For years, Paul Pokriefke has resisted the urging of his mother, Tulla, to write down the fateful story of the Wilhelm Gustloff, an oceanliner whose sinking in the Baltic by a Soviet submarine near the end of World War II almost took Tulla’s life. As a journalist, Paul is well qualified for such a writing task. He overcomes his reluctance to delve into the past only when he finds right-wing propaganda on the Web that exploits the maritime disaster.
Pushed along by the old man, an unnamed former citizen of Danzig (now Gdask, Poland) with a keen interest in the story, Paul reluctantly begins to research the history of the ship, which was named after Wilhelm Gustloff, a German Nazi Party functionary who, in 1936, had been assassinated by the Jewish student David Frankfurter in Switzerland. Gustloff had become a martyr for the Nazi cause.
Although Tulla barely survived the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff and even gave birth to Paul during the perilous rescue operation, she still has fond memories of the ship that before World War II was used by the Nazis for recreational purposes to promote their concept of a classless society. Paul, however, comes across a debate on the Web in which a person named Wilhelm (as in Gustloff) and one named David (as in Frankfurter) engage in virtual reincarnations of the two historical characters.
Paul writes a detailed report about the Wilhelm Gustloffand its prewar voyages, but he is concerned about the exploitation of the ship’s fate by right-leaning circles. He is even more shocked when he discovers that his son, Konrad, uses the pseudonym Wilhelm on his Web site.
In jumping from the past to the present, Paul writes that when World War II broke out in 1939, the Wilhelm Gustloff was first converted into a hospital ship and then into floating barracks for sailors in training in a harbor near Danzig. Paul then reports on two meetings among the survivors of the Wilhelm Gustloff disaster; at the second of these meetings, which took place after the reunification of Germany, Tulla extended her efforts to disseminate the legend of the ship by enlisting the services of her grandson, Konrad, who was eager to help.
By January, 1945, Paul writes that the demise of the Third Reich is imminent. The Wilhelm Gustloff sails westward, carrying about ten thousand passengers, mostly German refugees from East Prussia and Danzig fleeing from the advancing Soviet Red Army. Among...
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