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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.

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