During World War II, the fate of many Europeans was determined by their race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and health. The Nazi party labeled many groups as “unworthy of life,” and these groups were rounded up, imprisoned, and, in many cases, killed. The majority of these people were Jewish, but other groups—including Romani people, people with disabilities, homosexuals, and the ethnically Polish—were also singled out for imprisonment or extermination. The government and the military tried to control these people’s futures, systematically attempting to crush their willpower and deprive them of agency. By labeling certain groups as undesirable and marking them for death, the government and military tried to control the futures of its citizens, by ensuring they would not have one at all. In Nazi Germany, being in possession of the “wrong” identity became a death sentence. The characters in Salt to the Sea have managed to survive many atrocities. Through their perseverance, they demonstrate the power of the will and of hope. Even in the face of a government that wants people like them dead—or in the face of curses that they believe are following them across the European continent—the protagonists of the novel demonstrate that the will and determination to live can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
At the novel’s start, the Nazi’s racialized predetermination of people’s fates has been internalized by many of the characters. Joana explicitly states at one point “Our papers determined our fate.” Referring to Emilia, who is Polish and without papers, she continues: “No papers, no future.” However, an individual’s will to live proves to be more powerful than a state-sanctioned death sentence. Reflecting on the hardships she has faced because of her identity, Emilia recalls: “The Nazis claimed I didn’t need an education” and “The Nazis said the people of Poland would become serfs to the Germans.” However, even though “they had burned our books in the Polish language […] I had learned to read very young. They could never take that away from me.” The Nazis want to crush Emilia’s life by crushing her sense of agency and her will to live, but Emilia resists. Even though the government ostensibly has control over her life, her will to survive and exercise control over her own destiny is stronger than the Nazi regime that has tried to entrap her. With her father’s help, she escapes Poland. By her own force of will, she escapes her next home of Nemmersdorf. With the help of her newfound friends, and the memories of her culture and family, she manages to survive years past the point that the Nazis first tried to take her life.
Across Europe and beyond, the fates of individuals during the war were determined by specific markers of their identity—a fact that, for many who saw themselves as doomed, bred a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Emilia, who has endured the death of her family at the hands of Nazis as well as rape and a subsequent pregnancy at the hands of Soviet soldiers, finds it difficult to continue living her life. She is superstitious, and sees signs everywhere that she assumes point to her own death. Her future, to her, seems predetermined; she believes that, just as her own mother died in childbirth, she too will die giving birth to her daughter. As a young girl, Emilia took part in a festival in which girls launch flower wreaths carrying lit candles down a river. Emilia relates, “Legend said that the boy who retrieved your wreath downstream was the boy you would marry.” Unfortunately, Emilia’s wreath caught fire and then sank, “quietly sealing [her] fate,” she believes. However, over the course of the novel Emilia begins to believe in a brighter future, and when she delivers her baby and survives, she thinks, “maybe the storm was finally behind me.” Emilia eventually does die, but only after she has proven every one of her prophecies wrong: she did not die in childbirth, and she did not die with the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Instead, she manages to save her child, kill a Nazi soldier, and tell the truth about her Polish heritage before eventually freezing to death on a raft in the Baltic Sea. Unlike the death she had predicted for herself —sinking passively like her wreath many years before—Emilia dies as an active participant in determining her own fate.
Like Emilia, other characters similarly believe they have some degree of free will, but worry that their lives are marked by a curse which causes them continual bad luck and hardship. Florian, who has spent many months working on restoring and hiding the stolen Amber Room, worries that, because he stole the amber swan and carries it with him, he is carrying a curse. Florian wonders if the Amber Room is responsible for the string of tragedies and bad luck he has experienced in the last few years (with the murder of his father, his shrapnel injury, and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff). Eventually, however, Florian breaks free from what he perceives to be his curse. He realizes that the swan trapped him an endless loop of revenge, but by letting go of his anger, he can move on with his life.
Surviving during World War II requires constant effort. Although the fates of the protagonists of Salt to the Sea have some agency and free will, they are nonetheless aware that the Nazi government has strict ideas about who deserves to live and who deserves to die. Therefore, those condemned to die because of who they are—because of their nationality, or because of a disability—know they are living on borrowed time. If they want to make it out of East Prussia alive, they must somehow navigate forces more powerful than they are—superstitions, curses, and fascist soldiers—to take charge of their own destinies.
Agency, Willpower, and Fate ThemeTracker
Agency, Willpower, and Fate Quotes in Salt to the Sea
“Are you okay?” I asked, barely recognizing my own voice. His face twisted at the sound of my words.
He was German.
I was Polish.
He would want nothing to do with me. Adolf Hitler had declared that Polish people were subhuman. We were to be destroyed so the Germans could have the land they needed for their empire. Hitler said Germans were superior and would not live among Poles. We were not Germanizable. But our soil was.
He wanted to leave me. His race was his own.
Who was this German boy, old enough to be in the Wehrmacht, yet dressed in civilian clothes? For me he was a conqueror, a sleeping knight, like in the stories Mama used to tell. Polish legend told of a king and his brave knights who lay asleep within the mountain caverns. If Poland was in distress, the knights would awaken and come to the rescue.
I told myself that the handsome young man was a sleeping knight. He moved forward, his pistol at the ready. He was leaving.
Why did everyone leave me?
I looked at the trees and thought of the big stork’s nest I had seen on top of the barn. It made me think of Mama. I thought of the warm sunny days when she would take me to pick mushrooms in the forest. In the forest near Lwów was a beautiful old oak tree with a hollow large enough to sit in. We’d take our baskets to the tree and I’d scramble into the cavity. Mama would sit with her back against the trunk, legs crossed at the ankles beneath her skirt.
“You love stories, Emilia. Well, the trees hold hundreds of years of stories,” she’d tell me, touching the bark. “Think of it, everything these trees have seen and felt. All of the secrets are inside of them.”
“Do you think they remember each and every stork?” I’d ask from inside the cool hollow.
“Of course the trees remember. Like I said, they remember everything.”
Just as the trees were Mama’s favorite, storks were mine. I had them six months of the year. At the end of each summer the storks would leave and fly to Africa, where they’d live in warmth along the Nile for the winter. In March they would return to Poland to the nests they had left. To invite a stork to nest, families would nail a wagon wheel to the top of a tall pole. We had one in our yard. Every March we would celebrate when our stork returned to the nest. As August faded, the departure of the storks symbolized summer’s end.
Six years ago, the day our stork left, Mama left too. She died giving birth to what would have been my younger brother.
My throat tightened. I swallowed, reminding myself she wasn’t really gone. I felt Mama among the trees. I could feel her touch and hear her laughter in the leaves. So I talked to the trees as I walked, hoping their braches would carry messages up to Mama and let her know what I had done, and most of all, that I would try to be brave.
The Nazis claimed I didn’t need an education. Polish schools were closed. Our desks and equipment were taken to Germany. Would a German girl open my desk and find my treasures inside?
The Nazis said the people of Poland would become serfs to the Germans. They thought we only needed to count and write our name. My father was part of the Lwów School of Mathematics. He would never agree with children not being taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. They had burned our books in the Polish language. But I had learned to read very young. They could never take that away from me.
We trudged on in silence. I stared down at the icy road.
His breath was suddenly close. “The girl. She doesn’t have papers.”
He was right. Emilia had no identity card. I had forgotten that. Germany required all civilians to legally register and carry documentation that contained our name, photograph, nationality, race, birth, and family details. The regime then assigned identifiers on he cover of the cards. My identity card said Resettler, indicating that Germany had allowed me to repatriate from Lithuania. We were required to show our identification to any official or soldier who requested it. Our papers determined our fate.
I looked up at her, balanced in the bundles. She smiled and gave me a small wave.
Emilia had no papers.
No papers, no future.
My father’s words hung heavy on my conscience:
“Don’t you see? Lange doesn’t want to train you—he wants to use you, Florian.”
“You don’t understand,” I had argued. “He’s saving the treasures of the world.”
“Saving them? Is that what you call it? Is that how easily he’s duped you? This greedy imposter fills your head with rubbish and you become a traitor?”
“I am not dishonoring Germany. Just the opposite.”
“No, son,” pleaded my father. “Not a traitor to your country. Much worse. A traitor to your soul.
A traitor to your soul. Those were the last words my father said to me. Not because he was finished, but because I stormed out of the house and refused to listen. When I returned months alter, panicked and in need of his counsel, it was too late.
So now I risked everything, confronting fate and the knowledge that had authored my own demise. But only if I failed.
She should know Poland. Looking at the child, I suddenly became hungry for my country, for its fat bees carrying nectar from apple flowers and for the birds singing in clusters of hazel.
How would she know the truths from the untruths? Would she believe that Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Armenians, and Hungarians had all coexisted peacefully in Lwów before the war? That I often made tea and doughnuts with Rachel and Helen in our kitchen?
Food. I wanted her to know our food. How my hands missed the feel of dough dusted with flour. My ears missed the snap of apple pancakes in the pan and my yes missed the rainbow of fruits and vegetables sealed in jars on the shelves. War had bled color from everything, leaving nothing but a storm of gray.
I wanted her to know not only Poland, but my Poland.
I pulled her close and whispered in Polish: “There were no ghettos, no armbands. I often fell asleep to a breeze floating through my open window. It’s true. It was like that once.”
I hadn’t planned for this. I was certain the birthing would kill both of us, just as it had Mama. Yet somehow, after five cruel winters of war, I was still alive. I adjusted the baby in my arms. What was happening? Could I have been wrong about the sign?
I had received the sign six years ago. It was Saint John’s Night, the longest day of the year. Mama loved Saint John’s celebration—a night of bonfires, singing, and dancing. The tradition called for girls to make wreaths of flowers and candles. At dark, they would light the candles and send their wreaths floating down the river. Legend said that the boy who retrieved your wreath downstream was the boy you would marry. The year Mama died, the older girls let me make a wreath of flowers and candles with them. I chose all of Mama’s favorites—hibiscus, roses, poppies, and dried herbs.
After setting the wreaths to the water, the girls danced around the bonfire. I decided to follow my pretty wreath. I padded barefoot in the grass along the river, watching the flowers and candles turning slowly in the water. I walked quite far. My wreath suddenly bounced, catching on something beneath the surface. I stopped in the center of the river. One of the candles tipped onto the flowers. The herbs caught on fire.
I sat in the grass and watched my wreath burn and sink, quietly sealing my fate.
I had expected everything to end, But now, I began to think that maybe the sign had been wrong. I had fought so hard to overcome so much. Something changed when the knight arrived. Maybe he truly saved me, had pulled my burning wreath form the water. After all, in Poland, Saint Florian was fighter of fire.
For the first time in years, people cared for me. Protected me.
Hitler, he understands my theories. And I, his. Protection of the sick, weak, and inferior is not sensible. That is why I told the Hitler Youth boys about your Jewish father. Do you understand that I was trying to help, Lor? Your mother is not Jewish. I thought surely you would have had sense enough to tell the officers that your mother was a gentile, that you would have aligned yourself to the greater being inside of you.
But you decided otherwise.
And now, years later I am still confused by our final conversation. Do you remember it? I remember it so clearly. I ran out onto the sidewalk as they were taking you away. I told them that half of you was the master race. You stopped in your tracks and whirled to face me.
“No,” you yelled. And then you screamed so very loud.
“I am Jewish!”
Your words echoed between the buildings and bounced down the street.
“I am Jewish!”
I am certain everyone heard your proclamation. It almost sounded like pride. And for some reason those words are now caught, like a hair, in the drain of my mind.
“I am Jewish!”