Although I would have named the book “What to do when you have watched ‘Titanic’ one time too many”! I was not one of those people sitting wiping my tears in 1998, when I saw Leonardo di Caprio freeze to death and Kate Winslet throw a priceless gem overboard, before joining all the dead on the Titanic, in the spirit world. It was a terrible Hollywood tra-la-la film and when someone on goodreads said “please make this in to a movie” (about this book) I shuddered at the thought. Not another horrible Titanic film!!!
Sure, all women wanted to look like the pretty Winslet girl and drooled over di Caprio, but my US penfriend and I both agreed at the time, that the filmmakers would have made history more justice, by telling one of all the sad stories that ACTUALLY happened on the Titanic. They were surely sad enough, every person’s story, its own tragedy. And once again, I ask what was wrong with true life? Why did Ruta Sepetys think that the real tragedies of Wilhelm Gustloff, were not tragic enough for a book? A ship with 10 573 passengers and 9000 of them drowning and yet, there were not stories worth writing a book about? I refuse to accept that.
So what was the point with this book? Call me paranoid, but it felt like the author is trying to do propaganda for the migrants leaving Syria and many other muslim countries right now, for a better life in the western world. A world they do not REALLY want to belong to. I can not be the only one who makes this observation. Because the way this book is built up, is so bad, that there can’t be any other point with it.
I gave it three stars on goodreads but I will go back and change that to two stars, because it does not deserve three stars when I had to start it over three times. When opening the book you are faced with JOANA, as the first chapter, and after ten pages, you have realized that the entire book is going to be written in this horrid way of person 1 telling her observations for two pages, person two for two pages, person three for two pages, person four, the same thing. Over and over and over again for 378 pages and it is not a style I like, nor anyone else I have taken a poll on. It makes for a very choppy story and I quit reading the book, two times. Every time I have re-started it, I have had to go to page one, because nothing stuck in one’s head, to move on from. In other words, either you read this book from start to finish, or you do not read it at all, because you will forget essentials, them not being interesting enough to store in your memory bank.
The story focuses on four youths, in their upper teens, early twenties. deliberately done of course, so she could squeeze in a very unbelievable love story. You have to have a Kate Winslet and Leonardo of course. Or? This book’s love story is ridiculous and an insult of my intelligence! You do not start a romance when you are sentenced to rape and death! You run and you run fast, to safety or just away from the claws of your enemy. Basic needs have to be satisfied till you can look outside yourself.
We have Joana, the nurse, in her early twenties, who wants to care for everyone out of guilt. A girl, Florian, can not resist even though she is covered with mud and dirt. Because contrary to all other dirty people, she somehow is pretty. Joana, is travelling in front of the Russian Army, trying to avoid rape and being sent to the Gulags. She stems from Lithuania and has no problem travelling to Germany major, as a Volksdeutsch, planning on meeting her German mother there.
Florian, is the 18-19 year-old, who cares about nothing but his mission, which is to take a stolen Russian art object, to Kiel, where he will go search for his evacuated sister. He has looked after all the art objects stolen by the Germans, in Königsberg, East Prussia, together with a Dr. Lange and when he one day realized that Dr. Lange was just using him, for his own purposes, he stole the most prized object of all, an amber statue from the famous Russian Amber room. Hitler’s most favourite object, which was going to be the crown of his art museum in Linz. Revenge is sweet they say.
Emilia is the 15-year-old Pole, who should have been dead by all accounts, Hitler not caring too much about the Polish people. What Ruta forgets when she makes this little heroine in to a blonde, blue-eyed Pole, is that Hitler did not have any problems with Aryan looking Poles. They were taken to Germany and Aryanized, especially when they were children like Emilia. Why Emilia is fleeing all by herself is the question never answered. She knows Hitler doesn’t want her and her family is dead, so… But she is there only to make the story interesting. Which is too blatant!
Finally, we have the disgusting Alfred. Alfred is a looser, who has avoided all sorts of Nazism participation, out of fear. His mother has protected him against all evil, but in the last days of Hitler, not even he could avoid being recruited and this to the Navy. But he is not against Nazism. No, quite the contrary. Mein Kampf is his bible and he believes every word of what Hitler says in there. Including that Alfred is a superior human being, of the master race. Hitler Jugend just did not understand that, nor his beloved Hannelore or his commanding officers.
While Joana, travels the road with blind Ingrid, the giant Eva, who only cares about her mother’s silver in the cart they pull with them, the shoe poet Heinz, a shoe maker, and little six-year-old Klaus, whose grandmother froze to death on the road, Florian and Emilia, take their time joining the group. And Alfred’s story, takes place in the harbour of Gotenhafen.
Alfred’s story, is the most pathetic one, and a drole part to read, every time it is HIS chapter. He writes these pretend letters to his Hannelore, where he makes himself out to be the most important man in the Navy. Being brave and doing a tremendously important service to the Fatherland. While in truth he is avoiding all sorts of physical labour, hiding, eavesdropping, and being a peeping Tom. Everyone who meets him, realize that he is some sort of psychopath, a looser and are disgusted by him. But Florian finds good use for him late in the story, when he speaks to his ego. What is it, that makes him so disgusting? Well, these pretend letters speak of a disturbed young man, spying on his neighbours and being despised by Hannelore and her family. So much so, that he turned her father in. And he is the sort of idiot, that did not realize that Hannelore would be arrested for being Jewish, just like her father. In the final Alfred chapter, one realizes the full scope of what he has done. He claims to love Hannelore but sent her to her death, because he wanted to punish her father for looking down on him, Alfred, a member of the master race!
While Alfred and his fellow sailors prepare for a gigantic surge of refugees, wounded from the Russian front and a couple of hundred German equivalents of the British “WRENS”, the group of five walk the long road to the harbour. And Florian, is trying to get to the same point, with a gigantic shrapnel wound and fever. In a cave, he finds Emilia getting raped by a Russian soldier, and finishes that man off. From then on, he can not shake Emilia off. She becomes like a loyal dog, never leaving his side. They run in to the refugee group but Florian wants to be on his own, since he carries the stolen object and false papers, saying that he is a very important courier for Koch, the master thief, and one of the leaders of the Nazis.
After Joana, has taken out the shrapnel, he and Emilia tries to go off on their own, only to run in to the group again, and from then on, Florian stays with the group. Emilia has by then killed a German soldier by mistake and it has been discovered that she is eight months pregnant. Joana, the constantly caring person, does what she can for Emilia, realizing that she is Polish and in great danger. She steals documents off a dead Lithuanian woman, for Emilia, but the latter has to promise to keep her mouth shut. When they arrive by a great frozen lake, they lose their first traveller. Ingrid the blind girl, volunteers to walk first, to make sure the ice is safe and while the Russians are strafing the refugees, Ingrid goes through the ice. Joana tries to save her, but is pulled back by Florian, who by now is in love with this beautiful girl. Ridiculous! How pathetic can it get?
When they have crossed the ice, they need to cross water or walk a long distance around it. Florian, with his special courier papers, is entitled to be rowed across the water and takes with him the entire group while the horse and cart is sent around with a peasant family. Arriving at Gotenhafen, Eva refuses to give up her belongings and decide to wait for the cart. So she leaves the group, but the others try to stay together in a cinema. Florian, staying by himself in the projector room, finding time to flirt with Joana. Joana, quickly is allowed special treatment since she is a nurse. She will be helping the doctors on Wilhelm Gustloff. Alfred is recruited by Florian to help everyone. He gets Florian and Emilia on board as Joana’s patients, thinking he will get a medal by helping Koch’s agent Florian. Even Klaus and Heinz manage to get a place on the ship, thanks to the policy of children having precedence over adults.
On board the ship, Emilia quickly gives birth to a daughter, which she refuses to care for. While she has pretended that the father was the son in a farm family she was staying with, named Peter, the truth is that the family chosen by her dad, to go stay with for safety, was not all together nice. The mother of Peter, hated Emilia. Peter tried to be doubly nice to her because of his mother’s treatment, but he did not return the love, that Emilia had for him. And when the Russians arrived on the farm and wanted to have sex with Peter’s sister, the mother lied and said that she was ill, but that they could have Emilia, who was hiding in the forest. So, she got raped by all the soldiers and wanted nothing of the baby. Here comes the next pathetic scene, when Joana tells Florian that he must make Emilia take the baby. So this young man grabs the baby, kisses it, says how cute she is, looking just like Emilia and then suddenly Emilia loves the baby! Honestly!
Around 21:15 a loud bang is heard and panic ensues. 10 500 people try to get up to the top for the 12 life boats available. And now
we are on Titanic. Ruta is describing the film perfectly. Joana is put in a boat, Klaus is handed to her and Emilia refuses to give her baby to the sailor in charge but wants Florian to carry the baby down in to the boat. And off they go. Florian, Joana, Klaus and baby Halinka, while Emilia gets in to a lifeboat on her own, with Alfred and while Heinz drowns. In the boat, we find out how Alfred sent Hannelore to her death and when he realizes that Emilia is Polish, another enemy of the Fatherland, he tries to kill her, but falls in to the water himself and drowns. Deep sigh! And Emilia of course freezes to death since how else could Florian and Joana live happily ever after? With their kids? No, Emilia sits there and meets her mother and little brother who died at birth, but also her own daughter Halinka, who is well and dandy with Joana. In other words, not believable at all, even though I am a firm believer in that dead relatives who meant something to you, often come and fetch you at the death moment. But Halinka was not dead!
Then you get forced twenty years ahead, when Florian gets a letter from a Danish woman. She has read that Halinka, is not allowed to compete in the Olympics, because she has no nationality, being born on a ship in the Baltic Sea. The article also described her parents Florian and Joana, her brother Klaus and a child born by the parents, in the US. From that letter one learns that Emilia floated ashore on Bornholm, a Danish island outside Sweden, with Florian’s rucksack containing the treasure, and Florian has instructed the lady, to bury the rucksack.
I would classify the book as chic lit, something for the teenage girl to drool over, since they are the only once believing in love at first sight, no matter the circumstances and the dirt. To me, an adult, it was a ridiculous and predictable book and so boring, that I had to force myself to finish it. But upon finishing it, I did google Wilhelm Gustloff and read some of the REAL survivor stories and just like with survivors of the Holocaust, there is a feeling that one only survives if it is meant to be. If one’s ticket has not been punched. Some may call it luck or chance, but I do not believe in chance anymore. The ones who survived did so for a purpose, because they were not finished with their mission on Earth.
It is also amazing how this tragedy, is one which is not taught in schools or at University. That it has just become a small side comment. Titanic was nothing to the numbers mentioned in the notes at the back of the book. Wilhelm Gustloff lost 9 000, General von Steuben 4 000, Goya 6 500 and two ships carrying Jews from concentration camps, 7 000. Why has this not been taught or spoken of? Well, Titanic was the first, so that will always be something else. Never had a ship so big, sailed off, and never before had so many travelled before, in the same vessel, and without sufficient life boats. And of course, in the case of Titanic, it was likeable people. Rich people, famous people, but the majority, poor people, emigrating to a better life in America, having used all their life savings, for the ticket.
Wilhelm Gustloff sank with a cargo of Germans. They were the enemy. It was soldiers, rich Prussian Junkers, Nazi officers and their families and most and foremost, Volksdeutsche, who had been equally happy about Hitler’s ascent to power. The picture one gets from google, is that it was a ship full of the master race which sunk, and that can be the explanation for the silence. It was just one more step towards victory, one more step to try to get Hitler to give up and surrender unconditionally. And as we know, it did not effect him one bit. He sat safely in his bunker for three more months, before he gave up.