Ruta Sepetys’ forthcoming book for teens, Salt to the Sea, is about the largest maritime disaster ever, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. First built by the Nazis as a cruise ship in 1937, and named for a Nazi officer, it was later requisitioned by the German Navy. On January 30, 1945 it was sunk by Soviet torpedo strikes while evacuating over 10,000 German civilians, Nazi officials and soldiers, 162 of them wounded, and crew. The ship’s capacity was 1,465. Septys captures the overcrowding and panic among the passengers and crew of whom only 1,252 survived. Not many people know about the Wilhelm Gustloff though more people died than on the Titanic.
The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was shrouded in secrecy partly due to the fact that it was a German ship carrying Nazi officials and their families, soldiers as well as civilians. It happened in the last days of the war in Europe and news accounts were focused on the allied victory. Not wanting to demoralize the German population anymore, the German government suppressed the news about it. Also, the captain of the Russian submarine, Alexander Marinesko, was facing court martial for his problems with drinking. He was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union by Gorbachev in 1990.
The story focuses on a group of characters who have joined up to get to Gotenhafen, or as the Poles called it, Gdansk, before it fell into German rule and after it was returned to Poland. There they hope to escape the Red Army by ship. They are Joana, a young Lithuanian who came to Germany as a refugee and is a nurse with a big secret. There is a wonderful old man who is a shoemaker who has become a guardian of a young boy who lost his parents. Florian, who they call the Prussian, is really a German who unknowingly worked with those responsible for stealing art for the Nazis. He has fled them, is afraid for his life and has many secrets, including something he carries in his knapsack. The last is Amelia, a 15-year-old Polish girl who is pregnant, fearful and somewhat delusional. The story of their trek to the port of Gotenhafen, evading the Red Army and dealing with their own predicaments is moving. They were all, except one character who chooses not to board the Wilhelm Gustloff, sympathetic, but, except for Florian, seemingly in denial of the crimes committed by the Nazis. He actually is a positive character as he wants to get to Finland to tell about the Nazi theft of art.
I have a conflicted relationship with Ruta Septeys’ new book. I feel that the author turns a blind eye to the Nazi attrocities. Afterall, the city Gotenhafen contained a Nazi concentration camp, not mentioned in the book and it’s hard for me to sympathize with Nazi officials and soldiers in flight. The one openly Nazi character in the book is such a caricature of a Nazi that everyone else seems to be wonderful.
I cannot accept that there is a moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Soviets. When the Red Army marched into Germany and liberated the Auschwitz they had gone through a German occupation in which 2.6 million Soviet prisoners-of-war were starved in camps, another half-million mostly Soviet Jewish soldiers were shot. and a million Soviet civilians died during the siege of Leningrad. I find that this book simplifies what was an amazingly complex period of history.