As millions of refugees evacuated Poland, Prussia, Lithuania, and the surrounding countries, bonds of family and community were broken and reformed. The refugees at the center of the novel (Joana, Florian, Ingrid, Emilia, Eva, the Poet, and Klaus) have either been separated from their families by distance or by death. They form new bonds with each other, partially out of necessity, but also out of love. Their new family unit helps them to survive, but it also brings them joy and comfort. Over the course of the novel, the characters’ chosen family becomes as important as their biological family, even as the bonds and memories of biological family remain important motivators for the survivors. However, given the opportunity to create new, strong bonds of community, characters who choose to follow their own self-interest, like the Nazi soldier Alfred, stand out in stark contrast to the novel’s other characters. Sepetys creates a clear dichotomy of acceptable versus unacceptable behavior: a communitarian mindset versus an individualistic mindset. Within Salt to the Sea, communal and familial bonds are something to be celebrated, and connection with others is something to strive for. Selfish people, in contrast, only succeed in the short term. In the long term, the novel shows, selfishness can only lead to sadness and isolation.
Biological family and the need for community motivates many of the characters throughout the novel. A desire for a family unit helps unite the protagonists, but a desire to meet up with, or avenge their families is what keeps them moving forward. Joana, the Shoe Poet, Ingrid, Eva, Klaus, Florian, and Emilia form a makeshift family on the road together. Each has a different skillset, and so they are able to collaborate to make each other’s lives easier. This makeshift family is formed out of necessity, but also out of love. Klaus calls the Shoe Poet “Opi” (meaning “grandfather”) and at the end of the novel it is implied that Joana and Florian get married, adopting Klaus and Emilia’s newborn baby. Although forged initially out of necessity, their makeshift family becomes a real one, stitched together by genuine love and affection. Joana is motivated by her desire to reunite with her family in Germany after the war is over. This is also true of Eva, and of many of the unnamed refugees. The love of their chosen family helps the refugees survive, as Joana provides medical aid to the group, Florian’s forged papers occasionally garner them special treatment, and the Poet’s insights keep their feet healthy and strong. Similarly, the character’s love of their biological families gives them a reason to live and move forward, also helping them survive.
Sometimes, the bonds of family can prove dangerous. If one member of a family is targeted by the Nazi or Soviet army for example, the entire family is put at risk. Hannelore, a Jewish girl and the object of Alfred’s affections, was arrested by Nazi’s after Alfred turned her Jewish father in to the Nazis. Although she could have disavowed her father, or claimed that she was ethnically German like her mother, Hannelore went with the police who came to collect her, and shouting out proudly “I am Jewish!” Alfred, who has no real obligation to anyone, not even the Nazi party, cannot understand Hannelore’s commitment to her father, her family, and to her religion and culture, which, in the end, are more important than her freedom, and even her life. Even though Hannelore will likely die as a result of her loyalty to her religion and to her father, her sacrifice is depicted positively. Cultural pride and the bonds of family, even if they cost an individual her life and freedom, are demonstrated to be preferable to disavowing one’s heritage. Similarly Florian knows he is marked by “Sippenshaft,” or “blood guilt,” because his father was involved in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. According to Nazi law, “If a family member had committed a crime or treason, his blood was considered bad,” and so Florian is technically implicated in his father’s plot. In spite of this, Florian remains loyal to his father’s memory, often turning to it for advice and comfort. Even though his connection to his father could lead to his own death, Florian instead spends much of the novel actively trying to take revenge on Hitler for causing his father’s death.
In contrast to individuals who could abandon their families and communities but choose not to, Alfred stands out as the most selfish character in the novel. He is motivated only by his own ego, and by the hopes that he will impress someone—anyone—after a lifetime spent disappointing himself and his family. He isn’t even fully committed to the Nazi party; instead he enjoys participating in the military because he hopes he will be somehow recognized and valorized, and because he relishes the fact that the Nazi Party’s hateful hierarchy places him at the top. However, Alfred pays a price for his blind selfishness. He has no friends and a strained relationship with his family. Most damningly, Alfred’s selfishness and bigotry eventually lead to his own death. Stranded on a raft with Emilia, he becomes enraged when he realizes she is Polish. He stands on the raft unsteadily, and when Emilia reaches out to help and steady him Alfred, who would rather die than accept help from someone he believes is inferior, falls into the water to his death. Alfred’s unceremonious death underscores the dangers of an unconnected, self-centered life.
The family unit, whether biological or chosen, is essential to the health and wellbeing of the central characters in Salt to the Sea. Memories of their own families push the protagonists forward, while their new chosen families keep them safe in the present, allowing them to survive the harsh winter and violent war. Those characters who are selfish, or who reject the idea of family and community, are punished for it, or they eventually change their ways. Thus, communitarian behavior is celebrated in the novel, and selfishness is deeply criticized.
Family and Community vs. Selfishness ThemeTracker
Family and Community vs. Selfishness 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.
The old man spoke of nothing but shoes. He spoke of the with such love and emotion that a woman in our group had crowned him, “the shoe poet.” Them woman disappeared a day later but the nickname survived.
“The shoes always tell the story,” said the shoe poet.
“Not always,” I countered.
“Yes, always. Your boots, they are expensive, well made. That tells me that you come from a wealthy family. But the style is one made for an older woman. That tells me they probably belonged to your mother. A mother sacrificed her boots for her daughter. That tells me you are loved, my dear. And your mother is not here, so that tells me that you are sad, my dear. The shoes tell the story.”
I paused in the center of the frozen road and watched the stubby old cobbler shuffle ahead of me. When we fled from Lithuania she rushed me to Insterburg and, through a friend, arranged for me to work in the hospital. That was four years ago. Where was mother now?
I thought of the countless refugees trekking toward freedom. How many millions of people had lost their home and family during the war? I had agreed with Mother to look to the future, but secretly I dreamed of retuning to the past. Had anyone heard from my father or brother?
My heart ached for the girl. What had she seen? And deep down I knew the truth. Hitler was pushing out Polish girls like Emilia to make room for “Baltic Germans,” people with German heritage. Like me. My father was Lithuanian but my mother’s family had German roots. That’s why we were able to flee from Stalin into the barbed arms of Hitler.
“You know, I think it could be worse,” said Eva.
“What do you mean?”
“My husband told me that Hitler suspected the Polish intellectuals of anti-Nazi activity. The senior professors in Lwów, they were all executed. So the girl’s father, sorry, but he was probably strangled with piano wire and—”
“We can’t bring the girl with us. Her coat is splattered with blood. She’s clearly in trouble. And she’s Polish.”
“And I’m Lithuanian. Are you going to toss me out too?” I was sick of it. Sick of hearing the phrase German Only. Could we really turn our backs on innocent homeless children? They were victims, not soldiers. But I knew others felt differently. I looked over at the girl in the corner, tears streaking her filthy face. She was fifteen and alone. The tears reminded me of someone. The memory opened a small door In my mind and the dark voice slipped through it.
It’s all your fault.
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.
The bombing propelled everyone forward at a quicker pace, anxious to reach Frauenburg and possible shelter. I didn’t want to move forward. I needed to go back, to help the injured. But they would not allow it.
“What good will you be, my dear, if you are injured?” said the shoe poet. “You must preserve yourself in order to help others.”
Poet didn’t know the truth. I had already preserved myself. I had left Lithuania and those I loved behind.
It could have been so easy. I could have walked across the ice myself, without the burden of the group. They could have tried to save the blind girl. Maybe they all would have drowned in the process. That would have been so much easier.
And so much harder.
The word was s quiet, I wasn’t even sure I had heard it. I liked down at the Polish girl. She wore red lipstick. Her blonde hair was released from the captivity of her braids. She pulled her pink hat down over her eyes. “Bitte,” she whispered again. “Please.”
Joana still had her mother. Reuniting with her mother was her motivation. She would slay dragons to get to her. Mother was anchor. Mother was comfort. Mother was home. A girl who lost her mother was suddenly a tiny boat on an angry ocean. Some boats eventually floated ashore. And some boats, like me, seemed to float farther and farther form land.
I forced my mind toward happy thoughts—August, warmth, storks, home—anything to distract myself from the swelling pressure inside me. I walked with the others in search of the movie house. With each step, the truth drew closer.
I could not make it much longer.
“Why are you so nervous?” said Eva. “You know you’re getting on a boat. You told me you’ve got a letter.”
“Shh.” I looked behind me to see if anyone was near. “I don’t want the others to know.”
“Why the secrecy?” whispered Eva.
“I don’t want them to think I’ll have preferential treatment or opportunity.”
“It’s a letter from the doctor in Insterburg saying you’re good at dealing with blood and guts, Joana. I’m sorry, but I don’t call that an opportunity,” she said.
“The whole thing’s unfair, Eva. You know that. Hitler allowed me into Germany. He thinks some Baltic people are ‘Germanizable.’ But for every person like me that Hitler brought in, he pushed some poor soul, like Emilia, out.”
“Do you think you have time to be moral?” snapped Eva. “The Russians are right around the corner. If you wait, they’ll be under your skirt and you’ll be dead. Sorry, but don’t waste your time with some goodwill gesture for a lost Polish kid. Get in line and get on a boat. It’s been nice to trek with everyone, but now we’re here. I don’t need a group. I need my belongings and I need a ship.”
[Florian] looked from the baby to me and then back to the baby.
“Hmm. Your eyes. Your nose. Pretty,” he said. He put his lips against the top of the baby’s head and closed his eyes. He looked beautiful. Joana stared at the knight. She thought he was beautiful too.
He opened his eyes and whispered to me. “Kind of incredible. She is you, she is your mother, your father, your country.” He kissed her head and leaned down to whisper in my ear.
“She is Poland.”
My arms lifted and reached for the child.
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.”
A young girl kicked and shrieked in the water next to our lifeboat.
I removed my life vest and threw it to her. “Grab my hand,” I told her.
“No!” yelled a woman in our boat. “She’ll turn us over!”
I stood and leaned over the side. Our lifeboat tipped toward the water. Everybody screamed. I reached down and grabbed the girl by her hair. She gripped my arm and I pulled her into the boat. She full, soaked and exhausted at our feet.
A woman in a fur coat yelled at me. “You had no right! You’re endangering everyone!”
“Shut up!” I roared. My body shook with anger. “Do you hear me? Shut up!” Everyone fell quiet. The wandering boy hid his crying face in the crook of his arm. Joana reached up to me.
That’s what the sailor had said.
Most would have fought to be “the one.” They would have insisted they ought to be “the one.” But Emilia had pushed the wandering boy into the boat, sacrificing herself for another. Where was she now? Had she gotten into a boat? I thought of frightened yet brave Emilia, and I started to cry.
I wanted my mother. My mother loved Lithuania. She loved her family. The war had torn every last love from her life. Would she have to learn the grotesque details of our suffering? Would news make it to my hometown of Biržai, to the dark bunker in the woods where my brother and father were thought to be hiding?
Joana Vilkas, your daughter, your sister. She is salt to the sea.
So, dear one, I have grown old now and my Niels is gone. Receiving your kind letter brought such peace to my heart, knowing that you, Joana, Klaus, and Halinka are together in America along with a child of your own. I do understand how you have struggled for this new life. The sinking of the Gusloff is the largest maritime disaster, yet the world still knows nothing of it. I often wonder, will that ever change or will it remain just another secret swallowed by war?
You wrote that Emilia was your savior and that she is ever on your mind. Please do know, Florian, that she is ever in my heart as well. War is catastrophe. It breaks families in irretrievable pieces. But those who are gone are not necessarily lost. Near our cottage, where the small creek winds under the old wooden bridge, is the most beautiful bed of roses.
And there Emilia rests. She is safe. She is loved.