Genre: Historical, YA
HOW DID I NOT KNOW ABOUT THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THIS BOOK?! HOW?!
I have been a bit of a WWII buff for the past six years and I DIDN’T KNOW, so I was absolutely caught off guard by the ending. That is what blew me away more than anything.
My first question was how could a tragedy of this unimaginable magnitude be so lost to history? How could a shipwreck with FIVE TIMES the loss of life than the Titanic be so forgotten? I mean, we are talking NINE THOUSAND deaths, FIVE THOUSAND of those children. To put that in context, there were only 1,500 lives lost in the sinking of the Titanic.
The answer to that question, however, is disturbingly simple: this was just one among many horrific tragedies of 1945. It was just a footnote against the horrors of the Holocaust which were just coming to light in 1945, or the firebombing of Dresden, or the rape of Berlin by the Red Army. I loved that Ruta Sepetys delved into a little known tale of WWII and brought it to light. And she did it in such a poignant, heart wrenching way. The tales she weaves of four teenagers from vastly different backgrounds and social classes highlights the encompassing devastation of WWII–the tearing apart of families, of ways of life, of lives that had only just begun. Such devastation experienced as a child or teenager is not something that is so quickly healed.
Not only does Septetys tell the little known story of the Wilhelm Gustloff, but she also recounts a not often told story (in English speaking countries at least) of German refugees fleeing from the Red Army who notoriously raped millions of German women and destroyed everything in sight on their rampage to Berlin. We so often focus on the bravado and heroicism of the Allied troops storming Normandy and then taking Germany, that the suffering of German people in the East is often forgotten. These stories are such a vital part of the whole picture of the devastation of WWII, and should be recognized, retold, and remembered.
I particularly loved the ending, that something new was created out of all the horror, all the devastation. That those who had lost their families were able to find and create a new family. So while Sepetys does not shy away from the horror these teenagers experienced (in fact, there are a lot of graphic scenes in this novel), she also shows that healing is possible, and that there is hope for the future.
The only negative I have to say about this book was the depiction of Alfred as a Nazi sociopath. I understand what Sepetys was trying to portray, but I think Alfred’s character gives the reader the idea that only a social outcast and idiot could truly fall under Hitler’s spell. It is dangerous to think this way, because the brainwashing of very intelligent individuals took place under the Third Reich. Millions of children were raised to believe in the inferiority of the Jews and the racial purity of the Germans. It was pervasive. Post-war, millions of German children faced intense identity crises because everything they had been raised to believe turned out to be a lie. And it wasn’t only sociopaths and idiots who truly believed in the cause of the Third Reich.
Overall, I highly enjoyed this book and was completely caught off guard by a historical event I knew nothing about. So, thank you, Ruta Sepetys, for showing me a side to WWII I did not know existed. The victims of the Wilhelm Gustloff should be remembered and this book finally brings to light and pays tribute to a story forgotten to history, of innocents caught in the midst of horror beyond imagining. It lays humanity over the numbers, reminding us that these were people with stories and lives and dreams, not just faceless masses lost to history.