Wilhelm Gustloff

Interstitial Lives

I started reading—Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys--last night before I went to bed and I woke up early in order to finish it! Talk about a story that relentlessly pulls you into it. 


Placed in 1945, Salt to the Sea tells the story of the winding down of World War II from the point-of-view of four young people: a Lithuanian nurse, a Prussian art restorer, an intuitive Polish girl, and a German seaman.

Three are refugees, fleeing eastward, caught between the Soviet Red Army and Nazi Germany. We hear bits and pieces of their secrets, their generosity, their mistrust.

They link up with other refugees that the reader learns to care for: a wandering boy, a shoe poet, and a suspicious giantess.

Their aim? To board the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship to carry them away to safety.

Wilhelm Gustloff

The Wilhelm Gustloff is one of the lesser known tragedies of WWII.

Boarded in Gotenhafen, (present day Gdynia, Poland) with mostly civilians, it carried 10,500 people, with an estimated 5,000 being children. A Soviet submarine launched three torpedoes against it, killing an estimated 9,000 people. It is now a ghost ship, lying off the coast of Poland.

In her author’s notes, Sepetys writes,

“It is estimated that in the year 1945 alone, over 25,000 people lost their lives in the Baltic Sea. For months, bodies drifted to shore in various locations, haunting the coastline and its residents. Even today, some divers report a strong presence in the water near the enormous sea graves.”

In her book, Ruta Sepetys, a Lithuanian American, lists her face-to-face and book research sources. She met with a Lithuanian family and a Latvian couple who survived the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff and was in contact with more. She writes of her family connections—her father waiting in a refugee camp, hoping to return to Lithuania and her father’s cousin, who missed the Wilhelm Gustloff and sailed another ship.

Post World War II

The hardcover book also has a 1945 map of the area and a present-day (2016) map.

Many borders shifted after the war. East Prussia exists no more. Its port city of Konigsberg is renamed Kaliningrad and is part of the Russian oblast. The outer lands of East Prussia are now within the Polish border.

Poland lost its east edge to the Soviet Union, which have now become the countries of Belarus and Ukraine.

Not until 1989 did the Baltic States—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—become free of Russian rule.