In 1945 Prussia, a misfit group of refugees led by a young Lithuanian nurse makes for the coast to attempt to outrun the horrors of the Soviet army. Nearby a young Polish girl is about to be killed by a Russian soldier when a young German male with a secret saves her. The refugees encounter the Polish girl and German boy at a nearby farmstead, and despite best efforts to desert each other, their fates become intertwined. Dodging planes, Russian and German soldiers, and the perils of deadly winter, they reach the coast and must find a way to make it aboard a ship bound for Germany. Thanks to a dim-witted German soldier and the nurse’s skills, a few of their party make it aboard the ships. Many of their party including the nurse, the German boy and the Polish girl, and a grandfather and his adopted son board the military ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff. When they arrive, the Polish girl, who had been largely pregnant, gives birth to a little girl in the midst of chaos as German soldiers hunt the German boy. What follows is a little known tragedy of World War II history. Shortly after the ship departs, a Russian submarine torpedoes the vessel, which had been equipped to carry much less than the over 10,000 people aboard, 5,000 of which were children and refugees. The Wilhelm Gustloff sinks and only a little over a thousand passengers survive.
This book was memorable and emotional, horrible and yet very real with Sepetys’s characters. I won’t give spoilers, but there is a small bit of hope at the end that makes this book not all tragedy. This is a book to read for 2016, and is among the great YA historical fiction.
More information about the Wilhelm Gustloff can be found here.
Note: There is some mention of rape and graphic scenes that may be traumatic for younger readers. Typically high school teen appropriate.