Lithuanian-American young adult author Ruta Sepetys has known her whole life of the trials faced by refugees fleeing war. Her father fled from Lithuania when the Soviets occupied the country following World War II and spent nine years in refugee camps before he was able to come to the United States.
Her Lithuanian heritage was the subject of her previously-lauded novel “Between Shades of Gray” (2011), but her recently-released historical novel “Salt to the Sea” is particularly foresighted given the current refugee crisis and the thousands of migrants who have died in the past year, desperately trying to make the sea passage across the Mediterranean Sea for a better life in Europe.
“The connection I see, sadly, is that of the children,” Sepetys said to ‘St. Louis on the Air’ host Don Marsh. “That was something I was thinking of when I wrote ‘Salt to the Sea.’ What about these innocent children who are victims of a vengeful regime and are left with an inheritance of heartache and responsibility and tragedy for something they had no role in causing?”
“Salt to the Sea” chronicles a nigh-unknown refugee story from World War II in the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German refugee ship fleeing the onslaught of the Soviets in 1945, which constitutes the single greatest maritime disaster in history. Over 9,300 evacuees died, including about 5,000 children. That’s a greater death toll than that of the Lusitania and Titanic combined.
Sepetys uses the voices of four people seeking safety to convey the story; Joanna, Emilia, Florian and Alfred. Each is from a different land (Lithuania, Poland, Germany and East Prussia) with a different connection to war and each must fight to survive as torpedoes strike the ship.
“I even see the same narrative in [today’s] refugees,” Sepetys said. “Where did I come from? Where am I going? Do I have the power to persevere?”
For those familiar with young adult literature about World War II, the antagonist of the story is an unusual one in that of the advancing Soviets. In 1945, Germans realize that things aren’t looking good and the Soviets are encroaching closer and closer. Caught between the two sides are millions of refugees.
“This was a complex time period and I have a character in the novel, the shoe poet, who says: ‘Stalin, Hitler, there is no happy ending here,’” Sepetys said. “Imagine if your choice is Stalin or Hitler. Of course, being a daughter of a Lithuanian refugee and identifying the country of Lithuania, which was occupied by Russia for 50 years, I want people to look at all sides and realize the U.S. was allied with Russia.”
While the general story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is a true one, the stories of the characters are fiction, and that presents some challenges.
“I tell people I write my books, but they’re not my story,” Sepetys said. “History writes the story. I’ll start with a historical thread and then I try to find survivors—people who experienced that time period and can give me their testimony or memoirs—then I’ll wrap fictional characters around that testimony and weave that character.”
The story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is not widely known — even a German historian that Sepetys consulted for the project had not initially heard the story. Part of the reason for that comes from a place of shame, Sepetys said. Firstly, the people who did survive the ship’s wreckage (many with Nazi affiliations) feel it is inappropriate to position themselves as victims considering atrocities they had committed before escaping. Adolf Hitler himself covered up the ship’s sinking, thinking it would impact the morale of German citizens.
Sepetys first heard of the story from her father’s cousin who visited her from Europe and told her she barely missed passage on the Wilhelm Gustloff.
“I was shocked,” Sepetys said. “How did I not know about this?”
Sepetys set off to write about the story because she feels “hidden history” is particularly important. In this case, the hidden history was in the stories of the refugees on the ship, whose stories were only recorded through messages they threw out into the sea as the ship sank.
Sepetys feels that stories such as these, which create empathy for people unknown, are most important to share with young readers.
“Books we read when we’re 14, 15, 16 … they have a profound impression on us and we carry that with us the rest of our lives,” Sepetys said. “I still remember reading ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and how I felt after I read it. Young people have a tremendous sense of justice. They also perceive and interpret stories with an incredible sense of emotional truth. … I want to be in partnership with these young readers because they are the lamplighters of hope and knowledge and inspiration and I want these hidden parts of history to be a part of their collective conscious as they get older.”
By reading the book, younger readers will perhaps garner a glimpse into the lives of those making some of the deadliest refugee passages since World War II. They’ll also learn an important lesson about war. As Sepetys said:
“At the end of the war, it was suffering that emerged the victor.”
What: Ruta Sepetys' Book Event, "Salt to the Sea"
When: Thursday, Feb. 11 at 7:00 p.m.
Where: St. Charles City-County Library, Kisker Road Branch, 1000 Kisker Road, St. Charles, MO 63304
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.