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Heather Morris
Credit: Courtesy Heather Morris

After delivering one of last year’s biggest best-sellers with The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris is ready to reveal Cilka’s Journey as a follow-up.

The New Zealand-born author recreated the experiences of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who survived the Holocaust as a prisoner and served as an Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist, after meeting him and hearing his life story. The Tattooist of Auschwitz remains a huge hit more than six months after its American release, and now Morris is exploring the world of another character from that novel: Cilka, who was only 16 when she was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942, and whose beauty both saved her life and condemned her to being the concubine of the camp commandant. Once again based in real events, Cilka’s Journey heartbreakingly traces how she was charged as a collaborator and sentenced to hard labor in a Siberian gulag.

Morris has exclusively shared the cover for Cilka’s Journey with EW. In addition, EW caught up with the author on what inspired her to write this book, what kind of research she did, and how the phenomenon of Tattooist is sitting with her. Read on below. Cilka’s Journey publishes Oct. 1 and is available for pre-order.

Cilka's Journey
Credit: St. Martin's Press

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Coming off The Tattooist of Auschwitz, when did you know you wanted to tell Cilka’s story next?
The day Lale said the words “Did I tell you about Cilka? She saved my life,” I knew I had to find out more about this remarkable young girl and how she survived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. When I watched [Lale’s late wife] Gita’s Shoah videotape and heard her talk of meeting up with Cilka when she visited Slovakia, knowing then that Cilka had survived her imprisonment in a Siberian gulag — that was it. Her story of surviving two of the worst periods of recent history had to be researched, understood, and told. Her strength has to be celebrated.

Tattooist was born out of your conversations with Lale. Did his spirit and story continue to guide you in writing this next chapter?
“She was the bravest person I ever met; not the bravest girl, the bravest person,” were Lale’s words to me many times. In celebrating this remarkable young girl’s journey, I am honoring Lale’s gratitude and love for Cilka who made it possible for him and Gita to have a long and happy life. There is no Lale and Gita story without Cilka. His words about her, spoken with a trembling voice and shaking hands when told to me, complete The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

What kind of research did you do? For this book particularly, did you ever find it overwhelming?
I engaged a professional researcher in Moscow to provide me with the factual details of the camp Cilka spent 10 years in, the work she would have done, both in actuality and created by me. I read many testimonies of other women who spent time in the same gulag as Cilka. There were times I was weighed down and emotionally drained when reading of the circumstances Cilka would have experienced and endured. I traveled to Bratislava and Kosice in Slovakia to meet people who had known Cilka and her husband for many years. I heard their stories of Cilka’s life after the gulag and was uplifted to learn of the happy life she had with the man she loved.

What do you hope readers take away from Cilka’s Journey?
Hope. Hope that a long and happy life is possible after tragedy and trauma on a scale unimaginable to us is experienced. That those of us living in a comfortable, safe environment can look at others undergoing their own Cilka’s Journey right now, in countries where their safety and security is threatened daily, hourly, should not be left unknown, unrecognized, but brought to safety. They deserve what we have.

This is another harrowing, inspiring story. Is there a reason you keep returning to this world, however painful it is?
“They are us. We are one” — Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand prime minister. It’s that simple, folks. There are so many stories to tell and deserving of their place on our bookshelves, in our hearts. I will listen, I will learn, and it’s my good fortune to bring these stories out to readers.

How are you resting with the success of Tattooist? Why do you think it resonated on such a large scale?
At times uncomfortably, unable to comprehend the success of my debut novel. Always humbled particularly when I meet people who wish to know more about Lale, and the many who write to me sharing their stories of pain and the hope and love they have received by reading about Lale and Gita. Delighted that so many people ask, “What happened to Cilka? I need to know.”

I don’t over-analyze why The Tattooist of Auschwitz has resonated with so many people, in so many countries, other than the need to hear a simple story about an ordinary man and woman, living in an extraordinary time who never gave up hope, loved and survived.

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