This is one of those books that surpasses expectations. As Historical Fiction, I expected another World War II story to round out many of the facts I already knew. But this story centers on two things: the reasons why four young people from four distinctly different backgrounds have become refugees from the atrocities of the advancing Russian army and around the ship that will hopefully be their salvation – the Wilhelm Gustloff.
Four young people – Joanna from Lithuania, Florian from East Prussia, Emilia from Poland, and Alfred from Germany. The four come together as they travel overland towards the port city of Gotenhafen. Neither is in the best of health and their trek is long and arduous. Each traveler hides a secret from the others that could put them in extreme danger. When at last they arrive in Gotenhafen, they must band together in order to gain a berth on the ship Wilhelf Gustloff. The Germans are evacuating ahead of the Russian army’s arrival and while those from the upper rungs of society are given cabins aboard the ship that hold two thousand, another eight thousand injured soldiers and refugees are taken aboard. This overload strains the ship but those in charge reason that their destination is only forty-eight hours away and the trip should not be too much of a hardship. No one takes into account the Russian submarines lurking in the Baltic Sea and when the ship meets its watery grave only about one-thousand passengers survive. Are the four young people among them?
I found this story riveting as I have always been an avid student of the Titanic disaster and thought this would be a bit like that. But the reality of what it must have been like on that ship makes the Titanic seem like a rowboat on a calm lake. The loss of life is staggering and yet there is so little known about this ship and the tragedy it is linked to. Like the Titanic story, it is a tale of love, loss, hope, and despair. You won’t be disappointed.
Rating: M M M M M