‘Salt to the sea’ is Ruta Sepetys’ third book which is built on true historical events, in the backdrop of World War II, describing the unfortunate destination of the German ship, named Wilhelm Gustloff which sank on a cold winter morning of January 1945, taking the life of 9000 refugees who were on board (Quealy-Gainer, 2016). Even though Prussia was initially an of the German Empire, and become a part of Nazi Germany later on, the ethnic Prussians felt culturally dissociated from Germany, and refused to collaborate with the Nazi regime. The plot of the book unfolds into characters whose fates are sealed with a death sentence due to their identity, as it separated them from the identity of the Nazi rulers (Gale, 2019). For these reasons, therefore, this analytical essay focuses on the main theme of agency, willpower and fate which is accentuated in this particular setting based on the journey of people on Gustloff’s during World War II.
The setting of the novel is in German East Prussia in January 1945, a few months before the end of the World War II, when thousands of refugees from Prussia try to escape the war land in search of freedom, through the seas. They move towards the ship sailing through the ultimate storms which eventually cots their lives. It highlights the theme of “agency, willpower and fate” through all the main characters of in the book.
The storyline of the book depicts, that under the circumstances of World War II, the future of all Europeans was tied up to their identities based on their race, ethnicity, religion as well as their sexuality. Most of them were considered as “unworthy of life,” by the Nazi leaders. These groups were mishandled, imprisoned, and, also given death sentences for the crimes which they did not commit. Most of the people in the condemned category were Jewish, but also included a few Romans, disabled people, transgenders of homosexual people, and the those who were of Polish ethnicity (Hughes, 2016). Their futures, choices were forced by the Nazi government and their armed forces. They were deprived of exercising free-will or willpower as well as deprived them of various agencies. All the main characters in the novelhave succeeded to endure through countless mayhems. The power of both hope and determination was perfectly reflected in their perseverance of freedom (Rattansi, 2020). Even in the face of many challenges, the theme of will and determination to live has shown to be stronger than the will to surrender to the cruel wished of the government.
In the beginning of the narrative, Joana stated to Emilia, “Our papers determined our fate”, “no papers, no future”, which demonstrated the deep-rooted fear sealing their fates by the Nazi’s racist governance (Hughes, 2016). Nevertheless, the narration focuses on the desire and drive, which inspires an individual to fight for freedom and survival to be more prevailing in the face of state-endorsed death sentence. Reminiscing the struggles Emilia faced due to her identity, she recalled: “The Nazis claimed I didn’t need an education” and “The Nazis said the people of Poland would become serfs to the Germans.” Even though “they had burned our books in the Polish language. I had learned to read very young. They could never take that away from me.” This brought a sense of hopelessness in Emilia's life by crippling the sense of agency, which she resists. Even with full control of the government over her life, it was her motivation to continue to take control of her life in her hands and to write her fate was more solid than the Nazi regime which caged her in their cruel and unjust system. As the story unfolds, it is found that Emelia is successful in escaping Poland with the help from her father and with the help of her newfound friends and own willpower, she escapes successfully (Quealy-Gainer, 2016).
The portrayal of the character Emelia is as a woman who is superstitious and one who suffers the death of her family by the Nazi military and was also the victim of rape done by soviet soldiers causing her pregnancy. She finds it difficult to continue to live in those circumstances. Eventually, the readers discover that in the end, she manages to save herself and the baby, to murder a soldier of the army, and revealed the actuality about her identity as a Polish woman, before succumbing to death in the great Baltic Sea. This incidence justifies the theme that Emelia was able to determine her fate, instead of surrendering to the choices made by the Nazi government.
The Nazi government was racist and predestined the fate of all the people based on their identities. The best example can be seen in the character portrayed by Emilia, who was considered as “subhuman” by the Nazis and was tortured and maltreated for being of Polish ethnicity. On the contrary, Joana, who is a Lithuanian, because of which he was deported to Germany as his mother was also a German. In the interim, rest of the Prussian population, for instance, Florian had to fight in the Wehrmacht, in the military formed by Nazi Germany. for being able to survive. On the other hand, Alfred, who is a German as per the Nazis belonged to a “master race” (Hughes, 2016).
Enduring World War II was a relentless courageous effort, as the story unfolds the struggles of many characters for their survival, and their fight for freedom, cost most of them a heavy price. Though the novel depicts exhibition of agency and free will of the characters up to a certain extent, it also makes us aware about the strict ideologies of the Nazi government who exerts the power of deciding the fates of these people based on the ethnicity, race, original, cultural, political and religious beliefs as well based on their physical disability (Piper, 2018). These included all of the people mentioned in Alfred’s song,
“Czechoslovaks, Greeks, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Jews, Mentally ill, Negroes, Poles, Prostitutes, Russians, Serbs, Socialists, Spanish Republicans, Trade Unionists, Ukrainians and Yugoslavs."
Thus, the characters had begun to struggle for an escape out of the war land of East Prussia. The following quote relates to the theme highlighted in the analysis:
“The Nazis claimed I didn’t need an education. Polish schools were closed. Our desks and equipment were taken to Germany. Would a German girl open my desk and find my treasures inside?
The Nazis said the people of Poland would become serfs to the Germans. They thought we only needed to count and write our name. My father was part of the Lwów School of Mathematics. He would never agree with children not being taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. They had burned our books in the Polish language. But I had learned to read very young. They could never take that away from me.”
Nazi Germany believed in usurping the land and they are resourced through violence which was justified as they considered themselves as a part of Aryan, "master race".
Ruta Sepetys, the author of ‘salt to the sea’ thwarts the impression of the protagonist and the antagonist, to demonstrate the dark side of the World War II, where nothing is in black and white (Packard, 2017). Where many people try to escape the brutal forces and fight for their freedom, Simultaneously, Alfred, serves as an adversary in the story by adopting the racist ideology of Nazi Germany. Most vital illustration of foreshadowing can be observed when the ship, Wilhelm Gustloff is condemned to meet a catastrophic fate. Alfred mentions that the ship is not suited for storms or rough seas and hasn't sailed in four years. He also exposes that ten lifeboats are missing and the ship was well boarded. This predicts the heart-rending fortune of the many passengers on Gustloff as they were unable to reach to safety and sunk with the ship. However, few of the characters who stay alive and achieve their freedom, demonstrated the heroic spirit in each one of them. The following quote from Alfred, is a classic representation of his gut and valour.
“I'm relieved you are not here to see this. Your sugared heart could not bear the treacherous circumstances here in the port of Gotenhafen. At this very moment, I am guarding dangerous explosives. I am serving Germany well. Only seventeen, yet carrying more valour than those twice my years. There is talk of an honour ceremony but I’m too busy fighting for the Führer to accept honours. Honours are for the dead, I’ve told them. We must fight while we are alive!Yes, Hannelore, I shall prove to all of Germany. There is indeed a hero inside of me.”
It can be concluded that, the theme of “agency, willpower and fate” is uniquely interwoven and stands out more strikingly in the given setting of the novel than any other setting. At the end, it is learned that the power of both hope and determination to persevere in the face of challenges is stronger than the will to surrender and to give up. The novel provides a lesson of hope, that an individual has the power to decide its future and shape its destiny, which is beautifully described in the quote, “Fear is a hunter. But brave warriors, we brush away fear with a flick of the wrist. We laugh in the face of fear, kick it like a stone across the street. Yes, Hannelore, I compose these letters in my mind first, as I cannot abandon my men as often as I think of you.”
Gale, Cengage. A Study Guide for Ruta Sepetys's" Salt to the Sea". Gale, Cengage Learning, 2019.
Hughes, Eril. "Salt to the Sea." Oklahoma English Journal (2016).
Packard, Abigail. "Salt to the Sea." Children's Book and Media Review 38.12 (2017): 49.
Piper, Nicola. Racism, nationalism and citizenship: Ethnic minorities in Britain and Germany. Routledge, 2018.
Quealy-Gainer, Kate. "Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 69.6 (2016): 326-326.
Rattansi, Ali. Racism: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press, 2020.
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