History and Memory

By Heather Morris

Cape Town, South Africa.

I return from an evening at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. Before lying down for a much-needed sleep I take a quick look at my emails. One grabs my eye. A gentleman writes to me from his mother’s home. He travelled to Israel from his home in Canada a few days ago, a copy of The Tattooist of Auschwitz in his luggage. On arrival, he showed it to his mother who said, ‘That must be about Lale and Gita’.

Three days later, after many emails and a phone conversation, I find myself on a plane bound for Israel. My family at home in Australia will have to wait a little longer for me to return.

‘Everything in your book is true, and I know, because I was there.’ These were the words ninety-three-year-old Livia greeted me with, as we stood in her living room.  ‘You told their story and you told mine. Thank you,’ she whispered as she embraced me.

Shaking with emotion, Livia showed me the fading number on her left arm, the digits still just visible. I stared at the numbers for a long time. Too long. I asked her if I could touch them and she said yes. As I ran my hand over the four digits, I asked her, ‘Do you know your number is three away from Gita’s?’

‘Yes, I do,’ she replied, ‘and Cibi’s was only two away.’

‘Who was Cibi?’ I asked.

‘My guardian angel, my big sister. We were all numbered by Lale.’

‘Do you remember Lale tattooing you?’

‘Of course,’ came the indignant reply, ‘I could never forget that happening to me.’

Over the next few days, I sat with Livia and her son and daughter-in-law as she told me about her time in Auschwitz. Livia explained that she came from the same town as Gita, and that they were on the same transport to Auschwitz. She recalled seeing Lale and Gita in Bratislava after the war, before she moved to Israel.

I was struck by how open and forthcoming Livia had been with her children about her experience in Auschwitz. Lale and Gita had sought to protect their son from what had happened to them; Livia’s children knew everything. Perhaps having spoken so often about her past made it easy for Livia to talk to me, as the hours went by and we got to know each other. As is my way, I told her about my family back in Australia and proudly showed her photos of my grandchildren. She responded in kind and soon we were just two grandmothers sharing the delights of the small children we have in our lives.

‘You have to go to Jerusalem,’ she said to me on the second day, ‘You must see that city, and visit Yad Vashem.’

The next morning, I went to Jerusalem, visiting Yad Vashem and losing my way around the old town, all the time thinking of Livia and how I couldn’t wait to get back to her.

The stories flowed the next day. Stories filled with despair, of the love between three sisters, of the hope each gave to the other to survive another day – for nearly three years. Unlike so many, Livia and both of her sisters survived Auschwitz and made it home to Czechoslovakia, from where they emigrated to Israel.

Hearing stories like this is enormously humbling. They come to me. Stories which cannot be looked for or researched as they have been held tightly by the owner. I was still working on my second novel when I made this trip to Israel. Cilka’s Journey was born out of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, and tells the story of Cilka Klein, another young Slovakian girl, who survived not only Auschwitz but the Soviet Gulag system. Lale always asked me to tell her story too, describing her as ‘The bravest person I ever met – not woman, person.’

There are stories, then there are facts. Facts must be searched for, sought out. I must travel to find the facts, spend hours in front of a computer screen examining the many archival sites holding survivor records. I have come to love it. I don’t know when to stop. Surely there is something more out there for me to find. And yes, so often there is.

I hadn’t intended to be in Israel but once there I had to visit Yad Vashem, and hunt for the records of Cecilia ‘Cilka’ Klein. Five hours wasn’t enough. I visited the archival section and searched for information about Cilka only to find her file wasn’t available through Yad Vashem and I would need to contact another archival site, Arolsen – the International Centre on Nazi Persecution.

I wandered through this centre designed to show the horrors and evil of the Holocaust. Sitting outside in the sun looking down towards Jerusalem, I am grateful that this place exists for people to visit and be reminded.

Not finding the information I hoped for on Cilka, my only option was to go to the place of her birth, the place where she was deported from, and where she lived until the age of seventy-eight – Slovakia.

Having made friends in Lale’s hometown of Krompachy, I called on them for assistance in not only transporting me and my publisher around, but also with translating any documents we might be lucky enough to find.

Through a European heatwave, my publisher and I and our researchers set out to the town in which I had been told Cilka had been born – Sabinov, a pretty little town less than an hour from Košice where we were staying. We were expected at the town hall around midday, and in a quiet room were shown the journal containing the entry of Cilka’s birth. There it was, the date, her parents name, details of the registration and signatures. From Sabinov we travelled to Bardejov, the town where Cilka had gone to school and from where she was deported, along with her two sisters and father, to Auschwitz in April 1942.

Bardejov is a town steeped in history, part of its ancient wall still surrounding the old town. We had been granted permission to see Cilka’s school records along with those of her sisters. They were all very well-behaved girls with good manners but their academic prowess varied. Cilka excelled at mathematics and sport. We walked down the pretty street where Cilka and her sisters would have played, and stood outside their home.

We were taken to visit the ruins of the synagogue Cilka attended. As we approached the two hundred-year-old building, music floated out from the new synagogue next to it, a sound so pure and beautiful we thought it was a recording. The music drew us in, and we stood at the entrance as a choir of young boys and girls sang in voices of angels. The sound reverberated off the walls and hit us deep in the chest. We were told they were singing songs of love. When my publisher and I finally looked at each other we saw that we both had tears in our eyes. I was struggling to understand what it was about this building that represents a faith I do not share, and the sound of young voices, that affected me so. Then I looked again at the young boys and girls singing, and guessed that they were aged between fifteen and twenty. The ages of the three girls who once came here to worship, and then were taken away, never to return.

Outside, on a memorial wall we were shown the names of the Klein family taken from Bardejov to Auschwitz. Miklaus, Olga, Magda, Cilli (Cilka’s pet name). Our guide casually mentioned to me that he knew of only one survivor from Bardejov who lived in Australia. He said the man’s first name; I gave him the man’s surname. He was a friend of Lale’s who I met many times, who I had spoken to about Cilka, who told me he had known her in Auschwitz. He had told me Cilka had given him food when he was dying from starvation. It is very difficult to process the coincidences that keep happening to me,  as I meet people in one country with a connection to someone I know in another.

‘Everything in your book is true, and I know, because I was there.’ – hearing these words is enormously comforting to me. Hearing the stories and memories of survivors is a privilege. I was told recently by a Rabbi that there is no Hebrew word for history, only for memory; that all history should come from the memories of those who lived it and be retold through stories. This is how we will validate the suffering of the persecuted, by listening to and learning from those who were there, wherever they may be.

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