I recently took a trip back through history, stumbling onto a tragedy that numbs me in its magnitude of death and misery. Say, Titanic, Bismark, USS Arizona or Lusitania and I’d bet that most people would recognize these famous ship names, and the tragic loss of life associated with them. But have you ever heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff? I hadn’t… not until a quiet Tuesday evening last month.
I was researching material for an upcoming article on the sinking of the Canadian school ship, Concordia, when I stumbled across a heart wrenching story, and with it, pictures. I came across an amazing site (DeepImage Underwater Shipwreck Exploration) that specializes in underwater wreck photography. I began clicking on pictures and the next thing I know, I’m looking at the remains of a doomed liner — a ship with a name I’d never heard of… lying silently 150 feet below the surface of the southern Baltic Sea.
I kept reading, and her story began to unfold.
The Death of The Wilhelm Gustloff
On the frigid night of January 31, 1945, the Wilhelm Gustloff — designed to hold a maximum of 1,880 passengers and crew – was carrying an astounding 10,000 German refugees, naval personnel and wounded soldiers. They were crammed into every available space: cabins, halls, decks. Astoundingly, four thousand of the passengers aboard were infants, children and youth on their way to the promise of a safer land and away from the Soviet Red Army onslaught. As they hurried up the docks of the Oxhöft Pier in Gotenhafen (Gdynia), the frigid 0°F (18°C) weather hastened them on while icebreakers carved a path out into the Baltic Sea.
They were on their way for Kiel, on mainland Germany. They were headed for safety.
The Soviet U-boat S-13 would change all that.
At 9:16 pm, three torpedoes from the Soviet U-boat slammed into the Gustloff’s side, sending frantic passengers struggling for the top decks. Watertight doors had trapped most of the crew in their compartments, leaving passengers without any clear instructions or guidance. With the deafening explosions, the main electrical generators failed, plunging the ship into blackness. Even when many reached topside, they found the lifeboat davits frozen in their shackles. As the liner listed, many trapped below shot themselves or their families to spare them from drowning according to the detailed description of the ship’s foundering found on the WilhelmGustloff.com website. Forty-five minutes from the torpedo explosions, the Gustloff slipped below the surface, taking an estimated 9,400 people with her.
The number numbs me.
And surprises me.
Why have I never heard about this? There are times when I’m in a building or church and discover that its occupancy is something near 1,500. At times like that, I’ll look around and think, “So, this is around the amount of people who died on the Titanic.” Somehow I need to visualize the number. But 9,400 dead? From one ship? I can’t even imagine the horrors that the passengers must have faced in a tilting, sinking liner, in total darkness, clogged stairways, frightened children… it’s enough to make me cry… And I did. I let the horror of their predicament wash over me, and I looked to Heaven for answers and some light and understanding, but sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes the only thing you can do is weep at the pain, or perhaps cry with someone else who feels the edge of misery.
Marcus Koga, a Canadian filmmaker, has recently finished a movie documenting the story of one of the survivors of the Gustloff’s sinking. Entitled, Sinking The Gustloff, the film will undoubtedly bring this tragedy into the public eye. You can read more about it by clicking here.
I’m glad that there are maritime safety laws and rules in place, and immense tragedies at sea are not as commonplace as they once were.
But on that cold night, sixty years ago, it was real. All too real.
A roman citizen, documented in a book called Romans, made this statement to the followers of a Jewish man from Nazareth: “Weep with those who weep.“
That may not seem like much,
that’s all you can do.
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– Underwater Photos of the Wilhelm Gustloff from DeepImage Underwater Shipwreck Exploration’s website: click here
– A very comprehensive site on the ship’s history: WilhelmGustloff.com
– Movie Site: http://sinkingthegustloff.com/