Ruta Sepetys tells the story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 through the voices of four young people, haunted by the terror of the war, each carrying their own secret.
In a forest, deserter Florian Beck, badly wounded by shrapnel, decides to hide in an old potato cellar. But he is not alone. He finds a young Polish girl, Emilia about to be raped by a Russian soldier. Florian kills the Russian and reminded of his sister Anni, reluctantly allows Emilia to accompany him. Emilia knows Florian is German and that he wants nothing to do with her, partly because she is Polish. Hitler considers the Polish to be subhuman and brutally executed Polish intellectuals. She considers Florian to be her knight - the one who saved her.
Meanwhile twenty-one year old Joana Vilkas is fleeing East Prussia in advance of the Russians. She fled her native Lithuania in 1941 with her family. Because her mother had German heritage, they were allowed to repatriate to Germany but Joana only made it to Insterberg in East Prussia. For four years she worked with the surgeon at the hospital in Insterberg, first stocking shelves, then assisting him in surgery. As she walks along the road Joana encounters a six year old boy who was traveling with his grandmother. She has died and now he is alone, so Joana takes him into her charge. Joana is with fifteen other refugees including a blind girl, Ingrid, an old shoemaker who is nicknamed the shoe poet and a very large woman named Eva.
Florian, Emilia, Joana, the boy and the shoemaker, along with Ingrid, Eva and others find shelter in an old barn. Joana cleans and stitches Florian's wound which has become infected but Emilia does not allow Joana to examine her. Joana suspects that Florian is hiding something and Ingrid who can sense things about people believes he is a thief. Joana asks Eva to talk to Emilia, who speaks only Polish. She learns that she is fifteen years old and from Lwow in southeastern Poland. Emilia's father had sent her to a farm near Nemmersdorf in East Prussia, hoping she would be safe. Both Joana and Eva are horrified because they have heard about the atrocities committed when Nemmersdorf was overrun by the Red Army.
Emilia learned after fleeing through Nemmersdorf that the Nazis had killed thousands of Polish Jews in Lwow including her friends Rachel and Helen Weigel. She doesn't know that most of the Polish intellectuals like her father, a mathematics professor were also rounded up and shot by the Nazis.
Florian Beck was hired as a restoration apprentice by Dr. Lange, director of the museum in Konigsberg. Mentored by Dr. Lange, Florian was sent to the best school so he could assist in establishing the Furhers dream of a national art museum in his hometown of Linz. Through Dr. Lange, Florian met Gauleiter Erich Koch, leader of the regional branch of the Nazi Party. Crates of art began arriving at the museum. Florian worked on restoring pieces of art that arrived. However, Florian eventually comes to understand what the Dr. Lange, Koch and the Nazi's are doing with the art. And he devises a plan for revenge.
In Gotenhafen, young Alfred Frick a sailor in the Kreigsmarine, believes he is serving Germany well. Although he believes he has made many sacrifices and that his exceptional abilities place him above everyone else. In fact he shirks his duties and hides in the closet. Alfred imagines the letters he would write to the girl he loves, Hannelore, telling her how well he is doing and that he will prove to be a hero. Eventually Alfred is assigned to help outfit the Wilhelm Gustloff for the evacuation of German troops and refugees from East Prussia, Poland and Germany.Alfred carries within him a horrible secret of something he has done.
Florian and Emilia leave the group at the barn separately, intent on traveling to the port of Gotenhafen. Florian does not want to travel with Emilia and gives her a gun for protection, but still she follows him. When a German soldier steps out of the woods behind Florian to kill him, Emilia fires bringing him down and saving Florian. Meanwhile the shoe poet, the boy, Joana, Eva, Ingrid and others begin their trek to Gotenhafen too. The poet tells them they will find an old Prussian estate to shelter in for part of the journey but Joana is doubtful. Both groups meet a second time at the abandoned Prussian estate. They warm themselves and rest, helping Emilia who is in shock after shooting the German.
Joana and Florian begin to form a bond as she cares for him, checking on his stitches. They even dance together when the boy finds a gramophone and sets it up. Eva learns from Emilia that she is planning to meet her lover August. In fact, she was raped by Russian soldiers on the farm of her father's friends, the Kleists. It is her secret she cannot tell.
After making a grisly discovery at the mansion, the group quickly leave heading for Gotenhafen where they hope to gain passage on the ships evacuating people from the advancing Red Army. Emilia is placed in a cart while the rest of the group walks. Their journey is filled with many dangers including attacks by the Red Army and the dangerous crossing at the Vistula lagoon which is frozen over but repeatedly attacked by the Soviet planes. After surviving all of these, little do they realize their greatest challenge will be to survive the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
Ruta Sepetys has crafted a riveting and deeply moving account of the Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy. The Gustloff, transporting close to 10,000 souls from the Polish port of Gotenhafen was sunk by three torpedoes from a Soviet U-boat on January 30, 1945. It sank in an hour. Over nine hundred people survived, leaving 9,000 to perish in the icy Baltic Sea. This marine disaster, the worst in history, soon disappeared from collective memory possibly for many reasons; German shame over the Holocaust and an reluctance to grieve publicly for their own war losses as well as overshadowing by the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania which had many famous passengers.
In an attempt to portray the various experiences of Polish/Lithuanian/Russian/Germans near the close of the Second World War Sepetys chose four narrators: a Lithuanian nurse named Joana, Emilia a young Polish girl, a Prussian artist named Florian and Alfred, a young German sailor. Sepetys states that she deliberately chose "the child and young adult narrative" for this novel so that the reader could experience "seeing the war through the eyes of youths from different nations, forced to leave everything they loved behind."
Although the main characters are fictional, they convey the struggles, the desires and the hopes people experienced as they fled to safety. One of the greatest strengths of this novel is that Sepetys doesn't spare her readers any of the horror of war, demonstrating that no one is spared not even the young German sailor. The account is not graphic yet through the eyes of each we learn of the brutality experienced and of lives irrevocably changed. In spite of this inhumanity, Sepetys shows that acts of kindness, courage and sacrifice abound; Florian and Emilia saving each other, Joana's concern for others, the shoe poet's kindness and his care for the young orphaned boy.
As in any good fiction, several of the characters experience a significant transformation. The most interesting was that of Florian Beck. Florian realizes he has been duped by the Nazi's into helping with their theft of rare art. Bent on revenge he steals a priceless piece of art from a prized collection plus the keys to where some of that art has been hidden. To safeguard himself, Florian doesn't want to be involved with anyone, least of all Emilia or Joana. He tries to abandon Emilia several times. Emilia however believes there is much goodness in Florian and refers to him as her knight. Eventually Florian lives up to Emilia's belief in him. When Emilia believes she is unlikely to survive the disaster she begs Florian to take her daughter knowing he will protect and save her. "The knight. He had the baby. I knew he'd be a savior." But Emilia is also responsible for saving Florian - possibly twice, something Florian acknowledges at the end of the novel. Emilia saved Florian by drawing out his goodness.
The only German in the novel, Alfred Frick is portrayed as delusional young man hopelessly indoctrinated in Nazi propaganda. He is perhaps the most tragic character in the novel because he demonstrates how the young people of Germany came to believe Hitler's ideas about races and groups of people. His indoctrination is demonstrated by the little ditty he's made up to remind him of the Reich's racial, social and political enemies. Unable to face the terrible thing he's done, Alfred spends all his time fantasizing about how superb a sailor he is and composing fictional letters to a girl he loved, Hannelore Jager. In one such imaginary letter he states, "Imagine, my darling, your Alfred is saving two thousand lives." In reality he's been asked to clean the toilets. When the sailors explain to him that soldiers who are dying will be left behind, Alfred coldly states, "Quite wise...Leave the browned cabbage in the basket. It makes no sense to save a head with only a few good leaves." Alfred's blind loyalty to Adolf Hitler and his Aryan dreams led him to commit an unspeakable act. His death, which occurs while he is screaming Nazi rhetoric is symbolic and foreshadows the death of the Nazi regime.
That Sepetys did an enormous amount of research is evident by her ability to capture the terror and desperation people in Eastern Europe - specifically East Prussia, Poland and Lithuania experienced, first from the German Nazis and then from the advancing Russians. Her extensive research is confirmed in her Research and Notes section at the back of the novel. This section details the people Ruta Sepetys contacted while doing her research.
To help her readers, Sepetys includes a map Eastern Europe in 1945 in the front of the novel and a map of the same area of Europe today can be found in the back. In her Author's Note Sepetys explains her family's connection to the events which occurred in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. Readers will learn not only about the sinking of the Gustloff but also about the famous missing Amber Room which was dismantled by the Nazis from the Catherine palace in 1941. The amber panels were packed into 27 crates and sent to Eric Koch, gauleiter of East Prussia. The amber panels were never recovered and have been the object of many searches over the years.
In her authors note at the back, Ruta Sepetys writes"When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them." It is for this reason historical fiction remains so important; so that events forgotten may be restored to the memory of the next generation. As Sepetys suggests, often the seed of interest is sown by historical fiction and she encourages her readers to explore further. To that end the following websites may be useful as well as the detailed list of resources Sepetys used in her research which can be found at the back of her novel.
The Sinking of the M.S. Wilhelm Gustloff
National Geographic video on the Amber Room
Amber Room website
For fans of historical fiction, Salt To The Sea is a must-read. It is a beautifully written and deeply moving account of a forgotten tragedy.
Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys
New York: Philomel Books 2016