Death in the Baltic
The Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff
By Cathryn J. Prince
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2013 Cathryn Prince
All rights reserved.
"YOU HAVE TO GO ON THIS SHIP"
To the streams of refugees who first glimpsed the ship soaring several stories out of the water, the Wilhelm Gustloffappeared as a harbinger of hope.
The Russian Army was closing in on East Prussia's coastline, and by January 1945 most every German — from the highest ranking officer to the mother trying to protect her child — understood that they had lost the war. The Third Reich was in free fall, on the verge of social, political and economic ruin, but to say as much amounted to treason. Indeed, displaying a defeatist attitude earned junior military officers a swift execution. The teenagers who were drafted to be the face of Nazism in the Hitler Youth began to desert. If they were caught, they were forced to wear cardboard signs that read, "I am a deserter. I was a coward in the face of the enemy," before being thrown over balconies with ropes around their necks. On the eastern front the German Army investigated those soldiers suspected of self-inflicted wounds, trying to gather legal proof of defeatism. The Nazi leadership strained to convince the German people to ignore the shifting forces of war. Adolf Hitler broadcast daily orations rousing his people to fight to the last man. Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels insisted that Germany could still emerge victorious. Despite the threat of retribution from the police, thousands of Germans living in the eastern part of the country — referred to as East Prussia — chose to evacuate their home cities and towns. For days they arrived in a constant stream to the port of Gotenhafen, a major naval base situated in East Prussia on the Bay of Danzig. The province also shared a border with Lithuania to the north and east, and to the west lay the Free City of Danzig, and to the south and east, Poland. These refugees were part of a late-stage effort called Operation Hannibal that was to evacuate them from the advancing Soviet Red Army.
The Baltic seaside city of Gotenhafen (now Gdynia — see appendix with list of cities and current names) had come under Nazi control in 1939 after the Third Reich invaded Poland. The Germans renamed the seaside city after the Goths, an ancient German tribe. Almost immediately the military turned the seaport into a German naval base. They expanded the base in 1940, making it an extension of the Kiel shipyard, located across the Baltic Sea near the Danish border. Until the Soviet onslaught, the Gotenhafen harbor had been largely spared from the hostilities, which made it an attractive place for heavy cruisers and battleships to lay anchor.
Days before the first bedraggled evacuees arrived in Gotenhafen, the German authorities ordered Friedrich Petersen, the Wilhelm Gustloff's 63-year-old captain, to acquire fuel, prepare to take on refugees, and get ready to sail westward to the German port of Kiel. Before the war, the Wilhelm Gustloff had been a 25,000-ton passenger liner that took ordinary Germans on what was often their first vacation. During the war the Gustloff was first used as a hospital ship and then by the German navy as a U-boat training school. On that freezing January in 1945, it joined thousands of ships, large and small, in Operation Hannibal, an eleventh-hour exodus designed to transport primarily wounded military personnel and war materiel, and secondarily refugees from the eastern territories away from the fast approaching Red Army. The Gustloff wasn't the only ship crowding the key naval port, but at 684 feet long it was one of the largest. Along with the Gustloff sat a cohort of smaller liners, fishing boats, dinghies, and trawlers.
With the influx of refugees from across East Prussia, Gotenhafen's population swelled. Hundreds of thousands of people clogged the harbor, trailing their belongings. Everyone vied for boarding passes. Initially, the German authorities issued passes to wounded soldiers and sailors and to Nazi Party officials and their families only. Later, passes were given to women with children and families. The harbor thrummed with fear and anxiety. An air of lawlessness threatened the once orderly city. As a warning to others, German police shot looters and left their bodies lying on the streets or strung from lampposts.
There were people of every age; women wrapped in woolen shawls, men in fur coats, children perched on sleds. Many had been without adequate food and water for weeks. People searched for food, a ladleful of soup or a slice of bread, amid broken buildings and bomb craters. Rats ran rampant over mounds of garbage. People sought shelter in abandoned trolley cars and abandoned buildings. There were no resources to collect the piled-up corpses. Wounded soldiers arrived daily from the front lines. As the refugees abandoned their belongings, the port of Gotenhafen resembled a graveyard of overturned carts, upended sledges, discarded trunks and suitcases.
The thousands of evacuees waited sometimes days on end in these conditions. The Nazi leadership had finally allowed them to leave their homes and try to outrun the Red Army troops, which were, at that moment, surging toward the Baltic Coast.
In this crowd stood a little boy of ten gripping his mother's hand. Dressed in long underwear and ski pants, his hair was yellow. Once, Horst Woit lived in Elbing, East Prussia, a German enclave on a lagoon to the Baltic Sea. The town's iron works manufactured locomotives, U-boats, and armored vehicles for the German military. The Russian Army would soon lay waste to the land.
Woit was sad that he and his mother, Meta, had left their home. Home meant bread slathered with marmalade his mother had saved even during strict wartime rationing, a box of tin soldiers, and a mother who tucked him in nightly. Home comforted the young boy after his father left for the front just a year and half before. While war raged across much of Europe, his home remained largely peaceful. Then the Soviet tanks came too close and war thrust the Woits into a desperate flight for safety.
The Woits set out from their house intending to reach Schwerin, a city northwest of Berlin. That's where his mother's younger brother and his wife and son lived. The family had decided it would be the best and safest place to meet, as it was likely to fall under either British or American control. Once there, Meta would resolve whether she and her son would stay in Germany or emigrate.
Horst, an only child, was born on December 24, 1934, in the city of Insterburg. His grandparents lived in neighboring Gumbinnen and his aunt lived with her family in nearby Königsberg. His parents left Insterburg and moved to Elbing, 37 miles east of Danzig, before his second birthday. Today Horst treasures the few pictures that date from his childhood, collected after the war from relatives and friends. One of them shows Horst as a toddler, standing in front of a school. Later in the war the school was turned into a military hospital. In another black-and-white photo taken on his first day of school, a beaming six-year-old holds his first-day coronet of cookies, a family tradition.
The Woits didn't own a car. Taking the train to visit his grandparents, Heinrich and Johanna Wesse, in Gumbinnen remains one of Horst Woit's fondest childhood memories. He remembers his mother putting him on the train in Elbing with a sign hanging around his neck declaring his destination in case he forgot. After Meta took him to the train station and helped him board, Horst would settle into his seat, preferably next to a window but always under the watchful eye of the conductor. He loved watching the landscape roll past during the trip.
"By the time I got to there I had driven everybody nuts, asking all the time 'Are we there yet?'" Horst said. "My Grandpa used to pick me up at the train station; he was a great guy. I have a picture of him from the First World War on the Russian Front and one of Bismarck on parade."
Horst and his grandparents were close. Adventure filled his weekend visits. On at least two occasions his grandfather rushed the young boy to the hospital for serious scrapes and cuts. He still has the scars.
Then, in late 1944 the train trips stopped and became smaller in his mind, the same way the station in Elbing looked as the train pulled away. Soon "all one ever heard was 'the Russians are coming closer,'" Horst said. Then too, ever so quietly, worry trickled into the house. And just like that the smells and sights of lovely childhoods, of flowers, spring, birds, and bicycles disappeared.
"At the time the Second World War started I was five years old and I did not understand the real meaning; but as time went on I could not go to the school I started at — it became a hospital. Then my father was drafted into the army and my mother had to go to work. I spent a lot of time on my own, browsing the city," Woit said. After Horst's school became a hospital, he went to classes in another building. The adults in his life spoke little about the war. Looking back on that time, Horst said he believes his mother, his teachers, and his grandparents were trying to protect the children.
In January 1945 Leonilla "Nellie" Minkevics Zobs and her parents, Voldemars and Zelma, also chose to flee East Prussia before the Red Army could attack. Years after the war, the Minkevicses eventually moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, nearly half a world away from the town where she grew up. Nellie and her husband, Peter Zobs, became naturalized citizens. Of course, the then 24-year-old remembered the war's outbreak in 1939 and what happened in the weeks before the Soviet tanks penetrated the German lines during the winter of 1944–1945. A few years before she died, Nellie recalled the moment she left her home for the last time to walk to Gotenhafen where a boat waited to whisk her to safety. Together with her father and some family friends they walked to the pier where the vessel awaited. Like the thousands of other refugees boarding the Wilhelm Gustloff, she wore heavy winter boots and a woolen coat over her dress.
"On the roads of the Reich were not only troops hurrying toward new positions but hundreds of thousands of refugees — fleeing the frontier areas as the invaders approached, fleeing the cities as the bombers came over," she said, recounting her story decades after the event for a newspaper interview. "We thought we were so lucky to get on the Wilhelm. We were getting away."
Eighteen-year-old Eva Dorn Rothschild regarded the Wilhelm Gustloff with trepidation.
"It was big. It was easy to hit. I didn't feel safe, and I had a very bad feeling," she said nearly 70 years later, sitting on her plant-filled balcony in Ascona, Switzerland. In the distance, the Alps rise protectively around Lake Maggiore. Art and artifacts fill her apartment, and music from the 1930s wafts softly from inside, a reminder of her childhood when she used to go often to the theater.
Eva was a conscript in the German Navy Women's Auxiliary, and in January 1945 she had already been stationed in seaside Gotenhafen for more than a year. She served in various capacities, including in a spotlight battery and as a lookout for enemy aircraft. Wearing her dark blue uniform and cap, Eva boarded the Gustloff almost a full week before the other refugees. She carried a small suitcase aboard and little else. Reflecting on those years, she said she doesn't remember being scared of the Russians in the way the civilians were; her duties didn't leave much time to think.
Born in 1926, Eva grew up in Haale (Saale), Germany, about 24 miles from Leipzig, one of Europe's principal centers for music and art. She once dreamed of singing opera, not a far-fetched dream since her parents were musically gifted. Her mother, Paulina Aliza Dorn, was a classically trained opera singer; her father, Matius Brantmeyer, played the viola in a chamber ensemble. The pair, though never married, had four children — three boys and a girl. Eva was 11 years younger than her youngest brother. Hers was not an easy childhood. Her parents parted ways when she was quite young, leaving her to live with a mother more interested in shopping and luxuries than attending to Eva. Her mother had lost her job in the theater during the Depression and her father had remarried. Yet, though they were cash-strapped, Eva's mother still bought clothes and cosmetics on credit.
"She was always beautiful and always beautifully dressed. But she was also tempestuous," Eva said of her mother. During the early 1930s, Eva's mother rented out rooms in their flat to help pay off her debts and also sold their big iron stove. It wasn't enough. Paulina and her daughter had little to eat. Eva remembers carrying her tin pail to a soup kitchen to get food. Ironically, the soup kitchen volunteers cooked on the old stove that her mother had sold, so the workers usually gave Eva an extra serving or two.
"I was forced to be a grown-up very early in life," Eva said, sitting tall in her chair, gracefully holding a cup of hot coffee. Her ability to fend for herself shows itself in her elegant carriage. At 86, Eva is steel under grace.
Milda Bendrich boarded the Wilhelm Gustloff with her two-year-old daughter, Inge. Still tethered to the pier, the sides of the former hospital ship and U-boat training vessel rose like a sheer cliff out of the water.
Decades later, in a long, handwritten letter to Inge, Milda Bendrich explained how it was they left their home in Gotenhafen in the middle of winter and joined the mass pilgrimage to the docks. Bendrich made the trip with her daughter, her parents, Rosalie and Karl Felsch, as well as two elderly neighbors. "It was the last week in January 1945 and the coldest winter in two decades. The Soviet armies were about to engulf Gotenhafen and at long last, after weeks of being forbidden, the women, children, and the aged were given permission to leave their homes. Suddenly the Germans — old German nationals like us, Reich Germans who were posted to the front for war duties, Baltic Germans who were invited to come back to the Reich at Hitler's invitation ... as well as refugees from areas now occupied by the Russians — realized that everyone had to flee as best they could," wrote Bendrich. "Previously leaving meant death; a bullet in the brain. Now permission was granted even to relatives of [those in the] German armed forces. People were also allowed to freely discuss the events at hand."
Milda's friend knew a purser who was serving on the Wilhelm Gustloff. Milda hoped this contact would be enough for her to secure much-coveted passes for the ship. As one of the officers in charge of boarding papers and financial matters, the purser handed Bendrich two tickets. Emboldened, Bendrich asked if she might have four additional boarding passes. She wanted two for her parents and two for her elderly neighbors who had moved to Gotenhafen from Warsaw before the war started.
Initially the purser refused Milda's request, repeating his orders that he could only issue tickets to families with young children. As Bendrich's parents and elderly companions were retired and had no young children in their care, they didn't quite meet the Third Reich's requirements for receiving boarding passes. The purser explained that room had to be spared for wounded soldiers, U-boat crews, naval personnel, and the young women serving in the naval auxiliary. Next, women with young children were permitted, then families. Only after them would those traveling alone be considered for a place aboard the large ship. Bendrich pleaded. She simply couldn't abandon her parents and neighbors to the Soviet Army, and, if he denied her appeal, she just might refuse to board. For some reason unbeknown to Milda, her emotional appeal together with a brazen display of self-sacrifice and bravado convinced the young man. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Death in the Baltic by Cathryn J. Prince. Copyright © 2013 Cathryn Prince. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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