The sinking of the Titanic killed 1,517 people. Tragic, to be sure. But what of the Wilhelm Gustloff? This was a ship of refugees, innocent people attempting to escape a war, not the wealthy pleasure going people of the Titanic. The Wilhelm Gustloff was only designed to accommodate 1900 people. But do you know how many people they packed onto that ship? The removed the furniture and they drained the pool so that as many people as possible could fit. 10,582 people were on this ship.
When it was sank by torpedoes, 9,343 people died, 5000 of whom were children.
Why does nobody know of the tragedy? Was it German pride, unwilling to admit that they were losing the war?
The Wilhelm Gustloff, 1938
This was not a pleasant book; it was horrific.
But so is war.
The author doesn’t give detailed, gory descriptions. She gives one sentence. But that one sentence is all you need; your mind willingly fills in the blanks.
She mentions a carpet of bodies crunching underneath your feet as the ship is going down; you can picture it.
There are the cries of children longing for their parents; all you need is one word.
Bodies freezing in the water, corpses bumping up against one of 10 life boats.
You see? You can easily imagine the scene, whether or not you want to.
The novel is told from the point of view of four different characters, each with a different nationality, each telling of a different horror of WWII: A Lithuanian, a Pole, a Prussian, a Nazi.
You are only told enough that you know what happens; description is focused on the psychological and emotional damage that is done to the characters. It describes their guilt and shame, worry and fear. What will be left of these people, you wonder, when the war is over?
There’s a girl who is pregnant after being handed over to a Russian soldier, a different girl who has survived at the expense of her family. There is a boy who was to be delivered to an address across the water, but it is an address that will never be known.
Because each chapter is 2-4 pages long, and because the chapters switch the POV character each time, it leaves you wondering just what each person’s story is.
They are all horrific.
But that is war.
Salt to the Sea was unsettling, horrific, and unpleasant, but then again so is war.
It was marvelous.
When you read of great tragedies in history books, you are reading only facts. It doesn’t allow you to understand what people felt; you can’t truly acknowledge to full terror of the situations. In your mind you know that it was terrible, but you are far removed from understanding.
When you read a novel like this, it makes the situation real to you. It puts it into perspective.
It allows you to understand.
Rarely do I read a book that I feel that everyone should read, but this is one of the few. I give this novel the highest recommendation. It highlights a point in history, a great tragedy that should be known like the Titanic is known.