Words

History and Fiction

The true cost of war

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Quick: name the ship whose sinking is responsible for the most deaths. The Titanic? 1,500. Lusitania? 1,198. Bismarck? 2,000.

No. The dubious honor goes to the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, a German military transport ship that sank off the coast of Poland in January 1945, torpedoed by a Russian submarine.

Between 9,400-10,582 people were estimated to be onboard. More than 5,000 of them were children. Most died. Several other ships also sank during Operation Hannibal, Germany’s desperate evacuation of troops and refugees from Prussia. Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, ethnic Germans, and residents of East Prussia and Poland were among the casualties. In total, more than 25,000 people died in the Baltic Sea that year.

So why is the Wilhelm Gustloff not better-known? Though more than a dozen books have been written about the disaster in German and in English, and several documentaries filmed, none have featured a young Leonardo DiCaprio or a soundtrack of pop hits. Perhaps it’s because the ship was German, carrying German soldiers and refugees instead of wealthy Americans and Brits.

Or perhaps it’s because the average American just doesn’t know much about world history. Author Ruta Sepetys fills the void with her latest novel, Salt to the Sea, which follows the lives of four teenagers fleeing the Soviet advance during World War II.

Although written for teens, this work of historical fiction is superbly plotted and vividly painted, making it compelling for readers of all ages. We first meet Florian, a Prussian boy with a mysterious parcel. Then there’s Joana, 21, a refugee from Lithuania beset by feelings of guilt. Emelia is young, Polish, pregnant and clearly traumatized. They meet up along the road, braving the freezing chill and the death all around them to make their way toward the port where they hear ships are mobilizing. Their stories are grim, real and desperate.

Readers learn about the plight of German civilians during the war and that fear affects everyone. Once aboard the ship, they cross paths with Alfred, a chilling Nazi sociopath of the first order, whose low position as cabin boy does not match his delusions of grandeur. Alfred is one of the most fascinating characters, repellant and vile, yet complex.

Foreshadowing is evident—the ship’s capacity of 2,000 is clearly being ignored. Bombs fall all around. An icy wind blows. There are not very many lifeboats. Yet Sepetys keeps us in suspense throughout, weaving rich characterization with a tense plot.

As we learn in an endnote, it was a Soviet S-13 submarine that brought down the Gustloff. The dedication on its torpedo: “For the Motherland; For the Soviet People; For Leningrad; For Stalin.” Its last torpedo failed to launch, but the damage was already done.

Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System.

3 Oms 8th Anniversary (Spotlight)
More Words...
Beyond No
When small steps are not enough

Rarely have man and the moment collided so ferociously than in the presidency of Donald J. Trump. And few writers have the framework to understand the collision and the shockwaves to follow more than Naomi Klein. The acclaimed journalist, activist and bestselling author has spent two…

more »
Radium Girls
The dark side of liquid sunshine

Imagine yourself a working-class woman in 1917 in New Jersey.

Your family is depending on you to contribute to the household income. You’ve held other jobs, but the work was unglamorous and the pay low. Then you land a coveted position at the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation,…

more »
City Action on Global Climate
Want to support the Paris agreement? Improve housing policy

President Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate accord last week is a betrayal of our planet and our children’s future. Bolivian president Evo Morales said it best: “Retiring from the Paris agreement is high treason to Mother Earth, which is the common house of life and…

more »
Events
Today
Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

5:00pm|Vanier Park

Wednesday Farmers Market

12:00pm|Fairhaven Village Green

Sedro-Woolley Farmers Market

3:00pm|Hammer Heritage Square

Ukuele for Everyone

4:00pm| Everson Library

Group Run

6:00pm|Skagit Running Company

Brewers Cruise

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

The Nix

7:00pm|Village Books

Arete Quartet

7:00pm|Unity Spiritual Center

Classical on Tap

7:00pm|Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen

Panty Hoes

9:00pm|Rumors Cabaret

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Tomorrow
Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Open Book Chats

11:00am|Village Books

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Skagit Tours

12:00pm|Highway 20

Lynden Farmers Market

12:00pm|Front Street

Bow Farmers Market

1:00pm|Samish Bay Cheese

Blues and Brews

5:00pm|Hotel Bellwether

Bard on the Beach

5:00pm|Vanier Park

9/11 Truth

6:00pm|Alternative Library

Concerts in the Columbia

6:00pm

Ales N' Sails

6:00pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Elizabeth Park Concert Series

6:00pm|Elizabeth Park

Italian Summer Menu

6:30pm|Cordata Community Food Co-op

Commedia in the Park

7:00pm|Maritime Heritage Park

Balkan Folk Dance

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Movie Trivia

7:00pm|Bayou Annex Bar

GPS Navigation and Tour Planning

7:30pm|Backcountry Essentials

Trove Northwood Steak and Crab
Friday
Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Skagit Tours

12:00pm|Highway 20

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

5:00pm|Vanier Park

Commedia in the Park

7:00pm|Maritime Heritage Park

Wild Things

9:30am|Marine Park

Loggerodeo

10:00am|Sedro-Woolley

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Plover Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Valley Writers

1:00pm|South Whatcom Library

Ferndale Farmers Market

3:00pm|Centennial Riverwalk Park

Food Not Bombs

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Sin & Gin Tours

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Salmon Dinner Sail

6:00pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

’80s Dance Party

6:00pm|Squalicum Boathouse

Telescopes in the Park

6:30pm|Boulevard Park

The Dwellers

7:00pm|BP Heron Center

Dancing on the Green

7:00pm|Fairhaven Village Green

An Improvised Musical

9:00pm|Upfront Theatre

see our complete calendar »

Bellingham Farmer’s Market Northwood Steak and Crab Trove Village Books Lester and Hyldahl Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1