Seeing Through the Wilhelm Gustloff
I am awaiting test results to confirm whether I have COVID and reading Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. It’s a story told by multiple narrators, all of them from different countries, all of them attempting to live through the winter of 1945. Not for a second will I compare my ailments to people who are alive — and trying to stay alive — during the tail end of World War II, but I am also not reading the book in order to gain a little perspective, either. That is, I didn’t choose to read this book so that I could say to myself, “See? Your life isn’t that bad. Things could be so much worse.” Rather, I chose to read the story in an attempt to join my life with those on the pages. Real or imagined, this is why I read: to somehow offer what I have while the words on the pages seep into who I am. It is a communal transaction.
Still, the results, and the effects of the results hover over me as I sit, alone, on my deck and hold the book. Both my daughters are supposed to go away to camp the following week. Jesse planned a vacation — just the two of us — that week, too, including getting tickets to Aaron Sorkin’s production of To Kill A Mockingbird. We’ve all been excitedly looking forward to our adventures, and while no one says it, we all know that if the results come back positive, my getting sick could ruin everything.
Physically, I am miserable. I have never been this tired. I flinch every time I swallow, and pulling on any material other than sweatpants hurts as though weighted sandpaper is being pulled across my limbs. But to know that I must save my kids from myself — that is a hard fact of life, one that I am trying very hard not to make more meaning out of other than I am simply sick and need to make sure Hadley and Harper stay healthy.
So I read about the plight of others during World War II. They are all trying to get on the Wilhelm Gustloff, the ocean liner that will sink in the Baltic Sea after a Soviet attack, killing 9,000 people. Adolf Hitler didn’t build the boat, but the Wilhelm Gustloff had a lot to do with what he did. Because of that I don’t think we hear much about its sinking, unlike the Titanic, whose sinking cost the lives of 1,500 people.
I don’t know any of this, yet, as I await my test result. I do not know if all the characters telling the story will get on the boat, and I don’t know if they do, if they’ll drown. I’m in the middle of the book, trying to ground myself in the story that is already filled with brutality and suffering but also kindness and hope. All of it is beyond measure, beyond imagination.
There is a character called “the shoe poet” because he is a cobbler, and he sees his work as poetry. He can tell all sorts of things about people by their shoes and how they walk. “The shoe poet” is what he goes by throughout the book until the group arrives in Gotenhafen, where they hope to get on the Wilhelm Gustloff. In a startling four paragraphs — I’m not even sure it’s 150 words — the group bears witness to death and terror and pain beyond comprehension, and it is in the scene that the shoe poet becomes Poet (notes the capitol “P”). In his first act, he looks around.
There is a boy clinging to his leg. There is a woman who will give birth any minute. A German soldier is in the group, and even he is terrified. This is certainly a fight or flight situation, but everyone knows both these options end in death, and so it is the Poet who steps up. It is the Poet who does not look away. He says the group must stay together, but if that can’t happen — and here he uses his walking stick to point to a large clock on a building — he tells them to meet under the clock.
It is hard not to think of Amanda Gorman delivering The Hill We Climb, or the community poems Kwame Alexander writes when I read that scene. But I also think of Taylor Swift, and her ability to hold Hadley still and send her into deep contemplation with her words and her voice. It is U2 that does it for Jesse, and Harry Styles for Harper. It’s also the bus driver who waves and waits and makes the kids laugh (and sometimes sing) when he takes them to school. Or the nurse who patiently walked me through the steps to giving myself a COVID test because it is still too dangerous for her to help me.
It is the shoe salesman who helped Hadley and I one summer afternoon choose the right shoes for running, who could tell a thing or two about us by the way we walked and ran and maybe even spoke.
It is the Poet who looks. It is the Poet who attends.
It is the Poet who helps us with the time.
Try It: Wilhelm Gustloff
This week, write a poem that helps us with the time, as the shoe poet did with the Wilhelm Gustloff. Give us something to look at.
Browse writing prompts
I have been a fan of Callie Feyen’s writing for quite some time but I finished this book in almost one sitting. If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.