"}
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.

ICU
More Words...
YIMBY
Putting the ‘happy’ in Happy Valley

The issues of housing affordability, of infill, of neighborhood character are frequently in collision. Acknowledged successes to bring these public goals into harmony are few, and can be slow and difficult to achieve. And—without meaning to be glib about a thorny problem—one reason may…

more »
Choosing to Die
A love story for the ages

For the 26 years they were married, Alan Alberts and Phyllis Shacter did just about everything as a couple. They worked together in their own consulting business, traveled, played music, created a magic act, laughed a whole lot, explored their spirituality and generally supported each other…

more »
She Persisted
The F Word: Feminism in Jeopardy

Before the 2016 election, before a million women took to the streets three months later to express their outrage that a misogynist and admitted sexual predator proud of his assaults now occupies the highest office in the land, the term “feminism” had faded from view. After all, the…

more »
Events
Today
Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit County

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit County

Bellingham Beer Week

10:00am|Bellingham

Twelfth Night

7:00pm| Sehome Little Theatre

Butt Kapinski

7:30pm| Sylvia Center for the Arts

Student Veteran Conference

8:00am|Settlemyer Hall

Spring Book and Bake Sale

10:00am|Deming Library

Sin & Gin Tours

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Northwest Wine Encounter

4:00pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Aristokittens

6:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Celebrating in Song

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Celebrating in Song

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Skagit Community Band

7:30pm|Maple Hall and Brodniak Hall

Lifeguards and Pirates

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Have a Heart Run

8:00am|Edgewater Park

Community Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Lynden Community Center

Birchwood Garden Club Plant Sale

9:00am|Bellingham Public Library

Independent Bookstore Day

9:00am|Village Books

Anacortes Spring Vintage Show

9:00am|Port Transit Event Center

Art in the Garden

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Putting the ‘happy’ in Happy Valley

9:00am

WWU Queer Comics Convention

10:00am|Academic West Building

Backyard Habitat & Native Flora Fair

10:00am|Fairhaven Village Green

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Issaquah Singers

10:30am|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Landscape Staging

11:00am|Ferndale Library

Landscape Planning

11:00am|Azusa Farm & Gardens

People's Climate March

11:00am|Maritime Heritage Park

Run for the Bees

11:00am|BelleWood Acres

Images of resilience

12:00pm

Community Art Museum Day

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

Citizen Scientists

12:00pm|Birch Bay State Park, Padilla Bay Reserve

Skagit Topic

2:00pm|Skagit County Historical Museum

Twelfth Night

2:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Artists Talk

4:00pm|Smith & Vallee Gallery

Crush Cancer Fundraiser

6:00pm|Hampton Inn's Fox Hall

Giant's Causeway

6:30pm|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Painting Party

6:30pm|Stoneycreek Glassware

Contra Dance

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

The Sweet Goodbyes

7:00pm|Center for Spiritual Living

Skagit Symphony's Classics Concert

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Salsa Night

9:30pm|Cafe Rumba

MBT Hur Bellingham Farmer’s Market
Tomorrow
Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit County

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit County

Northwest Wine Encounter

4:00pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Skagit Community Band

7:30pm|Maple Hall and Brodniak Hall

Celebrating in Song

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Celebrating in Song

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Citizen Scientists

12:00pm|Birch Bay State Park, Padilla Bay Reserve

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Tire Recycling Event

9:00am|Birch Bay-Lynden Box Facility & Recycling Center

Children's Day/Book Day

1:00pm|Lynden Library

Mockingbird

2:00pm|North Fork Library

Tanka Poetry

4:00pm|Village Books

Art of Jazz

4:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Spring Beer Dinner

6:30pm|Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen

King's Men of Song

7:00pm|Hope in Christ Church

Help! I'm American!

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Bellingham Farmer’s Market
Monday
Children's Book Week

9:00am|Village Books

Poetry Workshop with Tod Marshall

6:00pm|Mount Vernon City Library

Cuban Salsa

6:00pm| Bell Tower Studios

Dahlia 101 Presentation

7:00pm|Laurel Community Grange

poetrynight

8:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Swing Dance

8:00pm|Eagles Hall

see our complete calendar »

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