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About the Author
Reading Group Guide
Her beauty saved her — and condemned her.
Cilka is just sixteen years old when she is taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in 1942, where the commandant immediately notices how beautiful she is. Forcibly separated from the other women prisoners, Cilka learns quickly that power, even unwillingly taken, equals survival.
When the war is over and the camp is liberated, freedom is not granted to Cilka: She is charged as a collaborator for sleeping with the enemy and sent to a Siberian prison camp. But did she really have a choice? And where do the lines of morality lie for Cilka, who was send to Auschwitz when she was still a child?
In Siberia, Cilka faces challenges both new and horribly familiar, including the unwanted attention of the guards. But when she meets a kind female doctor, Cilka is taken under her wing and begins to tend to the ill in the camp, struggling to care for them under brutal conditions.
Confronting death and terror daily, Cilka discovers a strength she never knew she had. And when she begins to tentatively form bonds and relationships in this harsh, new reality, Cilka finds that despite everything that has happened to her, there is room in her heart for love.
From child to woman, from woman to healer, Cilka's journey illuminates the resilience of the human spirit—and the will we have to survive.
1. After reading the author’s note about her conversation with Lale Sokolov, the Tattooist of Auschwitz, did knowing that Cilka’s story is based on a real person change your reading experience? Does the author weave fact and realistic fiction into the story effectively? In what ways?
2. What drew you to this time period and novel? What can humanity still learn from this historical space—from the front lines of an infamous concentration camp to the brutal Russian Gulags? How was this story unique in its voice and characters?
3. Is Cilka’s prison sentence in Vorkuta as punishment for “sleeping with the enemy” in the concentration camp cruel? Was she forced into this role in order to survive as a mere sixteen-year-old girl? How might Cilka’s outward behavior compare to her inner intentions?
4. “What you are doing, Cilka, is the only form of resistance you have—staying alive. You are the bravest person I have ever known, I hope you know that.” (Chapter 32) Is Lale right? Is Cilka brave, and were her acts of resistance the best course of action she had? What does Cilka feel guilty about or complicit in? How is she suffering because of it?
5. Could you imagine having the fortitude to survive one death sentence and then another? How do these two hells—the camp and the prison—compare? Were your perceptions challenged or expanded on what life in the Gulag was like after reading this book? In what ways?
6. What strategies does Cilka use to survive? Which ones does she teach the others, including Josie? How could her body be her ticket? What does she sacrifice in giving of her body but not her mind?
7. “Another number. Cilka subconsciously rubs her left arm; hidden under her clothing is her identity from that other place. How many times can one person be reduced, erased?” (Chapter 3) How would you answer Cilka here? What inner fire allows Cilka to live? How does she endure with so much death and suffering around her?
8. Does Cilka assume a protective role for the women in her hut? For her block at the camp? In what ways is Cilka a target for their rage and a focus for their hopes for life beyond the fencing? How does she help the women survive the toughest parts of their sentences (the rapes, work, injuries, separation)?
9. How do the women form a sisterhood or join in solidarity? Do you believe there is something universal about what they do? From snowy rescues to smuggled food—even Elena’s self-inflicted burn in order to get a message to Cilka—how do the women look out for one another? How is this essential for their survival?
10. Why do the women invest their time and scarce energies into “beautifying” the hut with their meager resources? What does this tell us about the human spirit?
11. How does Yelena help and advocate for Cilka? What chances and tests is Cilka given because of Yelena’s attentions? How does Cilka repay her faith and kindness? Also, why do you think Yelena would choose to serve in such a brutal place?
12. She doesn’t dare hope that she has broken her curse. That she could have a role in helping new life come into the world, rather than overseeing death.” (Chapter 12) In what ways is Cilka’s time served in the maternity ward a turning point? How does she intervene with her patients and make a difference? How does she put herself at risk?
13. Discuss Josie’s desperation regarding her baby Natia’s fate, and what lies ahead for them both after the two-year mark? How does Cilka ensure her safe transfer? What does Natia’s presence stir up for the others in the hut?
14. How would you describe a mother’s love? How does it manifest in the book?
15. How does Cilka find her calling with her ambulance work? How did she spur others to be their best selves? On the other hand, what sexist abuse did she face while performing such technical and important work?
16. Why does Cilka reject the comfort of the nurses’ quarters at first? In what ways is she seeking forgiveness?
17. How are Cilka and Alexandr joined together? How does she administer to him and what new hope does he offer for her future? What risks? Were you surprised by their reunion on the train platform?
18. The main oppressors in this novel are men—from the commanders and guards to her fellow prisoners—and their sense of menacing entitlement and acts of rape and cruelty shape the novel. Have things changed for women in times of both war and peace when it comes to their bodies and defining their own destinies? What can society do about it?
19. Why does Cilka ultimately tell her hut-mates about her experiences and actions at Auschwitz? How does she know the time is right?
20. Why are women’s voices of wartime so important to unearth and tell? What could be lost when they are unreported or underreported?