Imagine three years in Auschwitz – Birkenau followed by ten years in the Soviet “Vorkuta Gulag” located inside the Arctic Circle in Siberia.
Heather Morris’s novel “Cilka’s Journey” is a fictionalized story of a real young woman, aged 16 when initially arrested, who endured unbelievable treatment in two of the worlds worst camps for nothing more than being a Jew. The Soviets imprisoned her after they liberated the German camps for being a “Collaborator.”
The minor controversy around the actual story of Cecilia Klein, married name Cecília Kováčová, does not diminish the horrors she, and millions, faced when humanity lost its collective mind for decades.
As anti-Semitism raises its ugly head again across the globe it is important that people know such stories in order to combat a repetition in the future.
“Cilka’s last sight of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp would have been of the wrought-iron sign erected over the gates: Arbeit Macht Frei—“Work Brings Freedom.” The first thing she would have seen on her arrival in the Soviet Gulag camp at Vorkuta was another sign: “Work in the USSR is a matter of Honor and Glory.” Another declared that “With an Iron Fist, We Will Lead Humanity to Happiness.”
A taste for sadistic irony was just one of the many traits that Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR shared…”
“Vorkuta was such a colony, both in the sense of a penal settlement and a tiny island of life in a hostile, unexplored territory. In the late 1920s, Soviet geologists identified vast coal deposits in the frozen taiga wilderness, an area too cold for trees to grow, where the Pechora River flowed into the Arctic Sea. The region was some 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) north of Moscow and 160 kilometers (99 miles) above the Arctic biggest cities, some housing German prisoners of war serving as slave laborers, and others where imprisoned engineers and scientists toiled in high-tech prison laboratories. But most Gulags were located in the remotest corners of the Siberian north and in the far east—indeed, whole swathes of the USSR were effectively colonized by State prisoners who built dozens of brand-new cities, roads, railways, dams and factories where there had previously been just a bleak wasteland.”
Morris, Heather. Cilka’s Journey (Tattooist of Auschwitz) (p. 332). St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Real-life Holocaust survivor: Cecilia Kovachova – who inspired the main character in new novel Cilka’s Journey – is pictured with her husband Ivan after their release from a Soviet gulag
Both Hitler’s concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag existed for the same purpose—to purge society of its enemies, and to extract as much work from them as possible before they died. The only real differences are ones of scale—Stalin’s Gulag was far larger than anything Hitler ever conceived—and of efficiency. Stalin certainly shared Hitler’s genocidal tendencies, condemning entire ethnic groups, such as the Chechens, Crimean Tatars and Volga Germans, to mass deportation, death marches and forced labor. But where the Germans used Zyklon-B poison gas, Stalin preferred to let cold, hunger and overexertion do their lethal work. Over 18 million people passed through the Gulag system from 1929 until Stalin’s death in 1953, according to the Soviet State’s own meticulous records. Of those, modern scholars estimate that some 6 million died either in prison or shortly after their release. Like Hitler’s concentration camps, Stalin’s Gulag housed both political prisoners and common criminals—as well as people condemned for belonging to politically unreliable nations, such as Poles, Jews and Ukrainians, or to the wrong class, whether wealthy peasants or pre-Revolutionary aristocrats. In the closing days of the Second World War the Gulag population was swelled by German war criminals and ordinary German prisoners of war, as well as hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers who had chosen surrender over death and were therefore presumed to be collaborators with the enemy. During Cilka’s time in Vorkuta her fellow prisoners included the commander of Germany’s Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Anton Kaindl; famous Yiddish, French and Estonian writers; Russian art scholars and painters; Latvian and Polish Catholic priests; East German Liberal Democrats and even a British soldier who had fought with the Waffen-SS British Free Corps.
Aexandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel “The Gulag Archipelago” was partially written while I lived in the Soviet Union.
“The Gulag Archipelago is Solzhenitsyn’s masterwork, a vast canvas of camps, prisons, transit centres and secret police, of informers and spies and interrogators and also of heroism, a Stalinist anti-world at the heart of the Soviet Union where the key to survival lay not in hope but in despair. The work is based on the testimony of some two hundred survivors, and on the recollection of Solzhenitsyn’s own eleven years in labour camps and exile. It is both a thoroughly researched document and a feat of literary and imaginative power.” Amazon review.
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