“Humanity can prevail, even in the darkest of hours” ~ Ruta Sepetys
More historical fiction, this time YA, and because it’s based on a little-known tragedy, I’ve decided to include some historical facts.
‘War-torn Germany. Four young people. Four dark secrets.
They come from different lands but each of them is hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies… and war.
As thousands of refugees flock to the coast, desperate to escape the advancing Red Army, the paths of four young people converge. All are hoping to board the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.’
This is the second book I’ve read by Ruta Sepetys, the first being her debut, ‘Between Shades of Gray’. This book, like her debut, was also inspired by real-life events in the Second World War, this time a disaster that was the worst in maritime history, eclipsing both the Titanic and the Lusitania.
The fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff doesn’t seem to be something that’s widely known. However, once I started looking, I found more than a few mentions. I still wonder, though, why it never featured in any of my history lessons, even though I studied both world wars. I decided against reading anything about it until after I’d read this book.
Despite the harrowing subject, or maybe because of it, Sepetys chose to tell the story from the point of view of young people. As she explained in the book:
“As I wrote this novel, I was haunted by thoughts of the helpless children and teenagers – innocent victims of border shifts, ethnic cleansings, and vengeful regimes. Hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned during World War II. Abandoned or separated from their families, they were forced to battle the beast of war on their own, left with an inheritance of heartache and responsibility for events they had no role in causing.”
Interestingly, she tells the story from four points of view – Joana, a young Lithuanian; Florian, from East Prussia; Alfred, a German sailor; and Emilia, from Poland. Apart from Alfred, who’s already at the port, the other three are making their way, separately at first, then together, towards Gotenhafen, to board a ship that will transport them away from the Russian Army, to safety.
The secondary characters – a blind girl, a giant of a woman, an old man who’d been a cobbler whom they affectionately call the ‘shoe poet’, and a little boy – are all written with their own distinct personalities.
This book isn’t a sequel to ‘Between Shades of Gray’, but there is a neat connection between a couple of characters from both books. I was delighted when I realised it.
Each chapter is titled with the name of the viewpoint character, and it’s told in first person. I wasn’t too sure about reading a story with multiple points of view, but it worked. At no point was I confused, and I think it ramped up the tension well, especially as we approached the end of the story.
Be aware though, despite being a YA book, this is not an easy read. Sepetys doesn’t dwell on the horrors of war, giving us fleeting glimpses instead, but those glimpses were enough to stay in my mind and haunt me afterwards.
“The wind lifted a layer of icy flakes revealing the dead blue face of a woman, probably in her twenties. Her mouth and eyes were hinged open, fixed in fear.”
“I thought of the carts outside the barn. They towered with the belongings of refugees. Trunks, suitcases, and furniture. There was even a sewing machine like Mama’s… These people had time to pack. I wasn’t able to pack, had left my entire life chewed to pieces. Who was using Mama’s sewing machine now?”
“This endless stream of humanity… Young women, elderly grandparents, and too many children to count. They dragged sleds, drove carts with mules, and walked with belongings slung over their backs in sheets. A little boy and his sister straddled an ox, gripping a frayed piece of rope tied around the animal’s neck… His sister’s thin ankles were exposed and black with frostbite.”
Sepetys’ description of an abandoned home left me wondering about the fate of its inhabitants:
“Tall glass doors with shattered panes stood open into the garden, torn damask curtains flapping like a loose tongue in the wind. The courtyard was littered with clothing, broken crockery, shoes, books, and various personal items. A baby carriage lay mangled on its side, dusted with snow…”
“A basket of mossy bread in the center of the table was crawling with brown mice. Flowered china bowls skinned with half-eaten soup sat on a dusty tablecloth, the spoons still in them. They hadn’t even been able to finish their dinner.”
When the group finally arrived at Gotenhafen:
“For weeks we had trekked to get to the port. Nothing could have prepared us for what we found there. Horses and animals, lost or abandoned by their owners, roamed helpless in the streets. Gray naval supply trucks zoomed about. Crates, boxes, luggage, and provisions lined the quays…. People screamed out for food and lost family members.”
For me, the tension increased when they boarded the Wilhelm Gustloff. Originally built as a cruise ship, she was designed to carry just over 1,450 passengers. She was requisitioned as a hospital ship before being used as a floating barracks.
In 1945, she was turned into a transport ship as part of Operation Hannibal, which oversaw the naval evacuation of German troops and civilians as the Red Army advanced. Apart from Germans, the civilians included Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Prussians, Poles and Croatians.
In the story, when Joana, Florian, Emilia, and the others finally make it onto the ship, they breathe a sigh of relief. Unlike the reader who was just waiting for the fateful moment. And when it came, I dreaded continuing but couldn’t read fast enough.
On 30th January 1945, at 12:30, the Wilhelm Gustloff set sail with a total of 10,852 passengers and crew; an estimated 5,000 of these were children. There were also women, including pregnant women, sick and elderly people.
Because the ship had been fitted with anti-aircraft guns, the Germans, obeying the rules of war, had not marked her as a hospital ship. Also, as she had military personnel onboard, she didn’t have the protection that would have been afforded to hospital ships under international accords. Ironically, the anti-aircraft guns would be rendered useless because of the freezing temperatures; that night, the air temperature fell to between -10° and -18°C.
The ship’s captain opted for a course in deep waters, which had been cleared of mines. Informed that a German minesweeper convoy was in the area, he activated the ship’s navigation lights to avoid a collision; unfortunately, this also made his ship an easy target.
Prowling the waters of the Baltic was a Soviet submarine, the S-13, it’s four torpedoes armed and ready. The torpedoes had been named – ‘For the Motherland’; ‘For the Soviet People’; ‘For Leningrad’; ‘For Stalin’.
At about 21:00, the submarine launched its torpedoes at the Wilhelm Gustloff. Three torpedoes found their mark; the fourth, ‘For Stalin’, jammed and had to be disarmed.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was destroyed; it took less than an hour for her to sink. Those who managed to survive the torpedoes, the stampede of trying to get off the ship, the drowning, perished due to exposure. A total of 9,343 people died.
Sepetys captures the panic and moments of heroism so well, there were so many points where I was literally holding my breath. I won’t say what happens to the characters, but I will say I struggled to read the last few chapters because I was crying buckets. Even now, just thinking about it makes me teary.
What I found particularly hard to read was the actions of mothers so desperate to save their children, they did the only think they could think of – they threw their precious ones, wearing life jackets, into the water; I guess they hoped the children would be saved by those who’d managed to get to the lifeboats.
Ruta Sepetys spent three years researching this story. The reason she decided to write it is because she was urged to do so by a cousin who had been due to travel on the Wilhelm Gustloff. But fate intervened, and she didn’t make the ship in time; according to Sepetys, her cousin stood on the port, watching it sail away, believing her life was over. Also, Sepetys’ own father, who’s Lithuanian, had lived for nine years in refugee camps after the war before settling in America.
For me, Sepetys has crafted a beautiful story amidst so much loss and despair because she’s also filled it with love and hope. And I am happy to give this a well-deserved 5*.
I’ll finish with the author’s own words. When asked why she writes these obscure stories, if hidden histories are even important, this was her answer:
“It is important because, during my research, in museums, I found bottles that contained messages that were thrown overboard from some of these refugee ships. And that told me that these souls were desperate for someone, anyone, to know their story. You are that someone. We know the villains’ names; we teach the villains’ names, but we don’t know the victims’ names. 9,343 people perished on the Wilhelm Gustloff; each one had a story. Lift their bottles from the water. Please, give them a voice.”