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Letters About Literature National Winners 2017

National Winner, Level 2: Maria Cheriyan

Dear Ms. Sepetys,

Everyone knows the story of the RMS Titanic, whether they live in America, Germany, Argentina or China. Countless movies and documentaries have been made, and I’ve read at least five historical fiction novels about the tragedy. But why was the Titanic remembered when the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff killed over 8,000 more people, five thousand of them children? Salt to the Sea opened my eyes to the layers of history, and connected me to the “forgotten story” of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff.

Three of your main characters were refugees from Eastern Europe, trapped between Germany and Russia during World War II. Although fictional, your characters represented real people whose voices had been drowned. While they fled for their lives, I witnessed their love, their hate, their strengths, their flaws. As I continued reading, I wondered why I hadn’t heard more about the conflict between Russia and Germany, and the stories of survivors. I reasoned that I didn’t know a lot about World War II in general. Later, I started to get a sinking feeling in my stomach; logically, why would the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff be told? The deaths of women and children would not make a pleasant news article; Germany in the late 1940s would do its best to quiet rumors of tragedy so they wouldn’t rip apart the already suffering country.

When your characters boarded the ill-fated Wilhelm Gustloff, you showed me another reason why I did not learn about this event in any of my history classes. With your vivid descriptions of the bedraggled crowd clamoring to board a ship, it was painfully apparent that no one there had money, connections or fame. They were seemingly of no consequence to the world, like a drop of water in the ocean. Their deaths did not attract attention in the western world, unlike those who had perished in the tragedy of the Titanic. I realized that the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff was only one of the hidden and marginalized stories of the poor and disenfranchised in the world.

After finishing Salt to the Sea, I cried over the deaths of Emilia and Alfred, but I was more ravaged by my thoughts. So many stories lost and buried beneath the layers of politics, prejudice and ignorance. . . If this happened many times in the past, it would happen again. Maybe years from now, the stories of refugees in the Middle East would be lost in the wake of widely-broadcasted victory and subdued defeat. The innocent people who neither won nor lost the war would be forgotten, brushed away by the winds of history like tiny grains of sand. However, as I thought more and more, it was hard to believe that an event similar to the shipwreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff could go unnoticed or unremembered in today’s hyper-connected society.

The silencing of this narrative was not entirely the government’s fault, nor was it the fault of the victors who wrote the world’s story. It was the fault of my jaded, desensitized mind, which had previously scrolled and skimmed through all the articles concerning refugees, conflict and death, but had not bothered to listen to the stories within them. This book made me reconsider how I engage with such stories. I live in Michigan, the state most populated by Syrian refugees. Because of your book, I can no longer sit still and do nothing to help the people who have lost everything to come here. I can no longer ignore the fact that the world moves quickly and in the blink of an eye, the stories of these refugees who have so much to say will be gone, forever untold—unless I act. Your book has inspired me to volunteer with a refugee resettlement agency, and do my part to remember and write the unwritten stories of the people who have taken refuge in my state.

Ms. Sepetys, through Salt to the Sea, you created a personal link between me and children who would have lived close to a century ago. You made new memories for the faceless, nameless and voiceless victims of the Wilhelm Gustloff’s shipwreck. I was able to connect with them and, by extension, understand their plight. You wrote about four teenage children during World War II. By doing this, you immortalized nine thousand people and recreated the stories that had been silenced by history. Thank you for showing me that even the biggest, most catastrophic events can be intentionally hidden, and that even one person can retell the stories of many.

Maria Cheriyan