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Auschwitz Concentration Camp, January 27, 1945
Cilka stares at the soldier standing in front of her, part of the army that has entered the camp. He is saying something in Russian, then German. The soldier towers over the eighteen-year-old girl. “Du bist frei.” You are free. She does not know if she has really heard his words. The only Russians she has seen before this, in the camp, were emaciated, starving—prisoners of war.
Could it really be possible that freedom exists? Could this nightmare be over?
When she does not respond, he bends down and places his hands on her shoulders. She flinches.
He quickly withdraws his hands. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” He continues in halting German. Shaking his head, he seems to conclude she doesn’t understand him. He makes a sweeping gesture and slowly says the words again. “You are free. You are safe. We are the Soviet Army and we are here to help you.”
“I understand,” Cilka whispers, pulling tight the coat that hides her tiny frame.
“Do you understand Russian?”
Cilka nods yes. She grew up knowing an East Slavic dialect, Rusyn.
“What’s your name?” he asks gently.
Cilka looks up into the soldier’s eyes and says in a clear voice, “My name is Cecilia Klein, but my friends call me Cilka.”
“That’s a beautiful name,” he says. It is strange to be looking at a man who is not one of her captors but is so healthy. His clear eyes, his full cheeks, his fair hair protruding from beneath his cap. “Where are you from, Cilka Klein?”
Memories of her old life have faded, become blurred. At some point it became too painful to remember that her former life with her family, in Bardejov, existed.
“I’m from Czechoslovakia,” she says, in a broken voice.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, February 1945
Cilka has been sitting in the block, as close as she can get to the one stove that provides heat. She knows she has already drawn attention. The other able-bodied women, her friends included, were forcibly marched out of the camp by the SS weeks ago. The remaining prisoners are skeletal, diseased, or they are children. And then there is Cilka. They were all meant to be shot, but in their haste to get away themselves, the Nazis abandoned them all to fate.
The soldiers have been joined by other officials—counter-intelligence agents, Cilka has heard, though she’s not sure what that means—to manage a situation the average soldier has no training for. The Soviet agency is tasked with keeping law and order, particularly as it relates to any threat to the Soviet State. Their role, she’s been told by the soldiers, is to question every prisoner to determine their status as it relates to their imprisonment, in particular if they collaborated or worked with the Nazis. The retreating German Army are considered enemies of the State of the Soviet Union and anyone who could be connected to them is, by default, an enemy of the Soviet Union.
A soldier enters the block. “Come with me,” he says, pointing to Cilka. At the same time, a hand clutches her right arm, dragging her to her feet. Several weeks have passed and seeing others being taken away to be questioned has become part of the routine of the block. To Cilka it is just “her turn.” She is eighteen years old and she just has to hope they can see that she had no choice but to do what she did in order to survive. No choice, other than death. She can only hope that she will soon be able to return to her home in Czechoslovakia, find a way forward.
As she’s taken into the building the Soviet Army are using as their headquarters, Cilka attempts a smile at the four men who sit across the room from her. They are here to punish her evil captors, not her. This is a good time; there will be no more loss. Her smile is not returned. She notices their uniforms are slightly different from those of the soldiers outside. Blue epaulettes sit on top of their shoulders; their hats, placed on the table in front of them, have the same shade of blue ribbon with a red stripe.
One of them does eventually smile at her and speaks in a gentle voice.
“Would you tell us your name?”
“Where are you from, Cecilia? Your country and town.”
“I’m from Bardejov in Czechoslovakia.”
“What is the date of your birth?”
“The seventeenth of March, 1926.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I came here on the twenty-third of April in 1942, just after I turned sixteen.”
The agent pauses, studies her.
“That was a long time ago.”
“An eternity in here.”
“What have you been doing here since April 1942?”
“Yes, but how did you do that?” He tilts his head at her. “You look like you haven’t starved.”
Copyright © 2019 by Heather Morris