Magazine article The New Yorker

Suppressed Atrocities Books

Magazine article The New Yorker

Suppressed Atrocities Books

Article excerpt

Rumors from literary Germany this past year have had it that Gunter Grass, in his mid-seventies and heavy with honors, has produced his best and best-selling novel in at least a decade. The grand old man of German criticism, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, no fan of Grass's later work, is reported to have said that the new book--"Im Krebsgang," in German--moved him to tears. Now it has appeared in English, as "Crabwalk" (translated from the German by Krishna Winston; Harcourt; $25). The book freewheels through a century of history and contains some fiction as well, but its central topic is the sinking of the refugee-laden German ship Wilhelm Gustloff, on January 30, 1945, by a Soviet submarine in the icy Baltic Sea, with the loss of more than nine thousand passengers and crew, making it the worst maritime disaster in history. The total exceeds by several multiples those of the Titanic (fifteen hundred) and the Lusitania (twelve hundred), though it was approached, we learn in "Crabwalk," by the toll of two other German ships, the Cap Arcona and the Goya; seven thousand souls died in each when they were sunk by Allied forces, in the chaotic last weeks of the Second World War in Europe.

As Russian troops invaded from the east, vengeful atrocities inspired panic in German nationals. The Wilhelm Gustloff, though it carried a thousand U-boat sailors on their way to Kiel to man submarines, plus three hundred and seventy members of the naval women's auxiliary, some wounded fighters, and a few anti-aircraft guns, preponderantly held East Prussian noncombatants fleeing the Russian advance. They crowded aboard at Gotenhafen, several thousand on top of the sixty-six hundred the authorities counted, and included, according to "Crabwalk," "close to four and a half thousand infants, children, and youths," of whom "not even a hundred survived." As with the Lusitania sinking, thirty years before, the children--trampled, frozen, and drowned--most horrify the imagination. Grass's fictional survivor, Tulla Pokriefke, relates, "They all skidded off the ship the wrong way round, headfirst. So there they was, floating in them bulky life jackets, their little legs poking up in the air.''

Like W. G. Sebald's sober contemplation--published last year and excerpted in this magazine--of the Allied firebombing of German cities, "Crabwalk" serves the purpose of calling attention to assaults on the reeling Third Reich that neither the victors nor the defeated victims were motivated to publicize. As postwar revelations of the extermination camps stunned a world already well acquainted with Nazi ruthlessness, the Germans were in no position to ask for sympathy; they set about enduring occupation and picking up the rubble with a stoic silence that Sebald found uncanny. In regard to the Wilhelm Gustloff, the Soviet occupiers of what became East Germany did nothing to disturb the silence: the ship's sinking went unmentioned in the official bulletins of the Baltic Red Banner Fleet, and the sub's commander, Aleksandr Marinesko, a hard-drinking carouser from Odessa whose Romanian father spelled his name "Marinescu," was denied the recognition he had expected. Though he sank the twenty-five-thousand-ton Gustloff and another German vessel, the General Von Steuben, on the same trip, slaying more than twelve thousand enemies, he was not declared a Hero of the Soviet Union. Instead, after the war he was relieved of his command, degraded to lieutenant, and finally discharged from the Soviet Navy, an "indifferent and negligent attitude toward his duties" being cited as the reason. Later, after accusing his superior in a supply depot of corruption, Marinesko was declared tainted himself and sentenced to three years in the Gulag Archipelago. Only in the early sixties was he awarded a restoration of rank and a pension.

In the West, the Wilhelm Gustloff was not quite forgotten. One of the survivors, an eighteen-year-old purser's assistant, "began, when the war was over, to collect and write about everything connected with the Gustloff, in good times and bad. …

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