I was halfway through this book and wasn’t sure I could finish. This is a brutal and terrifying story about survival. Cilka Klein is sixteen when she, her sister, Magda, and their mother are taken from their home in Czechoslovakia to the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in occupied Poland. Against all odds, she survives only to be surrendered to the Russians where she again finds herself a prisoner.
First working in the mines by day and suffering rape by the officers at night; she begins to feel that death would be better. Mother Russia is hungry to rebuild for a new generation and uses prisoners to construct cities and work in the mines. Cilka and the other women prisoners toil in the unrelenting winters and whiteout summers.
By some miracle, Cilka survives the birth of a stillborn baby in the hut she shares with other women prisoners. It is a defining moment in her life and she recovers a stronger woman. This strength leads to a position in the hospital for Doctor Yelena Georgiyevna. The work unfolds into a career and puts her at odds with her hut mates. But Cilka will do whatever she can for the women she shares close quarters with, including smuggling in extra food and medicine. They are her family.
Within the Russian coal mines, Cilka sees death daily. She struggles to keep sane. She works tirelessly and finds the need to always remain brave seems to never end. As she continues to work in the hospital and learn her duties begin to change. She is assigned as a nurse on the ambulance runs. Now the full scope of the pain and suffering throughout the camp are seen, and Cilka teeters on the scales of mental anguish. Only a catastrophic mine blast gives her life purpose as she works to save the injured. But as she tends to the wounded within the deep tunnels, another explosion sends her into her own darkness. Will she survive?
Five stars for excellent writing on such a raw subject.