A short historical fiction about the civilian evacuation in 1945 from the port of Gotenhafen.
Near the end of World War II, a pair of siblings attempts to seek out a new start following the arrest of their parents.
Sometimes, Matthias thinks this is all his fault. No matter how accidental that gesture was, on that hot summer day, he cannot shake the feeling that this is all because of him.
Of course, when he tells his sister, Lena would muster a weak laugh and say, “How can a bottle of spilled salt lead to all this?”
“Ma says it’s bad luck.”
“Ma said a lot of things.” But because he is young, he does not notice the difference in their tenses.
It had been their last bottle too.
“It’s not your fault, Matthias,” she is saying now, as they huddle together in their too-big coats; not nearly enough protection against the cold. “Really, it isn’t. It’s that boy Ma and Pa brought home.”
“But,” he protests, in that higher pitched child’s voice of his, “I’m also a boy.”
“Well, you’re not the same.”
Lena’s face morphs into something that Matthias doesn’t like; an emotion he couldn’t put his hand on yet.
“Will you stop?” she snaps, and he never asks again.
* * *
The next day, they are walking when he hears a sound. It starts low, like the buzzing of a bee, but is getting louder.
His sister’s eyes widens when she sees the thing start to take shape in the sky. Matthias does not understand what it means.
Around them, low voices start to rise into shouts, and then people are running, pushing each other. Matthias sees a little girl falling down. Before she can get up, a man tramples over her.
She does not get up.
“Lena—!” Matthias begins to shout, but his sister picks him up and hauls him forward.
“Do you remember that game?” she says between panting breaths as they run. “The one we used to play? I was the wolf and you’d be the sheep?”
Fearfully, Matthias nods. It does not feel like a game to him.
“It’s the same thing here. So run, okay? As fast as you can.”
He does not understand Lena. It is happening more and more often.
But still, he runs.
“With a ticket to the Gustloff, half your soul’s already saved,” the man gloats, standing on the wooden wagon and waving his dirty little paper pass around. “Saved, you hear me? You—” A long string of expletives escapes his lips as he is pulled down from the wagon by an angry-looking girl.
It takes Matthias a few moments to realize that the angry-looking girl is his sister.
“Shut it,” Lena hisses, and before Matthias could also register the uncharacteristically nasty expression on her face, Lena starts to walk to him, her lips forming a tight smile.
“Come on,” she says, ushering him forward into the direction of the crowded docks ahead. “Let’s go. We need to register and get our passes. Do you still have your papers?”
Matthias nods. Of course he does. If he doesn’t, they would never be able to get their boarding passes.
And without their boarding passes, they would never leave Germany, something which he has heard a few of the adults they were travelling with talk about. He doesn’t understand, being a child as young as he is, what truly is going on. All he knows is that bad men showed up at their house and took his Ma and Pa away, and a boy they brought home from who knew where.
Matthias, this is Elijah.
Be nice to him, now.
He remembers asking if he was going to see Eli’s Ma and Pa too. But the moment he mentioned it, his mother had pulled him away roughly and told him to never speak of Eli’s parents ever again.
With a pang, Matthias realizes the parallel between his Ma and Lena’s recent behaviour.
Again, he wonders what is going on.
All he wants to do is to go home.
“You should all line up for the registration,” Lena calls back over her shoulder to the gaggle of ragged-looking men and women that were still resting around the wagon. “Don’t be late for it.” Though her tone is a little too cold for Matthias’s liking, he notices the underlying worry in her voice.
Lena has never been good at being mean. Even Eli had said so, an eternity ago.
* * *
It feels like they have been standing in line for hours. It does not help that the line itself seems to stretch on forever, until even off the docks.
“How long do we have to wait?” Matthias whines, not for the first time. He is hungry and thirsty, and all he and Lena have between the two of them is a cold, dusty sausage that they had found in the pocket of a dead body they found by the roads, a dead body he really does not want to think about right now.
“As long as we need to,” Lena replies curtly without looking down. Her eyes are dead set on the men handing out the passes, dressed in identical uniforms.
Finally, after what felt like weeks to Matthias, they were standing in front of the men.
“Papers,” one of them orders simply, holding out a hand. Matthias stares at the cigarette between his fingers. He has seen Lena smoking one, once.
Swiftly, his sister hands their papers over, as if she has practiced the motion a thousand times.
The officer scans them over with a bored expression. Matthias can almost feel his sister stiffen as his gaze lingers a little too long on her: a young girl, with no one but her kid brother.
Lena lets out an audible breath as she rushes him away.
* * *
This is it, Matthias thinks. This is the end of our journey.
The Gustloff is leaving Gotenhafen today.
He turns to the side. He expects Lena to be whooping and cheering, celebrating the departure they had been vying for—and finally, there they are, waiting in line yet again, waiting to leave and start over.
To start their new life.
But the line of Lena’s mouth is grim.
“What’s wrong?” Matthias asks. The innocence in his voice almost makes her double over.
“Nothing,” says Lena with another one of her tight smiles. “Nothing at all. Come on, Matthias.”
“What’s wrong, Lena? I can tell you’re thinking about something.”
“I said it’s nothing.”
“But—” Matthias starts, then stops, remembering the last time he tried to press her too much. Noticing this, Lena cocks her head in curiosity, before breaking out into a grin that confuses him.
“Race you to the docks!” she shouts, before dropping his hand and taking off at full speed.
Matthias watches, a little dismayed.
She got an unfair start.
And so, he runs, past women and children and men; some elderly citizens accompanied by their grim-looking relatives; a young woman in a shouting match with one of the men in uniform, and plenty of others that all just are blurs to him.
By the time he reaches the platform, he is panting and sweating. Matthias knows there is no way he won, but still, he says, “Did I win?”
He looks up to empty air, and an old woman giving him a strange look.
“L-Lena?” Matthias frowns, turning his head left and right.
There is no sign of his older sister.
“Lena? Lena! Le—”
A hand roughly shoves him forward, and Matthias lands on his knees. He stays down, too stunned to cry.
That same hand then grabs him and pulls him up, before shoving him forward again, albeit a little more gently.
“You can’t just—” he begins, mortified, but that same hand turns him around before he could even fully face its owner and urges him forward.
“I said move,” the old woman barks.
So Matthias moves.
He tries to find Lena again when he gets on the boat. But everywhere are people and everywhere is crowded, and he cannot find her. He tries to shout over the noise and the conversations in half a dozen different languages, but he can’t.
He is just a lost boy.
But every time he looks up, the old woman is there. She is always there, right behind him.
“Why are you following me?” he asks at some point. After all, she is the same person who pushed him on the platform.
“I’ve got nothing else good to do,” she answers nonchalantly.
He doesn’t believe her, but he doesn’t know what else to ask, so he continues on through the boat, all the way around and around, only stopping when an officer tells him he can go no further.
“Sorry, kid. That’s the medical wing.”
“But my sister, Lena, she’s—”
“Nope. Off you go.”
So he searches and searches.
She is never there.
Matthias runs in circles until his head spins. He yells for her until his voice is hoarse, until the old woman has to pull him back and physically restrain him to keep him from trying to find her until he passes out.
“Let me go! Let me go let me go let me—”
“Shush! Stop making such a racket! You can find her when we arrive!”
Right, he thinks, a little dizzily. I can find her when we arrive.
It will all be okay, because he will see Lena soon anyway. She can’t have forgotten about him, can she? There is no way. Lena is his sister. Lena has always been there for him. She had promised.
“Okay,” he says.
It will all be okay.
In January, 1945, as Soviet forces advanced on Germany’s eastern front, masses of civilians rushed to the port of Gotenhafen in what is now Gdynia, Poland to board evacuation ships. One of these ships was the Wilhelm Gustloff, named after the former leader of the Swiss Nazi Party.
The Gustloff was only designed to carry around 1,500 passengers, but there were as many as 10,000 passengers on board the ship when it was sunk by the Soviet submarine S-13, under Captain Alexander Marinesko. Out of all these, an estimated 9,000 people were killed, making the sinking of the Gustloff the greatest maritime disaster in history.
And yet, many do not know about it, not nearly as much as they do about the famed Titanic.
Do not let these people be forgotten.
Green, David B. “1936: A Jewish Medical Student Murders a Swiss Nazi Leader.” Haaretz, 4 Feb. 2016, http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1936-a-medical-student-murders-a-swiss-nazi-1.5399367. Accessed 13 Sept. 2021.
Nix, Elizabeth. “5 Maritime Disasters You Might Not Know About.” HISTORY, 5 Nov. 2013, http://www.history.com/news/5-maritime-disasters-you-might-not-know-about. Accessed 13 Sept. 2021.
Uenuma, Francine. “The Deadliest Disaster at Sea Killed Thousands, yet Its Story Is Little-Known. Why?” Smithsonian Magazine, 29 Jan. 2020, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/deadliest-disaster-sea-happened-75-years-ago-yet-its-barely-known-why-180974077/. Accessed 13 Sept. 2021.