February 2020


The fabulist of Auschwitz

By Christine Kenneally
Image of Cecilia Klein, 1974

Cecilia Klein in Košice, Slovakia, circa 1974. Photo courtesy of George Kovach

Heather Morris’s bestselling novels ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ and ‘Cilka’s Journey’, and the problem of truth in historical fiction

On April 19, 2019, a gleaming, perfect day in Oakland, California, George Kovach and Julia Odegard prepared dinner in their lakeside apartment for an Australian author, Heather Morris, who was visiting that night. She was writing a book about Kovach’s stepmother and father, and, though he hadn’t heard of her before, Kovach had learnt she’d written a book called The Tattooist of Auschwitz, and that it had been immensely successful.

His response to her query was careful but warm. Kovach and Odegard had met while studying theatre at university, they worked together at the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival in the ’70s, and they spent their lives together steeped in stories and literature. Recently, Odegard had completed a YA science-fiction novel, Destination Mars, and Kovach was wrapping up a play called Flight of the Romanovs. They had acted and produced and directed, and they felt great affinity with anyone who made art.

Before the dinner, Kovach had explained to Morris that he and Odegard were also writing about his family. They had planned a series of books, which began with his grandmother’s escape from the Bolsheviks in 1919, and included his own desperate flight across a field from behind the Iron Curtain and into western Germany at age three. But the projects didn’t have to clash. Kovach was confident of that. So when Morris had asked for photos, and for an endorsement of sorts – a small essay to be included as an afterword in the novel – he was willing to help. But first he wanted to read the book.

Morris had told Kovach she couldn’t show him the manuscript because it was top secret, though she could read out excerpts, which is why they were together that evening, eating chicken and salad, drinking a California red, and then moving to the sofa to begin the reading. The book was Cilka’s Journey.

Like Morris’s earlier book, this was a novel based on the real-life story of its main character, in this case Cecilia Klein – Cilka for short. Cilka’s life was truly incredible. She belonged to a small group of people, uniquely unfortunate in even the very dark history of the 20th century, who had spent years in a Nazi concentration camp and, after that, years in a Soviet gulag in the Arctic Circle. Her husband, Kovach’s father, Ivan, had also been imprisoned in a gulag.

Morris began to read, and over the next 20 minutes Kovach could feel his smile become stiffer and stiffer. Next to him, Odegard’s eyes grew ever wider. There was so much that was wrong. Worse was that Morris’s main characters were not recognisable. “This is not my father at all,” Kovach said to Morris.

After Morris left that night, Kovach asked Odegard if she thought Morris’s project could be salvaged. She did not. Neither did he. Then he read The Tattooist of Auschwitz. His stepmother had appeared as a minor character in that novel, too. But Cilka was no more recognisable in that book. Soon after, Kovach’s lawyer sent a letter to Morris’s publisher that registered their dismay.

An unsatisfying back-and-forth ensued, and four months later Cilka’s Journey was published. The character Ivan was gone. Now, Cilka married a man called Aleksandr, who was, according to an author’s note, “an entirely fictional creation”. Morris did not include the name of the real man that Cilka eventually married, the note explained, “in order to protect the privacy of his descendants”.

This was hardly true. The omission provided far more protection for Morris than it did for Kovach. He hadn’t asked for privacy, he’d asked for verity. Cecilia Klein, the title character, remained. A story like hers deserved to be told, Morris wrote in her author’s note, and she considered herself “humbled and honoured” to tell it.

It astonished Kovach. Hundreds of thousands of people were reading about a woman who was supposed to be his stepmother but who bore no resemblance to the woman he knew. Worse, the book made claims about her life that he didn’t think were real. Morris’s publisher argued that they had no obligation to accommodate Kovach’s concerns, for reasons including that Cilka wasn’t his biological mother. What’s more, they said, the details relating to Cilka’s time at Auschwitz had come from Morris’s “extensive research into survivor testimonies, through which all details about her have been verified”.

Kovach didn’t believe it. He began to do his own research, and after that strange April evening, he started a journey in which he learnt that the Cilka he had known and the Cilka that Morris had concocted both possessed very different characters to the Cecilia “Cilka” Klein of Bardejov, Slovakia, who was described by other Auschwitz survivors. True, she was incarcerated in Auschwitz between 1942 and 1945, where she worked as a supervisor of Block 25, and she was then taken by the Russians after the war. True, she had been a girl when the Nazis abducted her. But over time she had become something else, long remembered by other inmates after they had the misfortune to cross her path.

I first met Heather Morris on a Sunday afternoon in Melbourne in late 2018. She had been recently transformed, seemingly overnight, from an office manager and aspiring screenwriter into a bestselling author. Her book The Tattooist of Auschwitz had been picked up a few years earlier by a small Australian publisher, which was taken over by a large UK publishing house that sold Morris’s book to publishers in an extraordinary number of countries, and it was now being translated into a dazzling array of languages.

Morris – a blonde, sixty-something Australian resident by way of five generations on a New Zealand dairy farm – spoke with confidence and a sense of intimacy. Funnily enough, she told me, she had not always been into fiction. There was no television, or friends or neighbours to hang out with on the family farm in her small town of Te Awamutu, so the cows – in particular a Jersey called Daisy – were her friends. In the evenings she read the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which her parents purchased volume by volume at great expense. She loved it. “Everything in there was real!” she said.

Morris moved to Australia and for years worked at Melbourne’s Monash Medical Centre, dreaming of screenwriting. It was only when her children were older that she began to attend seminars, take workshops and even travel to Los Angeles to attend screenwriting conferences. She based her first screenplay on the experience of a terminally ill child at the medical centre where she worked.

In 2003 Morris met Lali Sokolov, an 87-year-old Jewish Auschwitz survivor, who lived in the Melbourne suburb of Caulfield North. Morris told me that the first thing he said to her was “Did you know I was the tätowierer?” The Nazis had forced Sokolov to perform different jobs at Auschwitz, including that of tattooing fellow prisoners with an identity number when they arrived. He was looking for someone to write his story, and he said that person could not be Jewish. He wanted someone without preconceptions about the war.

The close relationship between the two was core to the book’s publicity. Morris spoke to Sokolov over three years and said he shared his “innermost secrets” with her before he died in 2006. Gary Sokolov, his son, wrote an afterword for the book. Gary had supported Morris 100 per cent, she wrote in her acknowledgements. His confidence in her had “never wavered”.

Likewise central to the book’s promotion was the idea that the novel’s story was real. Morris told journalists that it was 95 per cent true, and she spoke about it as “Lali’s story”, not as a novel. Her Australian editor, Angela Meyer, implied the fictionalising was minor. “[T]he decision was made to release the book as fiction ‘based on a true story’ because of those moments where creative or dramatic license was taken,” she wrote, “such as when she had to fill in small blanks in time, or delve into characters’ thoughts.” And that was how many readers understood it, too. “A full 5 stars for this flowing factual literary work,” wrote one reader online. “What a wonderful, miraculous story … For it to be true is just amazing,” wrote another. Morris’s US publisher called the book a “fictionalized retelling” of an “incredible true story” – which could mean a lot of things, or nothing.

However, as more people read the book, they began to point out parts of the story that weren’t real, even by the standards of historical fiction. One blogger noted that a scene with Sokolov procuring penicillin for his sick girlfriend took place before penicillin was available. Morris told me that Sokolov was “the only tätowierer” at Auschwitz. On its face, that made no sense. Hundreds of thousands of people were tattooed at Auschwitz.

To be sure, all novels are idiosyncratic patchworks of fact and fiction, and no novelist should be obliged to explain the seams between the two. Yet so much had been made of the novel’s factuality that the sheer number of claims that were presented as fact and turned out to be incomplete, or wrong or somehow off, including those in the book’s “Additional Information” section, was baffling.

The most obvious and surprising was the inmate number attributed to Gita Furman, whom Sokolov met at Auschwitz and eventually married. The numbers tattooed on prisoners are infamous symbols of the dehumanisation and enduring trauma of the concentration camp, but they are also records, indicating when people were incarcerated. In the novel’s key scene, Sokolov sees Furman for the first time when he tattoos 34902 on her arm. But Furman’s actual number was 4562. She said so herself in a 1997 interview for the USC Shoah Foundation.

Back in 2018, I was interviewing Morris for a newspaper article, and when I tried to clear up the number problem, Morris and her team offered a variety of explanations. None were plausible. I wondered how the wrong number related to Sokolov’s real number, which was 32407. Would a reader be more likely to believe that a person with 34902 entered after a person with 32407, and could have been tattooed by them, as the novel claims? In reality, Sokolov entered Auschwitz after Furman, and it’s doubtful he tattooed her. (After the article was published, the number was changed in future editions, including on the cover of the book’s Australian edition.)

The problem extended to the stories told about the book’s authenticity. Morris told me that the character of Dana from Sokolov’s hometown was based on an Auschwitz survivor called Lotte Weiss, who lived in Sydney. Morris’s US publicist added that Weiss was Furman’s “best friend in the camp” and had watched Sokolov and Furman’s “great love unfold and has keen insight into Gita’s [Furman’s] perspective”, and even that Weiss had walked out “hand in hand” with Furman when the camp was liberated.

When I visited Weiss, at Morris’s encouragement, she mentioned the names of friends in the camp but Furman’s was not one of them. She spoke about Sokolov but she didn’t seem to know about Furman or any of the “Dana” stories. Nor did she mention Furman in a memoir published in 2003.

I asked Morris about the discrepancies, and in reply she spoke about the art of turning nonfiction into fiction. “Other female survivors I spoke to in Melbourne who knew Gita in Birkenau provided me with details and the conditions of the women’s camp and I wove their stories into the character of Dana, again to minimise the number of key characters.” That made perfect sense. But it didn’t explain why Morris’s publicist seemed to believe that Weiss and Dana were essentially the same person.

Why would Morris encourage a journalist to talk to Weiss knowing that Weiss would not confirm what was claimed? It was mystifying. There was an implication, or so it seemed, that the rules of novelisation would also apply to the novel’s reception: that together, journalist and publicist and reader would engage in the work of fabrication, sewing this bit of truth with that bit of fiction and, in my case, report facts about Weiss’s life with claims from someone else that Weiss couldn’t confirm.

Lali Sokolov gave two videotaped interviews in the 1990s, one for the USC Shoah Foundation and the other for the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne. After I spoke to Morris, I found myself watching those interviews again and again. By then close to 80, he had a husky voice and was quite small, and once or twice his face creased with distress. But he was also canny, alert and proud. More than one of his stories hinged on the line that people knew who he was.

The life Sokolov described was a much more pragmatic one than that of the fictional tattooist. He said he saw trouble coming in his hometown of Krompachy, Slovakia, before he or anyone there was sent to Auschwitz, and for a while he got out in front of it by asking a friend, who was a leader in the Hlinka Party – he also called it the Nazi Party – for a job. The friend arranged it, letting him know he would have to dress like the Hitler Youth. So Sokolov wore the uniform and armband, and made the Hlinka salute. “Every Jew had to have a star,” he said. “I didn’t have a star.” Morris mentioned the Slovakian National Party (aka, the Hlinka Party) in the book, but didn’t describe it as the Nazi Party, as Sokolov did. She wrote that Sokolov’s friend offered him a job to protect him, not that he asked for it, and she wrote that he refused to wear the star because he was proud and stubborn.

As tätowierer at Auschwitz, Sokolov belonged to the Politische Abteilung, the political wing of the camp hierarchy. Prisoners who survived the camp often did so because they were young and had been given jobs by the Nazis. They sorted through the clothes of the murdered, typed for the camp administration or worked in the infirmary. It was forced labour and full of terror and risk, and yet it was also true that prisoner-functionaries often had some protection and privileges, a little more food and slightly warmer clothes, relationships and alliances with other prisoners, and sometimes, in a critical moment, the support of an SS officer or a camp guard.

In Morris’s novel, Sokolov used his advantage to perform extraordinary acts, such as sending letters and smuggling medicine. He swapped coins and jewels obtained from the clothes of the murdered for sausage and chocolate from local villagers. Like a kind of concentration camp Robin Hood, he distributed food to hungry inmates, always reserving something for his beloved Furman.

In real life, Sokolov said he swapped food, vodka and other goods with prisoners and SS alike. He spoke about supplying one SS officer with 20 litres of petrol each week, and obtaining goods for others, including the guard Stefan Baretzki. In the novel Baretzki delivers letters for Sokolov, and though Sokolov does Baretzki a favour, he is disgusted by him. After the war, the real Sokolov testified to the German consulate about ­Baretzki’s ­character at Baretzki’s request. Sokolov described Baretzki killing 20 to 25 people a day. “He was a real killer,” he said. But he added, “To me he was like a brother. I trusted him. He trusted me.”

Many of Sokolov’s stories are startling now, but they were not so unusual in the war years. People were adrift or imprisoned in enemy-occupied land and they did what they had to do to stay alive. In 1945 Sokolov was briefly interned at Mauthausen, another Nazi camp. The reason he survived it, he said, was because the guards there didn’t know he was a Jew. Another prisoner there reported Sokolov’s secret. But Sokolov dodged death by convincing the guards of his lie.

In Morris’s novel, that’s where the story ended. In Sokolov’s own more spectacular telling, he also asked two of his allies, who worked in the local steel mill, to take the man who reported him and send him through the mill’s enormous rollers. The steel goes in like this, Sokolov explained to his Shoah Foundation interviewer, making a space of about 6 inches with his hand. It comes out the other side like this, he said, making a space of about 1 inch.

When I asked Morris why she’d left out Sokolov’s murder story, she explained that there was no way of confirming it, and that she wouldn’t include anything in the book without corroboration. “It was essential that I tell a story that could be verified, not challenged.”

When ‘Cilka’s Journey’ was published in October 2019, it was not greeted with the same general goodwill that had been extended to Morris’s previous book. By this time, The Tattooist of Auschwitz had sold 3 million copies. Yet despite that book’s enormous financial success, a series of reviews had expressed considerable scepticism. The Auschwitz Memorial itself published a statement, saying it was “almost devoid of any value as a document”. They pointed out a series of errors and misunderstandings, including a map at the back of the book, that identified the location of scenes where an SS officer repeatedly raped a prisoner called Cilka. Those scenes were doubtful for a number of reasons, argued the Auschwitz Memorial, including the fact that the building on the map had never been completed and used.

Meanwhile, Gary Sokolov, the son of the Auschwitz tattooist, had lost confidence in Morris. Even before The Tattooist of Auschwitz was published, lawyers had been consulted in what had become an unhappy and difficult relationship. Cilka’s stepson, George Kovach, was also corresponding with Morris’s publishers through a lawyer. Kovach, who came to think of Cilka’s Journey as a new kind of Holocaust fakery, also contacted me. He said that he first met his father, Ivan, when he was 22. Kovach’s own mother had fled Slovakia with him in 1948 after Ivan was jailed for being an “enemy of the people”. The first thing Ivan did when Kovach met him was apologise for not fleeing with them before he was arrested. Ivan also told Kovach that Cilka had saved his life. Over the years Kovach visited his father and Cilka in Slovakia, and he came to love them both. Though Cilka was very private, she told him a little about Auschwitz. She had entered as a girl of 15 or 16 in 1942 with her mother and two sisters. When they arrived, her mother and sisters were selected straight away for the gas chambers, but she was not.

In Cilka’s Journey the character of Cilka is, like the tattooist Sokolov, a heroic victim. She is also remarkably sweet and extraordinarily beautiful. Morris describes her as moving with “the grace of a swan” through the death camp. (“Gosh, she’s pretty. Even dressed in rags, she’s beautiful,” says one inmate. “Her beauty goes beyond the surface,” observes another.) In scenes that Kovach found deeply offensive, she is raped by two SS officers. (“Her beauty saved her life – and condemned her,” goes the tagline on Amazon.) For Kovach, the Nazi prohibition against relationships with Jews made the idea absurd, and the titillating nature of the story was horrible. In one scene, an SS officer “purrs like a kitten” against Cilka’s chest. He wondered if Morris had confused her for another inmate. Kovach told me that he had photos of Cilka when she was young, and though she was cute, she was not beautiful. Kovach was also outraged by the scene in which Cilka stole medicine in the Siberian gulag. When he knew her, she worked as a senior government accountant and was a person of great rectitude. Stealing medicine in very limited supply would have caused great suffering. He did not think she would have done that.

I started to look for Cilka in Auschwitz records, but the more I found, the more unsettling the picture became. There is a Cilka in a surprising number of records: survivor testimony from 1945 and accounts recorded from the 1960s to the 1990s. But this Cilka was unlike the woman Kovach described or the character Morris had created. The spelling of her name varied considerably, but in all the stories she was identified as the young Slovak girl in charge of Block 25, a terrible place that served as a waiting house for transport to the gas chambers. This Cilka had hung on to survival with a determined ferocity.

“There was this sixteen years old girl, she behaved terribly … later she told everyone that, oh, yes, she loaded her own mother on the transport to the gas,” said one Polish woman. “She survived to the end … she was very cruel, she was afraid, she beat these … persons … she was repulsive.” Another witness described her as the “famous Cylka, a 19-year-old Slovak Jewess who had unlimited power”, especially since she was close with an SS officer. The witness went on to say: “Cylka often did not give food to prisoners in the block but sold or exchanged them for her own benefit.” At least three mentioned the story of her loading her own mother onto the truck for the gas chambers.

A later report, based on numerous accounts, said that Cilka “raged unrestrainedly against her companions in misfortune”. Another spoke of the “notorious example” of “Cili, a sixteen-year-old Slovakian woman who was in charge of barrack number 25”. Her “arrogance and sadistic violence must have helped create the opinion that Jewish Slovakian functionaries were abusive”. In the 1960s, an Auschwitz survivor described her as having the “heart of a criminal capable of committing murder”.

Mayer Schondorf, from Bardejov, Slovakia, told an interviewer at McGill University in 1994 about a girl called Cilka Klein, from his town, who was taken by the Russians after the war. She was “an absolute murderer”, said Schondorf. “She has probably more blood on her hands than anybody else.”

Remarkably, Morris puts Schondorf’s words into the mouth of one of her characters. In order to prevent a prisoner being beaten by a guard, Cilka gets between them, screaming at the prisoner, but only to shield them from greater harm. After, she is herself attacked:

“Murderer,” the prisoner hisses at her. “What did you say?” “You heard me, you murdering bitch. You have as much blood on your hands as they do,” she says in a shaking voice, pointing to the departing truck. The woman walks away, turning back, glaring at her.

In response, Cilka falls to the ground, “tears streaming down her face”, trying to wash imagined blood from her hands. Her concerned friends Gita and Dana lead her gently back inside.

But in 1945 the Polish woman Eugenia Halbreich, who also worked in Block 25, said that Cilka did murder people. Speaking of an SS officer and people who worked for him, Halbreich said that a “15-year-old Slovak Jewish girl named Cylke, at his command, would literally tear women apart, beat them all over their bodies, and often kill them”.

Similarly, in an author’s note at the end of Cilka’s Journey, Morris quotes a survivor saying “it was rumoured” Cilka received an SS officer in her quarters. Although Morris does not include it, the same survivor also described asking Cilka why she behaved the way she did:

We were alone in the infirmary, and no sooner had I popped the question than fear overwhelmed me. But she answered me calmly: “You probably know that I put my own mother in the car that took her to the gas. You should understand that there remains for me nothing so terrible that I could not do it. The world is a terrible place. This is how I take my revenge on it.”

Morris’s Cilka is tormented – not full of rage – and the guilt she feels is a survivor’s guilt, an ultimately innocent kind of guilt. Any abuse that she metes out to the inmates of Block 25 is softened by whispered apologies or a “gentler, last message” from her eyes. Lali Sokolov, the tattooist, was framed in a similar way. He became free, but for the rest of his life, Morris wrote, he was afraid of being accused of collaboration. The implication was that the accusation would have been wholly unjust. But Morris pre-empts that by omitting the more complicated stories from her version of his life. In Sokolov’s own words – and in the case of Cilka of Block 25, the words of people who knew her – their fear and guilt seem more grounded in reality.

When the camps were liberated, some inmates who had worked as functionaries – “kapos” – were attacked and even murdered by other inmates. After the war the violence continued, and in Europe “honour courts” that were formed to adjudicate disputes between displaced people also dealt with conflict between ex-prisoners and ex-prisoner functionaries. Israel held 40 trials from 1950 to 1972, which came to be known as the “kapo trials”. Many of the defendants had worked as functionaries in the camps, and they were accused of collaboration, assault, murder, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Dan Porat, an Israeli scholar, who specialises in the Holocaust and how it is remembered, told me the kapos were convicted two thirds of the time.

In the immediate years after the war, Porat, author of Bitter Reckoning: Israel Tries Holocaust Survivors as Nazi Collaborators, said there was an extreme view that kapos were as bad as Nazis themselves. Over time, that evolved into the view that kapos were collaborators but not actual Nazis. It softened further so that kapos were judged to have had good intentions, even if they had done wrong. Finally, Porat explained, a modern narrative has now emerged in which we are at “the overly simplistic view of all victims as heroes”. Now, he told me, survivors are seen as almost superhuman, and people cannot imagine them acting in a questionable manner. “But the fact that you are a victim doesn’t turn you into someone who can do no wrong.” Humans can do good things and bad things, he said. The number of functionaries who did wrong was very small, but ignoring what they did, Porat said, robs victims of their humanity.

Some witnesses recalled Cilka doing good. Mayer Schondorf, who spoke of the blood on Cilka’s hands, said that she also arranged for food to be sent to him. He was still puzzling it over decades later. Other women said that Cilka tried to get water to inmates. Such contradictions were true for some functionaries. No matter what their legal or moral complicity was thought to be, witnesses could be found who had been helped or saved by them. Many survivors understood that what was seen by other inmates as a kapo’s terrible decision may have been a direct order under threat of death. The woman who said Cilka tore inmates apart also said an SS officer prevented functionaries from feeding Block 25 inmates for days at a time. Part of the extreme cruelty of the camp was the impossible choices inmates had to make and how corrosive those choices were.

It is now an established principle that people who didn’t experience a concentration camp cannot judge the choices that inmates made. One woman who worked as a prisoner-nurse in the infirmary at Auschwitz testified in 1945 that a doctor walked through each morning and pointed at the sick, starving inmates to be taken away and murdered. Once, he selected a delirious patient, and the nurse watched a pair of “claw-like hands” appear from nowhere to claim the belongings of the bewildered woman who was not yet dead. “These ghastly skeletons had fallen asleep human beings and woken up ravenous beasts, ruthless and devoid of scruples,” she wrote. For the Cilka of these testimonies, surviving meant behaving in ways that were unimaginable, and for that, Morris gives her absolution. But she does that by silencing other survivors. And absolution is a judgement, too.

In 2003 Cilka Klein spoke to Slovakian journalist Peter Juscak, the only person known to have interviewed her about her life. She told him about her neighbours before the war. They took her family’s apartment. She spoke about a broken suitcase that had family photos in it. She said the Russians mistook her for a whore, and that was why she ended up in a gulag that was “completely North”. She said she was accused of being a spy.

Of her and Ivan, Cilka said that when they made it back to Slovakia after their long years of imprisonment, they promised they would never talk about their gulag experiences. Her husband broke his promise in the 1960s, when he started to talk to journalists, but the couple accommodated the change. His experience was now public, she told Juscak. But hers would be kept secret forever.

George Kovach was devastated when he learnt about the different accounts of Cilka. The night he read them, he kept waking up and thinking about his father. “Did he know? What did he know? What did she tell him? Was that really her?” There were pictures of Cilka and Ivan through the apartment, and Kovach found himself looking at them and asking if she really could have been the monster of the testimonies. “Sure, she was only 16 when she was taken to Auschwitz, but she was 17 and 18 when she committed horrific crimes.”

The implications were awful. A number of accounts suggested that Cilka had boasted of putting her own mother onto the transport for the gas chambers. In Morris’s novel, by contrast, Cilka’s mother frees herself from her daughter’s desperate grasp and gets herself on the truck, absolving Cilka of any guilt.

“… kiss me goodbye. I will watch over you,” her mother says.

“I can’t. I can’t let you go,” Cilka sobs.

But, Kovach told me, Morris didn’t know if it happened that way. There was no record of what happened between mother and daughter. Nor was there any death record for Cilka’s mother. If that version were true, Kovach wrote, it would mean “that Cilka may have lied to me when she told me her mother was murdered along with her sisters when they all arrived in Auschwitz. Did my father know any of this?”

It was impossible, Kovach knew, to put oneself in the situation faced by inmates at Auschwitz. But, to him, the testimonies suggested “a certain enthusiasm” on Cilka’s part, and it was terribly distressing. He had always admired Cilka: she was kind, affectionate and considerate of everyone, and she had gone through hell and somehow survived it. In their conversations over the years Cilka had suggested to him that there were things she had done to cooperate that she wasn’t proud of, but the implication was nothing like this. The only explanation that might make sense of those accounts was that Cilka had gone insane: she was only 16 and she saw her whole family murdered.

At first Kovach didn’t think it was possible to say for sure whether the Cilka of the testimonies was his Cilka. The ambiguity of it all was most painful. In shock, he wrote, “Now, I can only think of my stepmother as a possible monster.” Finally, though, he could not reconcile the Cilka of the testimonies with his stepmother. They were too different.

If Morris hadn’t called her novel’s main character Cilka Klein and marketed it as based on the real person from Bardejov, Kovach said he would have gone on thinking of his Cilka as he always had. His problem with the novel in the end was not whether Cilka did awful things. The problem was that Morris had given her composite character the name of one real person. It meant she had it both ways. The idea that the books were essentially real protected them from accusations of distortion and disrespect. Yet the idea that they were fiction gave them the same cover. But you can’t call something true and also fiction. It amounted, Kovach said, to doing what you wanted with real people and experiencing no consequences.

Christine Kenneally

Christine Kenneally is the author of The Ghosts of the Orphanage and is now writing a book about the orphanage experience for Public Affairs and Hachette Australia. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate and New Scientist.


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The expat writer and scholar’s memoir is an inquiry into “what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger”

Black and white close-up photo of Sigrid Nunez

Animal form: Sigrid Nunez

The celebrated American author’s latest book, ‘The Vulnerables’, completes a loose trilogy of hybrid autobiographical and fictional novels

Robyn Davidson in Ghanerao, Rajasthan, circa 1990, walking witha a camel and three women

An open heart: Robyn Davidson’s ‘Unfinished Woman’

The author of ‘Tracks’ takes stock in middle age, in a memoir encompassing her mother’s tragic early death, mental health, and her relationship with Salman Rushdie

More in The Monthly Essays

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Andrew Tate in dark sunglasses flanked by two men, attending his trial in Bucharest, Romania, July 2023

The Tate race

Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys

Close-up of smiling Kathleen Folbigg after being acquitted at the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, December 14, 2023

By her own words

How systemic misconceptions around women’s guilt led to a 20-year miscarriage of justice for Kathleen Folbigg

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality