Dead End Journey

14.01.2020 14:35


The sign on the gate at Auschwitz—Arbeit macht frei—declares that work sets you free. In fact, this civilization loophole liberated prisoners from life, and their freedom was narrowed to the freedom to die at any moment. Stories of civilization loopholes carry risk, especially if written by an author without deep knowledge of the topic. Nevertheless, these areas are attractive, and with time, the authorial courage some writers embark on with these burdensome topics strengthens.

In the novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris left the story solely up to the storyteller, Lale Sokolov, and removed the possibility of self-interpretation of the many bizarre scenes and story itself. She does not analyse, evaluate or judge anything in the novel, bypassing the scene, which calls for an authorial attitude in its strong mission. Morris overlooks the crazy characters and their contradictory behaviour, such as supervisor Baretski, the camp’s commander, Cilka, or Lale himself.

The lack of her authorial penetration into character psychology ranks the novel as a document rather than a novel. Morris, originally a screenwriter, relied on the reader instead of director to artistically complete the text. The more she resigned her own attitude to the subject, the stronger she emphasized the fact that it was an authentic story. Obviously, she preferred to emphasize authenticity over artistry, and this principle is constantly reinforced as if to replace the artistic quality of the novel. Even at the end of the book, she added new and other factual data, inserting notes and an afterword. In short, the author elevated her vision of authenticity above an artistic approach. The consequence is that the novel offers a simple view of the subject, and with simple language, has rendered it for the broadest readership, who have few demands for the explanations of the complexities of hell in the civilization loophole.

Writing a document, however, requires careful handling of the facts and fates of real people. Here, Morris fails especially in the case of Cilka, who is described in the novel as a sex slave to the camp commander. Morris’ story has horrified the real Cilka’s acquaintances and survivors and made them uncomfortable.

However, this did not stop Morris, and again brought her to Slovakia to look for further traces of Cilka. Here, she heard the shocking news— Cilka’s dramatic fate at Auschwitz had continued at the Soviet labour camp in Vorkuta.

The report also created a breakpoint for Morris. She reduced her ethical principles of writing to the lowest possible level, and without careful research, continued to discuss the Cilka’s fate at the Soviet camp. It only lasted a few months, and a literary patch called Cilka’s Journey arrived on the counters. 

  In The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Morris has a lightweight position, because all the controversy and conjecture about the authenticity of the characters and episodes can pass on to narrator Lale’s shoulders. In the case of the novel Cilka’s Journey, the writer no longer avoids literary responsibility for the written text. There is no one else to hide behind despite her efforts to continue successful readership. This intent is discernible on the book’s cover as well as its appendices, giving the misleading impression that Morris once again has the hand of an authentic informant who tells about Cilka’s fate in the Gulag. The author herself corrects this in her introductory remark that Cilka’s Journey is a work of her imagination. However, this imagination is served in such a way that the reader may effectively identify with Morris’ fiction as a possible reality.

In fact, Morris only based it on the information that Cilka had been sentenced to 15 years labour after Auschwitz and deported to the USSR, serving her sentence in Vorkuta in the north of Russia and working as a nurse at the camp.

The story of Cilka at the camp as described by Morris bears the signs of an unprecedented compilation of other works about Soviet camps and a bizarre mix of fictions. The novel has two levels of factual failure. First, it is a description of unrealistic events in which a number of scenes completely diverge with the reality of Cilka’s life and reality of the camps in 1945–1955. A fiction authored by Morris and attached to a real character turned Cilka into a strange being removed from reality. Naturally, this fantasy about the life of Cilka at the Soviet camp once again disturbed survivors and drew their resentment.

 The second level of factual failure is the description of the camp’s conditions in the USSR. Here, the author proceeded according to the algorithm of commercial authors, where, after having read three books about camp environments, easily found the courage to write a fourth one. The unprofessional layering of bizarre events in the novel does not tell us about the horror of this environment, but about the fatal ignorance of conditions at the camps and how they developed after the Second World War. Here, Morris bit into a large apple and manipulated the story of Cilka with her courage to write about the unknown. With her imagination and ignorance of relationships in Soviet camps, she created an environment removed from reality and thereby damaged the very theme of these Soviet camps. Morris is not alone in reaching for the tempting environment of the Soviet camp without knowing anything about camp conditions at the time. Just this year, Czech historians unveiled a similar mystification in a novel, in which the author invented her long-term imprisonment at a Soviet camp and flooded the bookstores with her story.


I visited the family of Cecília Kováčová from 1990 until the death of both spouses. I was particularly interested in Cilka’s husband, Ivan. In 1948, he was deported from Prague to the USSR and sentenced to 10 years at a camp for alleged hostility towards the USSR. He spent more than eight years in different prisons and camps, and at Kazakh Ekibastuz, he made friends with A. Solzhenitsyn. Our meetings, discussions and recordings continued...  (continue per