[This article is in collaboration with LUX Journal.]
TW/CW: death, violence, prostitution, Holocaust, anti-Semitism.
As we steadily approach 80 years since the end of the Second World War, it’s far too easy to let Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January, pass us by. Often, we remain too engrossed in our own, present lives to reflect on such historic, tragic suffering; a genocide that we’re all taught about in secondary school, but hardly ever with enough detail.
It was only in August when listening to a Radio 4 podcast, “History’s Secret Heroes” (Bonham Carter), that I learned what happened as a result of the liberation of concentration camps as the war drew to a close in 1945. I learned about death marches, a last-ditch attempt by Nazis to continue their “Final Solution.”
Having listened to this podcast, with some of the episodes focusing on Jewish resistance stories – a fact forgotten far too frequently – and non-Jews helping conceal Jewish families from a fate worse than death, I was reminded of Heather Morris’ The Tattooist of Auschwitz, and promptly ordered her latest book, Three Sisters.
Part-biography, part-historical fiction, Heather Morris’ trio of Auschwitz survivors’ stories helps to illuminate life inside the Nazi’s worst concentration camp, where historians estimate one million Jews were killed. Told in the present tense, the danger of the camp is imminent, and the threat of death is everywhere.
Despite the frightening odds, the narrators of Morris’ novels survive to recount their histories. All three of these novels are retellings, however, and often it is difficult to differentiate fact from fiction; yet Morris accurately presents the horrors of the Holocaust.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Heather Morris’ debut novel was published in 2018. I found my way to it as soon as it was released in paperback. Never before had I read a Holocaust novel.
It opened my eyes, not only to a new genre of fiction but also to the harsh brutalities that my few years of secondary school History classes had neglected to mention when studying World War II.
I was utterly captivated by the unlikely love story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jewish man given the job of tattooing incoming inmates to the death camp, and Gita Furman, also a Slovakian Jew, and one of the first girls whose number he re-tattooed. Using his somewhat elevated position as the tattooist, Lale smuggles certain items through the camp – exchanging valuable items for food and ensuring that both he and Gita survive.
Their love, unexpected and unrivalled, kept them both alive. However clichéd it may sound, Lale and Gita’s love story demonstrates how, despite the horrendous conditions they were forced to endure, their will to survive together helped them avoid death.
Cilka, whose full name was Cecília Kováčová, was 16 when she was taken to Auschwitz in 1942, and she featured in The Tattooist. The young girl quickly became notorious in the camp, as the SS commandant of Birkenau, the female prison camp adjacent to Auschwitz, favoured her. Noticing her beautiful long hair, the Nazi commandant separates Cilka from the other women, allowing her to avoid having her hair shaved off and giving her a role in the camp that keeps her alive – for the price of her body. Cilka’s power, however unfairly granted, allows her to survive Auschwitz.
All of the above is part of the narrative in The Tattooist, however, Cilka’s Journey is a work of fiction, despite feeling no less real than Morris’ debut. After the camp’s liberation in January 1945, Cilka is charged by the Russians with the crime of prostitution with an SS officer and is sent to a Siberian gulag – a prison worse than Auschwitz, with seemingly no end in sight.
Cilka’s Journey was harder to read, as, before reading this novel, I knew nothing about consequences for those deemed ‘collaborators’, nor about Siberian prison camps. Yet, Cilka survives, avoiding unwanted affections from the guards and becoming a nurse at the prison’s hospital. Love prevails again when Cilka nurses a man called Ivan and the two survive the horrific living conditions of the prison camp together.
The third and most recent instalment in Morris’ Holocaust memoirs follows the Meller sisters, Slovakian Jews, who are united, even in Auschwitz, by their promise to their father to protect one another, and to stay together no matter what happens.
Their father’s insistence on such a promise appears hauntingly prophetic, 10 years before the war even starts, yet it is something that solidifies the girls’ sisterhood.
Cibi and Livi, the eldest and youngest Meller sisters, are sent to Auschwitz in 1942 – while the middle sister, Magda, evades the Hlinka guards (Slovakia’s state police who openly sided with the Nazis) for a while longer.
While Cibi and Livi endure the horrors and tortures of Auschwitz, working day after day and freezing in the cold winter nights, Magda’s story offers a sort of inverse horror; staying at home and hiding in the woods or a neighbour’s basement whenever the Hlinka come searching. Magda, living at home with the sisters’ mother and grandfather can’t avoid her guilt of freedom in comparison to her sisters being trapped under brutal Nazi control.
Even for Magda, there’s no escaping the concentration camp. Eventually, Magda, her mother, and her grandfather are rounded up and taken to Auschwitz too – reuniting the sisters while their mother and grandfather are deemed too unfit to work, resulting in them being sent to their deaths upon arrival.
Heart-breakingly, Lale, Gita, and Cilka all feature in Three Sisters, if only in passing. Lale re-tattoos Cibi and Livi’s numbers, Gita is their school friend whom they re-encounter in the camp, and they hear rumours about Cilka.
[…] Cibi and Livi see Cilka, the young Slovakian girl who has her own room in Block 25, where she oversees the women who are bound for death.
“You know why she’s in there, don’t you, Livi?” says Cibi […] “They say the commandant visits her for sex.”
“For sex?” says Livi. “She has sex with him?” The young girl is aghast: she would rather die than sleep with a Nazi. “How can she do it, Cibi? Why?”
“Like us she has chosen to survive, so don’t ever judge her, Livi. Do you think she wants to be in Block 25? Or that she flirted with the commandant? We all choose to stay alive any way we can.”Heather Morris, Three Sisters (Zaffre, 2021), p. 102
At the start of 1945, as Russians and Americans invaded concentration camps, the prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau were forced on a death march across Poland and into Germany. The sisters stick together, fuelled by Magda’s stories of home life, which are torturously distant in Cibi and Livi’s minds after so long in the camp, walking through the snow, painfully aware of how they’ll be shot if they fall.
Morris’s novel exemplifies how anti-Semitic feelings were prevalent in Europe even after the war, making life all the more challenging for the Meller sisters as they attempt to start anew in Bratislava, Slovakia.
It is only when they move to Israel in the late 1940s to early 1950s, that the Meller sisters’ lives flourish. They all start families of their own, never forgetting the horrors of the Holocaust, but always valuing their sisterhood above all else.
Three Sisters, unlike The Tattooist and Cilka’s Journey, focuses on the power of sisterly love and female solidarity; a story which has a stronger impact, I feel, than those of romantic love.
If Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl serves as a prologue to life as a young Jewish girl in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, and as a prologue to Auschwitz, The Tattooist and Three Sisters surely serve as the main horror story of the death camp, while Cilka’s Journey is the harrowing epilogue for those deemed collaborators in a desperate attempt to survive. Three Sisters also takes the Meller sisters’ story beyond the concentration camp, exploring how anti-Semitism forced them to leave Europe and start again in a new country.
The Holocaust ensues suffering on such an immense scale that we must identify individual stories to relate to, as Heather Morris does through her narratives of the strength of love, whether romantic or familial.
As the years roll on, fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain to recount their stories, demonstrating how crucial it is to have them written and printed to preserve the memories of such harrowing events.
Auschwitz and Shoah; The number of victims. Holocaust Memorial and Museum, https://www.auschwitz.org/en/history/auschwitz-and-shoah/the-number-of-victims/. Accessed 14 September 2023.
Bonham Carter, Helena, host. History’s Secret Heroes, Radio 4, May 2023, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/brand/m001mcbp, Accessed 16 August. 2023.
Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl. Contact Publishing, 1947.
Morris, Heather. Cilka’s Journey. Zaffre, 2019.
Morris, Heather. The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Bonnier Books UK Limited, 2018.
Morris, Heather. Three Sisters. Zaffre, 2021.