wilhelm-gustloff
The Wilhelm Gustloff in 1938 ullstein bild— Getty Images

The Forgotten Maritime Tragedy That Was 6 Times Deadlier Than the Titanic

Jan 29, 2016

The sinking of the Titanic may be the most infamous naval disaster in history, and the torpedoing of the Lusitania the most infamous in wartime. But with death counts of about 1,500 and 1,200 respectively, both are dwarfed by what befell the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ocean liner that was taken down by a Soviet sub on Jan. 30, 1945, killing 9,343 people—most of them war refugees, about 5,000 of them children.

The victims of the worst maritime tragedy in history were not only Germans, but also Prussians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles, Estonians and Croatians. World War II was drawing to an end, and the Soviet army was advancing. Though it would be months before the final fall of the Nazi regime, it was clear the end was coming—and they were desperate to escape before things came to a head. As a result, 10,582 people were packed onto a cruise ship that was meant to accommodate only about 1,900. Though some on the ship were Nazis themselves, others had been the victims of Nazi aggression. When three torpedoes hit the ship, there weren't nearly enough lifeboats, and many of the those that did exist were frozen to the deck. The majority of the passengers drowned.

Why is this event so little known? Novelist Ruta Sepetys can't say for sure, but its obscurity made it exactly the kind of story she wanted to tell. The author has written a book for young readers called Salt to the Sea, out Tuesday, about four fictional young passengers on the Wilhelm Gustloff: an overeager Nazi manning the ship; a Lithuanian nurse doing her part but haunted by her past; a Polish girl concealing her nationality and the source of her pregnancy; and a Prussian carrying something Hitler wants.

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Sepetys, an international bestseller thanks to her first novel Between Shades of Gray (which shares a character crossover with Salt to the Sea) is drawn to "hidden histories." She looked into the Wilhelm Gustloff after finding out that a cousin of hers would have been on board were it not for a last-minute decision to delay the travel, a choice that the cousin had feared would prove the wrong one. As it departed, "she was standing in the port crying, thinking that her life was over," Sepetys says. The decision likely saved her life, in fact.

Intrigued, Sepetys immersed herself in research, particularly relying on the book Death in the Baltic but also on firsthand accounts from survivors she interviewed. "I hope this doesn’t sound too dramatic," she says, "but what surprised me the most was that anyone survived."

With the help of her publisher in Poland, she even tracked down two divers who had explored the wreck in the late '60s under Soviet supervision. The Soviets were allegedly curious to see if the Germans had tried to use the refugee ship to evacuate treasure, too. "They did not share with me exactly what they brought up," Sepetys says, "but yes, things were retrieved. And then there were instructions to detonate parts of the ship, because it was considered an obstruction in the water."

So why do so few people know about the Wilhelm Gustloff? Sepetys has a couple of theories. First, the Nazi regime actively tried to hide the facts. "They were amidst an evacuation and they didn’t want it to affect morale. They also were trying to hide the fact they were losing the war," she says. "Some survivors reported that when they spoke of it, there was a knock on their door, and they were told, 'Why are you telling stories about some ship? That didn’t happen.'"

In the aftermath of the war, she adds, Germans were hesitant to claim that they had been victims of any kind, so those who were free to discuss what had happened might have chosen not to.

Springtime is laughter time for children, but there was no laughter for three-year-old Betti Malek when the Germans crashed through Belgium and took Antwerp in 1940. She was one of numerous child refugees brought from Belgium to England, and one of the million of children who suffered during the five-and-a-half years of war, May 17, 1945.
Betti Malek—pictured on May 17, 1945—was one of numerous child refugees brought from Belgium to England after the Germans seized Antwerp in 1940.AP Photo
Springtime is laughter time for children, but there was no laughter for three-year-old Betti Malek when the Germans crashed through Belgium and took Antwerp in 1940. She was one of numerous child refugees brought from Belgium to England, and one of the million of children who suffered during the five-and-a-half years of war, May 17, 1945.
GERMANY - JUNE 06: Post WWII German refugees and displaced persons crowding every square inch of a train leaving Berlin. 1945.
Operation Overlord
A handful of survivors from the 150 refugees who left Lodz in Poland two months earlier headed for Berlin. They are following railway lines on the outskirts of Berlin in the hope of being picked up by a British train.
Grim-faced refugees stand in a group on a street in La Gleize, Belgium on Jan. 2, 1945. They are waiting to be transported from the war-torn town after its recapture by American forces during the German thrust into the Belgium-Luxembourg salient.
20th March 1945: Refugees from across Central Europe queuing for food at an Allied Forces refugee camp in Germany after being displaced.
Stream of refugees and people who have been bombed out of their homes moving through destroyed streets - 1945after end of war; on the left two soviet soldiers patrolling).
Group of Dutch refugee children arriving at Coventry Station, Great Britain, 1945.
25th October 1945: German refugees fleeing from the Russian zone in the first few weeks after the end of World War II in Europe. They are sleeping on straw in a makeshift transit camp at Uelzen in the British zone of Germany.
3rd March 1945: German refugees crowding the market square at Juchen, Germany, a town captured by the US Army at the end of the Second World War.
Exhausted, homeless German refugees hudd
Dutch Child Refugees: Arrival In Britain At Tilbury, Essex, England, UK, 1945, A small Dutch boy smiles for the camera upon arrival at Tilbury in Essex. He is carrying a small paper parcel under his arm, which contains all his luggage. He, and the other children, (some of whom can be seen behind him) all have labels pinned to their coats which bear their names, home address and destination, 11 March 1945.
Refugees from the East of the German Reich (German Empire) around 1944/1945.
German civilian refugees prepare to flee war-torn Aachen, Germany as the battle for the doomed city draws to a close, Oct. 24, 1944. The refugees have been living in air-raid shelters as the battle for the city rages on. The Americans have about 4,000 of these refugees on their hands, who are being taken to a camp in Belgium and temporarily housed in a large school.
Women and children are standing at the roadside and are waiting for a transport possibility, in 1945.
Swiss Jew Eva Bass, formerly a nightclub singer in Paris, entering refugee camp at Fort Ontario, with her children Yolanda and Joachim, whom she carried on a sixty-kilometer trek through the fighting lines to reach American transport ship Henry Gibbins. 1944.
German civilian refugees walking through the streets of Aachen, Germany, on their way to a safer area away from the combat zone, 15th October 1944.
Civil Affairs Refugee Camp, France, 1944.
War refugees walking through Berlin with their whole belongings on 15th December 1945.
Frenchwoman with two children and belongings loaded on a baby carriage seen in Haguenau, France on Feb. 20, 1945, before they started on their long trek to a safe rear area. They are some of the refugees leaving the town because of the planned withdrawal of the 7th U.S. Army. Many civilians prefer to leave their homes and seek safety in a rear area, rather than suffer another German occupation or risk being conscripted into the German Vollksturn.
An attendant with white brassard (front, r) accompanies newly arrived refugees, in January 1946, through the refugee camp in Bebra.
Betti Malek—pictured on May 17, 1945—was one of numerous child refugees brought from Belgium to England after the German
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Another reason, she says, "could be that the submarine captain [who sank the ship], Alexander Marinesko, was dishonorably discharged shortly after," apparently for disorderly conduct. At the time, Sepetys guesses, the Russians did not want to draw attention to him—though in later years monuments would be dedicated to his naval valor.

The Wilhelm Gustloff interested Sepetys as a story about refugees because her own Lithuanian father spent nine years in refugee camps before being settled in the U.S.—but she had no idea when she began her work that the story would prove relevant on a global scale, as the current influx of migrants in Europe draws comparisons to the migrations of the past. The author hopes getting to know her protagonists could help young readers and grown-ups alike empathize with people in situations far from their own. "Many families don’t have recent experience or connection to occupation or war," she says. "But through story and characters, suddenly news and history become human."

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