“Inspired by the worst disaster in maritime history, Ruta Sepetys brilliantly tells a shocking, illuminating and ultimately life affirming story from World War 2.” – Salt to the Sea back cover.
I have just finished reading an amazing historical fiction book by Ruta Sepetys called ‘Salt to the Sea’, and felt compelled to write about it. This book churned my mind with vivid imagery, at times horrendous, shocking, but real, so very real. It made me think about the sacrifices of my ancestors, the heart ache and drudgery they bared, the feat they accomplished, to survive the war, and in time give me life.
Latvia, like the other Baltic countries was squashed by the Germans and then by the Russians during the second world war. My Grandma and her son, my future Dad, left their home in Riga, leaving loved ones behind, and walked south into Germany, living in Munich for 5 years. Eventually they boarded a ship to Australia and settled here as new migrants in early 1950. My dear Grandmother only lived 2 years in our lucky country, succumbing to cancer, a mysterious illness at the time, she was dead by 52, leaving her only son at the age of 21, orphaned. Of my Grandma’s possessions, I only have a little carved wooden box, and her passport, with her steely solid picture, sullen faced, war torn and serious. Imagining my Oma bringing this box with her all the way from Latvia is amazing. I have it above my bookshelf and often look at it thinking of the sacrifices she made, for her son, and eventually for me. Even though I never met her, I am indebted to her will to survive. Paldies Oma.
Salt to the Sea was a graphic read, about the struggles of many Europeans and their plight to survive. Thousands of refugees are scampering across their ruined countries, aiming to get to the harbour to board the Wilhelm Gustloff. A ship built to support 1500, nearly 10’000 civilians, mothers, children, wounded soldiers and German officials were crammed onto the doomed ship. Little is known historically about this ship, far from the notoriety of the Titanic, the Gustloff had a far graver ending. Close to 9’500 people perished in the icy sea of the Baltic when it was sunk by Russian torpedoes hours after it set sail. Awful. But so real. And why don’t we know about it? So many atrocities occurred in the war, and this is just another one of them, just another horrific giant catastrophe.
Septys made me emotional, to the point of crying, during the course of reading. I carry the emotional burden of my ancestors on my shoulders, I can feel their sadness, defeat, but also their strength and courage deep within my Latvian blood. I cried for their challenges, for the loss, for the fear, for the craziness and madness that is warm, but lucky for me and for them, they made it out of Europe alive. I am an emotional woman at the best of times, reading this book enabled me to relive the experiences through the eyes of the characters richly portrayed and described in exquisite detail.
As a descendant of all this war displacement, I wonder how my life could have been so very different, or how I came to exist at all? A different choice, a change of mind, a varied action could have had completely varied consequences, but such is life. It is only the benefit of hindsight when we can look back and see clearly where life changing decisions were made. And how I am so very grateful to the choices made by my loved ones, paldies Oma.
If you have an interest in history and your ancestors I would highly recommend reading Salt to the Sea. Sepetys is a wonderful author and I plan to read all her other books. It was wonderful to read a book by a Latvian author, a country so rich in traditions and customs and one I continue to love learning about.
Can you recommend any other Latvian authors?
With love and a warm heart for my Oma Lisa,