In the afterword to her novel, Ruta Sepetys explicitly states that this novel is written for those who endured great atrocities or tragedies and did not survive. It is also for the survivors, who must live with the guilt of being among the few to make it out alive, and feel obligated to carry on the memories or legacies of their family and friends. The novel beings with an epigram, which reads, “We the survivors are not the true witnesses. The true witnesses, those in possession of the unspeakable truth, are the drowned, the dead, the disappeared.” The novel’s protagonists, at least until the very end, are the survivors. As a result, they must carry with them not only their own trauma, but the weight of duty and obligation to those who did not survive. This is a doubly difficult situation to be in, and the novel investigates the question of how to preserve the memory of the fallen, while living a life not entirely consumed by guilt. In her author’s note, Sepetys insists that “when the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them,” and commits herself to “giv[ing] them a voice.” Through the act of writing her novel Sepetys gives voice to groups that have historically been underrepresented, their stories untold. Within the novel itself the individual characters grapple with the same issues as Sepetys, asking themselves how a person can come to terms with guilt over their own survival, and how a person can remain connected, loyal, and dutiful to a family even in their absence.
The novel begins with a sentence that illustrates the role guilt will play in the lives of the various characters. Joana, in her internal monologue thinks, “Guilt is a hunter,” continuing, “It’s all your fault.” Although this thought specifically applies to her situation and the imprisonment of her own family, the idea that survivors of tragedy are somehow guilty for the deaths of those they have left behind permeates the book. Joana feels that she is responsible for her cousin, Lina, and Lina’s family, being sent to Siberia. Joana’s father had joined an anti-Soviet group, and Joana wrote her cousin to explain. Although Joana’s family managed to escape Lithuania, the letter was intercepted, and her cousin’s family was subsequently detained and sent to Siberia as a result. Joana sees herself as a deserter who abandoned both her homeland of Lithuania and her family. Although the alternative to leaving would have been death or imprisonment, she is constantly putting herself down, remarking at one point “I didn’t need […] criticism. I carried enough guilt on my own. I had done everything wrong.” Later, in response to Eva’s comment that she has been lucky to make it this far, Joana says, “I didn’t feel lucky. I felt guilty.” Later still, she makes her feelings even clearer, reflecting that “Survival had its price: guilt.” This feeling of culpability becomes so advanced that she even refers to herself regularly as a “murderer,” and believes that her “freedom cost [Lina’s] family their lives.” Similarly, although she herself was brutally raped and forced to bear a child she did not consent to have, Emilia feels guilt at having survived for as long as she has. When she is separated from her child and stranded on a raft after the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff she comments, “It was my punishment. Honor lost. Everything lost. Shame is a hunter. My shame was all around me now.” Thus, for Emilia, the price of surviving is not so much guilt as it is guilt’s cousin: shame. She feels shame at her rape, and shame at her pregnancy, both things she has no control over, and which others make clear are not her fault.
Sepetys suggests that the survivors of any atrocity have a duty to continue the legacy of their families by telling the stories of those who were left behind. She does not, however, suggest that duty and guilt must exist together. Instead she hopes that those who have endured great hardships can carry on in strength, preserving the memory of the past. Although many of the characters struggle with feelings of guilt, Sepetys herself assigns them no blame as survivors. Instead, the act of surviving in itself is portrayed as a kind of triumph, and a way of honoring those who have already died. Joana feels guilty that she has allowed members of her family to be captured by the Soviet army. By helping others with her medical expertise, she is able to alleviate some of the guilt she feels for the family she was unable to help. This is clearest during an explosion on the road to the coast, when she tries to run to help other injured refugees. The Poet pulls her back, arguing that she will hurt herself if she enters the chaos. He cautions, “You must preserve yourself in order to help others.” Although Joana does not respond, she thinks, “I had already preserved myself. I had left Lithuania and those I loved behind.” Because of her guilt, Joana feels her life and her body are no longer fully her own; because she has survived thus far, she feels she must help others even if the cost is her health or her life. However, her friends (like the Poet and Eva) act as voices of reason, urging her to look after her own wellbeing in addition to the wellbeing of others.
For much of the novel, Florian believes that his duty as a survivor is to continue to engage in a cycle of violence. He has stolen a piece of the Amber Room as an act of vengeance against Erich Koch and Dr. Lange, but this has caused him as much pain as it has them, as he worries he has been labeled a traitor or else put on some kind of Nazi blacklist. Only in the final chapters, when Florian loses the amber swan (a priceless artifact he stole from the Nazis as revenge for the death of his father) does he consider the emptiness of his journey. He realizes that by stealing the swan he was only entering into “the endless circle of revenge: answering pain by inflicting pain.” He wonders, “Why did I do it?” Having lost the object that has driven his journey, he is finally able to reconsider his purpose. Although he has acted in his self-interest for the sake of revenge for so long, Florian has also consistently helped and protected the people he has come to care about: Joana, Emilia, Klaus, and the Poet. Once he turns his attention from the amber swan to the outside world, he is provided with a new reason to live—not to inflict revenge, but to love his new, chosen family. His pack gone, Florian opens up to Joana for the first time, connecting emotionally with her, but also with memories of his mother and father. In this moment, he demonstrates that even without the motivation of revenge, he can still honor his family’s memory.
Within the novel, Sepetys treats survivors gently, not blaming them for their survival, but giving them outlets for their guilt. Septetys’s characters reassure their friends that they are not responsible for the suffering of those who did not survive. The trauma characters endure over the course of the novel are a result of the horrors of war, not a form of punishment for outliving others. The responsibility of a survivor is, in the end, to go on living, and to do his or her best to connect and engage with the memories of those who were left behind.
Memory and Survival ThemeTracker
Memory and Survival Quotes in Salt to the Sea
Guilt is a hunter.
My conscience mocked me, picking fights like a petulant child.
It’s all your fault, the voice whispered.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Everything hurt. My strength dissolved into exhaustion.
Wasn’t a person supposed to feel better after telling the truth? Perhaps there was no peace because Joana hadn’t understood or hadn’t heard me. Was it enough to admit the lie to yourself and the heavens, or did you have to tell someone who listened?
For months I had done so well. Most days I actually believed my own story. Yes, August Kleist existed. He visited the farm for a while during my stay. He carried wood for me, climbed the ladder so I didn’t have to, shared his plums, and defended me in front of his mother. He did it all because he was a kind person. But I didn’t exist for him the way he existed for me. He left before it happened.
[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.