Salt to the Sea illustrates the horrors of war. Whether escaping genocide at the hands of the Nazi party, escaping death at the hands of roving Soviet gangs, or surviving beatings by soldiers, many of the characters in the novel develop techniques to take a break, or dissociate, from their traumatic or stressful realities. These techniques sometimes take the form of songs and chants, which serve as a kind of mediation. They also take the form of invented fantasy worlds which the characters superimpose atop the upsetting real world, helping them cope with their traumas. They also include folklore and nursery rhymes that connect characters to a happier time, or to happier people, the memories of which are soothing and comforting. The power of fantasy and storytelling helps many characters face what would otherwise be unbearable situations. However, often, the fantasy worlds become so essential to an individual’s navigation of the world that they being to genuinely believe in them, and convince others of their veracity as well.
Emilia and Alfred both create elaborate fantasy worlds that help them cope with difficult realities. Emilia creates several, which help her to deal with the trauma of her rape, pregnancy, and separation from her family. From the moment she meets Florian she refers to him as a “conqueror, a sleeping knight, like in the stories Mama used to tell.” She explains, “Polish legend told of a king and his brave knights who lay sleeping in mountain caverns. If Poland was in distress, the knight would awaken and come to the rescue.” Imagining Florian as a knight makes Emilia feel safer, as does the idea that there are other knights sleeping in the wilderness waiting to come and rescue Poland, which has been overrun by Nazis. Similarly, Alfred creates a fantasy world through his letters, which allow him to deal with the drudgery and indignities of his military service. Most of his chapters take the form of letters written to Hannelore, his former next-door neighbor and would-be lover. The letters involve multiple layers of fantasy. First, the letters themselves depict a fantasy world in which Alfred is much more important and talented than he is in reality. Often a letter will finish and then his real life will snap back into focus, underscoring the disparity between his fantasies and his reality (even as Alfred maintains the sense of importance he receives from completing his many imagined important tasks). Second, Alfred never actually writes any letters to Hannelore; rather, he composes them in his head, showing that they he “writes” them out of a desire to escape from reality and not an actual desire to communicate. Even if Alfred were to put pen to paper, Hannelore would be unable to receive a letter because she is not Alfred’s girlfriend, and is quite probably no longer alive; the novel’s climax reveals that Alfred had formerly lusted after Hannelore, but turned her and her Jewish father in to the Nazis when she spurned him. This revelation attests to the true depths of his delusions. His letters to Hannelore then become a multilayered fantasy through which he can pretend to be more important than he is, while also pretending that Hannelore is alive, and yearning for him as he yearns for her.
Storytelling is used by multiple characters as a tool for forging new selves and identities. Sepetys shows that stories, when they are told confidently, can become reality—both to those listening to the stories and sometimes even to the storytellers themselves. The most explicit example of this is the fantasy Emilia creates to explain her pregnancy. She claims a family friend named August fathered her child, and that she is on her way to meet him. Although this is not true, and the child is the result of her rape by Russian soldiers, she begins to believe her own story. Although a quarter of the novel is told from her point of view, Emilia keeps the identity of her child’s father a secret for hundreds of pages, even in her own internal monologues. In addition to telling her fellow refugees lies and fantasies, she tells herself the same stories. In her thoughts, she thinks of “August and our wedding, and how we’d make a big nest for the storks above our cottage, just like the nest I had seen on top of the barn.” These are visions of an imaginary future, based on an invented past. Still, their purpose is to soothe Emilia, and they succeed in calming her. She notes, “the images were so peaceful, so perfect, that soon I fell asleep.” Needless to say, such visions contrast starkly with the reality of her bleak circumstances and uncertain future.
Songs and poems, like fantasies, help several characters in Salt to the Sea process their emotions by evoking a certain feeling of bringing the characters back to a certain memory. Emilia frequently sings herself a childish song about ducks that she learned from her mother. Although her mother has passed away, this nursery rhyme allows Emilia to feel connected to her. Additionally, the poem provides Emilia a framework to deal with new trauma, which otherwise might be too overwhelming to process. After the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, for example, Emilia is able to describe the horrific scene of corpses bobbing around her as “little duckies with their heads in the water” (a line from her song). Similarly, Alfred has created a bigoted rhyme about all the groups designated as enemies of the Nazi party. The song, which lists “Communists, Czechoslovaks, Greeks, Gypsies, Handicapped, Homosexuals…” feels to Alfred like “reciting a lesson in song”—such that a sickening concept, when set to music, becomes easily digestible. Alfred sings to himself as he unhappily performs his various martial duties, and it helps make his work more bearable, and acts as a kind of self-soothing meditation. Constantly returning to the song also acts as a kind of reinforcement of his own identity as a “Good German,” reminding him of the principles of racial supremacy according to which he lives his life.
The novel shows repeatedly that the stories people tell themselves and others can become as powerful, or more powerful, than reality itself. These stories serve many purposes: they can connect a person to the past, keep them out of harm’s way in the present, or help them deal with trauma. It can also allow them to project a new persona into the future, and construct a new identity based on a story they have told about themselves. In Salt to the Sea, fictions and storytelling prove to be the foundation of characters’ identities, both for the reader, the characters themselves, and other characters within the world of the novel.
Storytelling and Fantasy ThemeTracker
Storytelling and Fantasy Quotes in Salt to the Sea
Fear is a hunter.
But brave warriors, we brush away fear with a flick of the wrist. We laugh in the face of fear, kick it like a stone across the street. Yes, Hannelore, I compose these letters in my mind first, as I cannot abandon my men as often as I think of you.
You would be proud of your watchful companion, sailor Alfred Frick. Today I saved a young woman from falling into the sea. It was nothing really, but she was so grateful she clung to me, not wanting to let go.
“Thank you, sailor.” Her warm whisper lingered in my ear. She was quite pretty and smelled like fresh eggs, but there have been many grateful and pretty girls. Oh, do not be concerned. You and your red sweater are foremost in my thoughts. How fondly, how incessantly, I think of my Hannelore and red-sweater days.
I’m relived you are not here to see this. Your sugared heart could not bear the treacherous circumstances here in the port of Gotenhafen. At this very moment, I am guarding dangerous explosives. I am serving Germany well. Only seventeen, yet carrying more valor than those twice my years. There is talk of an honor ceremony but I’m too busy fighting for the Führer to accept honors. Honors are for the dead, I’ve told them. We must fight while we are alive!
Yes, Hannelore, I shall prove to all of Germany. There is indeed a hero inside of me.
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.
Father constantly worried about me. He cried when he told me that he was sending me away to the Kleists’ farm in East Prussia for safety. I wanted to cry too. I wanted to scream and refuse. But it hurt so much to see him sad, losing all that he loved. So I assured him that he was right, it was for the best, and that I was not upset. I told him that we would see each other in a couple of year, when the war of winter turned to spring.
I became good at pretending. I became so good that after a while the lines blurred between my truth and fiction. And sometimes, when I did a really good job of pretending, I even fooled myself.
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.
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!”