Author Heather Morris has sold over three million copies of The Tattooist Of Auschwitz (Image: Heather Morris)
Since its publication in January 2018, Morris's acclaimed debut novel, The Tattooist Of Auschwitz, has sold more than three million copies worldwide – nearly two million of them in the UK alone. He has been on the New York Times bestseller list for a calendar year and is in the process of adapting to a six-part TV miniseries. That is the all-encompassing nature of the book's success, Morris has become an unlikely celebrity.
Speaking on the eve of the publication of her sequel, Cilka's Journey, she laughs: “Last night I went out to dinner with my editors and, as we were leaving the restaurant, the manager ran out and dragged me back because he I would like me to say hello to one of your waitresses.
"Apparently she was so impressed that she couldn't say hello! I looked at this young woman and she was just beautiful.
"We talked, I hugged her and when I'm done here today, I'm going back to the restaurant and giving a copy of my new book."
Given the extraordinary success of his first novel, no wonder Morris has a sequel.
Cilka's journey follows the story of one of the book's secondary characters, Cecilia "Cilka" Klein.
Just as The Tattooist of Auschwitz was based on the real-life testimony of Lale Sokolov, a Slovak Jew who survived the horrors of Nazi death camps, Cilka Day is equally rooted in reality.
Female cabin in Gulag, similar to where Cilka would have stayed (Image: Laski Diffusion / Getty)
At 16, Cilka was sent to Auschwitz from eastern Slovakia in April 1942. While there, she was repeatedly sexually abused by the camp commander, a horror compounded by the fact that she was accused by the Russians of "collaborating with the enemy." After the war is over.
Having passed Auschwitz, the teenager was sent to the Vorkuta gulag in Siberia for a decade.
Somehow, amid the indescribable humiliations and the most sexual violence she experienced there, Cilka not only survived, but found love and vocation. He returned to former Czechoslovakia in 1958.
For the rest of her life, she and her husband Ivan Kovac lived in the same apartment in Kosice, surrounded by family, friends, and neighbors.
Cilka died in 2004, but Morris of New Zealand was so immersed in her life during her two research trips to Slovakia that she almost feels she knew her.
Cilla with her husband Ivan Kovac in 2003, a year before her death (Image: heather morris)
“I saw her school report and they confirmed that she was very smart, particularly good at sports and math. I was outside his old home in his hometown. I went to the synagogue where she adored. I sat in the apartment where she lived for 50 years and then went next door to meet the neighbors.
“I talked to 90-year-old women and 40- and 50-year-olds who knew her all her life. Having people coming down the stairs, wanting to share with me what they knew about her, was wonderful. "
While in Slovakia, Morris asked Cilka's friends how they thought she would have responded to Morris's desire to tell her story.
"Everyone said, 'We thought she would sit with you, but I wouldn't say much!' Technically, she was a victim, but I doubt she saw herself that way.
“She had such incredible strength. She was the youngest of three girls, but she was the most dominant member of her family. "
The mix of fact and fiction in The Tattooist Of Auschwitz has attracted criticism in some quarters. The Auschwitz Memorial Research Center expressed concern that people might use the novel as a landmark work, claiming that "the book contains numerous errors and inconsistent factual information."
An electrified barbed wire fence separates male and female prisoners in a German concentration camp. (Image: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty)
"What I'm not doing is telling the Holocaust story, I'm telling a Holocaust story," says Morris. "For me, the memory of the people who told me your story is important."
Although Cilka's journey is equally intertwined with fictional elements, Morris worked diligently to establish the facts, employing researchers to search archives around the world. “I asked a professional researcher in Moscow to establish everything we could about the gulag Cilka was in. I read testimonials from other women who were there at the exact time she was. So I combined it with the information I received while visiting her hometown and talking to people who knew her. "
In the era of the #MeToo women's movement, Cilka's story has a clear contemporary resonance. "For me, I went beyond the #MeToo movement with regard to Western countries," says Morris.
“Of course I support 100%, but I look at parts of Africa where hundreds of teenagers are kidnapped, raped and kept repeatedly for a period of time. Those lucky enough to return home are embarrassed and shunned. This goes on and, to our shame, we are not calling for what it is. Women should not be and should not be the spoils of war.
Does focusing on such incessant terror have a personal price on it?
“Sometimes it happens, but my social work training has taught me that other people's pain and trauma are not mine, and I have no right to that. They may be my books, but I'm not the owner of the story. This does not mean that when I read about the kind of abuse that Cilka and so many others suffered, I don't get very angry. But I channel this into history. I have the privilege and honor to tell this and I do not consider it guaranteed. "
Morris now lives in Melbourne, although she can be forgiven for forgetting occasionally. Your hectic schedule means a lot of time beyond family. “They remain at the other end of the world, but they have been totally supportive. They would have no other way. ”She is now looking forward to a relaxing Danube cruise.
The nature of her work means she has become something of a head confessor to her readers.
“I worked in a life-long environment where I met people every day – and this now goes on,” she says. "I'm humiliated by what people tell me."
HEROINE .. Milka after her release from the gulag in 1956 (Image: Vest)
She reveals that her next novel will be based on the memories of a 93-year-old lady who approached her in Tel Aviv recently. “Another story of survival and hope and a better future is underway.” In the end, for Morris and his millions of readers, it is that glow of light that lingers instead of the surrounding darkness.
“People write to me in their thousands, and the message that continually comes out is the hope they find in history. Lale and Cilka survived, had a good life. Hope is the last thing to die. "
● Cilka's Journey: The Sequence of Heather Morris's Auschwitz Tattoo Artist (Zaffre Publishing, £ 14.99). For free delivery to the UK, call Express Bookshop at 01872 562310 or send a Check / Money Order to Express Bookshop Heather Morris Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or visit expressbookshop.co.uk. Heather is touring the UK in October. Details: heathermorrisauthor.com