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This is a poignant and beautifully told WWII story following four young people trying to save themselves from the invading Red Army. Based on one of the lesser known maritime disasters of the second world war – Ruta Sepetys opens our eyes to this appalling tragedy.

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Den scores




378 pages

It’s 1945, the depths of winter, and thousands of refugees are scrambling to Wilhelm Gustloff, one of the German evacuation ships based in Gotenhafen, a seaport on the Baltic Sea coast, to save themselves from the advancing Red Army. Based on the true historical events of this maritime escape, ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys is a raw fictional story of four individuals from different countries coming together to make this hazardous and life changing journey.

The story is narrated by each of the four characters. Joana is a nurse from Lithuania, Florian is a Prussian art restorer, Emilia is a young pregnant Polish girl – all three are escaping trauma back in their homelands and rushing to escape the approaching Russian army. The fourth, Alfred is aged 17 from Heidelberg, who is defiantly serving his motherland of Germany. His unwavering commitment to the Führer is revealed through imaginary letters to his girlfriend where he sees himself as the hero. Joana, Florian and Emilia meet and ultimately end up travelling in a group of 15 refugees trying to reach Gotenhafen to secure transit across the Baltic Sea in one of the large cruise ships - in this case the Wilhelm Gustloff. Florian has betrayed his homeland by stealing the key to the Amber Room, a chamber of amber and jewels which the Nazis stole from the Catherine Palace in Pushkin in 1941. (The Amber Room disappeared during the war and to this day no one knows what happened to it.) As Stalin’s army closes in, so the numbers of desperate refugees at the port grows. With this comes the doomed inevitability to the piling of thousands of civilians onto ships only built for some 1,400 passengers.

The narrative between the characters switches every couple of pages meaning the pace is quick and continuous. This works particularly well for those in the Den who listened to the audio book. It also means we see the effects of war through the eyes of young people from different countries who all have their own backstory of heartache and loss, yet are united in their determination to flee.

Many of us in the Den are ashamed to say we didn’t know much about this World War II tragedy and so not only has Sepetys brought an unimaginable tragedy to life, she has given the event a place in history. All of us went on to research this maritime disaster so she has succeeded in her aim that “when the survivors are gone, we must not let the truth disappear with them.’ This is a poignant and beautifully told story about a little known historical tragedy.

Den tip – try the audio version – the four different voices add an emotive and powerful weight to the story.

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