The main characters in Crabwalk include Paul Pokriefke, Konrad “Konny” Pokriefke, and Wolfgang Stremplin.
- Paul Pokriefke is the novel’s narrator. A journalist, he was born during the sinking of the German refugee ship the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 and considers himself a poor father.
- Konrad “Konny” Pokriefke is Paul’s teenage son. He adopts neo-Nazi ideology and eventually murders Wolfgang Stremplin, which earns him seven years in juvenile prison.
- Wolfgang Stremplin is the real name of “David,” the supposedly Jewish young man whom Konny engages in online debate under the name “Wilhelm.”
Paul, a journalist and a man devoted to facts, narrates this story, which is not told in chronological order. Instead, each chapter “crabwalks” through time, scuttling backward and forward to explain how the events of the past continue to impact the present and future. Paul was born in the midst of historical chaos; his pregnant teenage mother went into labor as the Gustloff, on which she was a refugee passenger, was attacked by torpedoes and began sinking. Paul grew up without knowing the identity of his father; his mother provided several possibilities throughout his life. Paul eventually married Gabi and had Konrad, whom they call “Konny.” He is admittedly a poor father and blames this at least in part on his own lack of a fatherly role model; in fact, at one point Paul insists that it would have been better if he had not survived the sinking of the Gustloff and had therefore never become a father himself. Paul struggles to relate to his son, both before and after Konny’s crime.
Konrad “Konny” Pokriefke / “Wilhelm”
Konrad is the son of Paul and Gabi; after their divorce, he lived with his mother and was rarely visited by his father. He eventually moved in with his grandmother Tulla and became obsessed with the historical details involving the assassination of Wilhelm Gustloff. In the early days of the internet, Konny develops a website detailing the tragedy which befell “the martyr.” A frequent visitor to the website, identifying himself as “David,” regularly challenges Konny’s views. Konny, assuming the online identity of “Wilhelm,” vehemently defends the honor of the man for whom the doomed ship was named. David’s rather impromptu visit to Konny is initially cordial; however, when he spits on ground considered sacred by Konny, Konny murders him without emotion or regret. Konny is sentenced as a juvenile and imprisoned for seven years for his crime, but he steadfastly maintains that he acted justly.
Wolfgang Stremplin / “David”
“David’s” true identity is not known until after his murder. During Konny’s trial, Wolfgang’s parents share with the narrator that “David” was not Jewish and only assumed that identity after becoming obsessed with the details of historical Jewish suffering. He had even asked his mother to begin preparing kosher foods and had asked for a menorah for Christmas. David was not emotionally connected to his parents and found a sense of human connection through his online debates with Konny, known to him only as “Wilhelm.”
Ursula “Tulla” Pokriefke
Ursula, known as “Tulla,” is Paul’s mother and Konny’s grandmother. She has always attracted men; after becoming pregnant as a teenager, she boarded the Gustloff as a refugee. Tulla is tenacious, which is perhaps best demonstrated by her resolve to survive while in labor as the Gustloff sank. When she reached land, Tulla was completely alone and found that her situation was even more dire when she was unable to produce breast milk to feed her baby. Still, Tulla was determined to save them both; she located various women to provide nourishment for her infant and eventually found her way into the male-dominated profession of carpentry. The narrator finds his mother a stoic figure, recalling the tears she shed over Stalin’s death as one of her few truly emotional responses in life. Tulla is devoted to her grandson, especially because he demonstrates a great interest in her connection to the Gustloff . Konny, whom she calls “Konradchen,” comes to live with her during his teenage years. Tulla purchases him the computer through which he meets “David” online; she also reveals that she purchased...
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the gun he used to commit murder.
Gabriela “Gabi” Pokriefke
Gabi is Paul’s ex-wife and Konny’s mother. Paul admits that Gabi is far more ambitious than he is, and after only seven years together, she left him. She was initially granted sole custody of their son, but she didn’t protest when Konny left to live with his grandmother. Gabi blames Paul for everything that has “gone wrong” with Konny. Eventually, Konny cuts off all contact with his mother, and she reveals to Paul that she is starting a “new life” with a “sophisticated” and “warmhearted” partner.
Aunt Jenny is a longtime friend of Tulla’s and a trusted confidante of Paul’s. Paul lives with her for a while before he is married and returns to her for advice following Konny’s devastating actions. She tries to foster a relationship between Paul and Tulla, reminding Paul that Tulla has endured many great tragedies in her life and has great strength to share.
Wilhelm Gustloff is a historical figure who appears in the novel. He was assassinated by David Frankfurter, a Jewish man, because he a Swiss leader of the Nazi Party. Although he was not particularly noteworthy while alive, his assassination propelled him to martyrdom because of the circumstances of his death. He was given a tremendous funeral, and many public areas were renamed to honor him. One such honor was the christening of a luxury ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff. The ship bearing his name was attacked by Russian forces and sank after being hit by three torpedoes.
David Frankfurter was the real-life assassin of Wilhelm Gustloff. Konny’s murder of “David” is an act of clear retribution for David Frankfurter’s deeds. Konny shot his victim exactly the same number of times and expressed no remorse for his deeds, modeling his response after David Frankfurter’s actions following the murder of Wilhelm Gustloff. David Frankfurter served a reduced sentence and was released after receiving a pardon for his crime.
Alexsandr Marinesko was the commander of the Russian ship that shot three torpedoes at the Gustloff. Although thousands of women and children, most of them refugees, died because of his actions, Marinesko believed that he deserved to be publicly honored as a Russian war hero. His propensity for alcohol likely led to his dishonorable discharge from the Russian navy. He was, however, posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.