While the Titanic and Lusitania are both well-documented disasters, the single greatest tragedy in maritime history is the little-known January 30, 1945 sinking in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner that was supposed to ferry wartime personnel and refugees to safety from the advancing Red Army. The ship was overcrowded with more than 10,500 passengers — the intended capacity was approximately 1,800 — and more than 9,000 people, including 5,000 children, lost their lives.
Sepetys (writer of ‘Between Shades of Gray’) crafts four fictionalized but historically accurate voices to convey the real-life tragedy. Joana, a Lithuanian with nursing experience; Florian, a Prussian soldier fleeing the Nazis with stolen treasure; and Emilia, a Polish girl close to the end of her pregnancy, converge on their escape journeys as Russian troops advance; each will eventually meet Albert, a Nazi peon with delusions of grandeur, assigned to the Gustloff decks
It’s about a group of people whereas the main characters are Joana, a Lithuanian nurse who was also able to speak German, Florian Beck, a Prussian soldier fleeing the Nazis with stolen treasure and Emilia, an 8 month pregnant Polish girl. Joana is surrounded by a few people, whereas a German shoemaker, an orphan boy, and Eva when she met Florian along with Emilia, whom Florian has helped from a Russian army. At first, Florian hesitated to even tell her his name, let alone letting her know what’s in his bag. Emilia was a scared girl, having a blood of that dead Russian soldier on her sleeve. She didn’t say much, spoke broken German. Together they helped each other surviving the attack of Russian army, they finally got into Wilhelm Gustloff ship. Emilia had to use an identity card of a dead Lithuanian woman because as a Polish they would not let her get in. Florian escaped the security by telling Albert Frick (in Dutch translation, his name was Alfred and I don’t know why), a Nazi peon with delusions of grandeur, assigned to Gustloff decks, that he’s a secret courier of Koch, and the stuff he had in his bag were important, and he also told him that he would get him some kind of reward in a form of a medallion if he could pass the security and arrive at the destination place. Joana got in easily, as she was a nurse and they needed nurses.
Each of them had their own reason and story, the chapters are not numbered but named, each told the event in the eyes of the person. The chapters are also short, making it an easy read. This historical fiction novel is there to remind us that there’s an event that’s more tragic than the Titanic. Wilhelm Gustloff was a cruise ship that at the time it’s used to bring refugees, had not been used for about four years. The ship was only capable of around 1800 passagiers, but was overloaded by more than ten thousands refugees. The ship was hit by three torpedo’s by Russian submarine. At the time help arrived to save the surviving refugees, they all still had to be quiet because the submarine was still there under the water. Which one would you fear the most under the sea? Submarine? Or shark? Imagine the cold winter season, you need to survive while you’re swimming with your body freezing in the cold water. None of the refugees who were under water survived, but to know whether the characters mentioned in the book survived or not you need to read the book.
- Joana Vilkas: this Lithuanian nurse is very caring, she did her best to not let anyone down.
- Florian Beck: this Prussian soldier appeared cold at first, but in the end he showed his caring character, and he began to open up a little bit more. Everyone around was suspicious of him, except Emilia, who has been helped by him.
- Emilia: she was a shy and scared young girl. She looked up to Florian and the only one trusting Florian from the beginning.
- Albert Frick: this Nazi peon was the kind of guy who got pestered a lot. Very delusional, and not a smart guy.
- The German shoemaker: he could tell who you were just by looking at your shoes. He’s a fatherly figure and he nurtured the orphan boy like he’s his own son.
This is easy to read and is not a ‘put-down’ able novel. My least favourite character is Albert Frick, but in the end I also had compassion about this man. I’m in my opinion that this book is there for us to remember about Wilhem Gustloff’s tragic event. And to introduce those who had no idea about it. This is a Young Adult Historical Fiction, but I have learned something about it. Such a good book!