, I can only presume that that allowed her to have some form of redemption with her past role. So instead of death that she was now dealing with life. And helping that life. Because I know that she was a really happy, loving, compassionate lady. That’s what people described her as.”

She was “really was loved by the community – and she loved in return. All that brutality did not take that away from her ultimately”.

Interestingly, Morris says that in her small community in New Zealand, growing up she never learned about the Holocaust. Intead, she learned about it from Lale Sokolov.

But she says that made her “the perfect person for Lale”.

“What it enabled me to do was write a Jewish story or a Holocaust story without any baggage, or a family connection. It forced me to write it very simply, and because I was not connected to any of the Jewish culture and phrases and idioms of the time. And it enables anybody to read the story.”

She says she knows “a million times more now than what I did”. She grew up in a town “where Maori people and what we call Pākehā  people just totally coexisted together”.

“I never saw colour. I never saw religion. It was that small. I was totally sheltered from any kind of racism. So I never had that in me anyway,” she says. 

Will she continue writing about the Holocaust? “I love stories of hope. And survival, like both, these are. I’m totally drawn to them,” says Morris, adding that many stories have come to her from readers.

She says there will “quite possibly” be a third book, to complete a trilogy of similarly themed novels, with the Holocaust being a catalyst.

Did she know at the time that meeting with Lale Sokolov had the potential to change her life?

“Never in my wildest dreams. That was never anything that was planned. I didn’t consider it. I had the life that I was very content with, the job that I loved, the family that I loved.

And then I was introduced to Lale Sokolov.”

Cilka’s Story is out now.

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