Survival at Sea!
The absorbing account of a young couple who survived one of history’s worst sea disasters
I WAS but a 14-year-old girl when, on March 15, 1938, the luxury liner Wilhelm Gustloff, praised by Germany’s Nazi regime as “ship of joy,” set off on her maiden voyage. She was considered a technical wonder, absolutely unsinkable! Despite her large size, she could take 1,465 passengers and 426 crew members speedily to their destination.
Seven years later World War II entered its final stage. Germany’s eastern front collapsed in January of 1945, sending thousands of refugees from East Prussia scurrying for safety. But since road and rail connections to Germany proper were cut off, only the sea was left as an avenue of escape. Everything afloat, including the Wilhelm Gustloff, was pressed into service. At the time she was anchored in Gdynia, Poland (then called Gotenhafen), and served as living quarters for members of the Germany navy. We lived in Gotenhafen, and my husband, Kurt, was stationed aboard the ship.
Flight to Safety
The city was packed with refugees, the majority of whom were completely exhausted from days of tramping through snow with heavy packs on their backs. Everyone seemed intent on getting aboard the Gustloff, for she was well heated and stocked with warm food. She apparently guaranteed a measure of safety. But tickets were scarce and soon were sold on the black market. A merchant from my hometown unsuccessfully tried to bribe my husband into getting tickets for him and his family, even though they had already obtained passage on another ship. Somehow he did manage to get aboard, however, as he elatedly told us later.
The ship was more than crowded, as refugees by the thousands obtained passage. At first, they were registered, but later this was discontinued. So the final number of persons aboard is strictly a matter of conjecture. Some have estimated that there were 6,500, but the figure may have been larger. Many passengers were sleeping in the hallways; so we were asked to share our cabin. A mother with two children joined us, and, although this meant being crowded, it gave us the good feeling of knowing that we had done something to make the trip as comfortable as possible for others.
We were standing at the railing that Tuesday afternoon, January 30, 1945, as the ship set sail at one o’clock. Heartrending was the sight of a little old lady kneeling on the pier, her packed suitcase standing beside her, while she loudly pleaded: “Captain, take me along! Please! Please!” But for her it was too late.
How We Survived
At about seven o’clock that evening, I opened the porthole to let in a little fresh air. Looking out into the darkness, I could see the turbulent waters and feel the cold sea wind. Small chunks of ice were floating in the water. It was zero degrees Fahrenheit (−18 degrees Celsius).
This was my first voyage, and the thought of being far out in the Baltic Sea was frightening. Many of the passengers were seasick; they were standing in long rows in front of the rest rooms, which already reeked of vomit. It promised to be an unforgettable night. Had I only known!
Since there was the danger that Russian submarines might attack, we were told to keep our life jackets on, even while eating, and not to undress at night. I can still remember how uncomfortable it was wearing my life jacket to the dining room. At bedtime I kept my underwear and stockings on and placed my dress nearby where I could readily reach it. Sorry to say, many passengers failed to take the warning as seriously as I did.
Suddenly at 16 minutes past nine we were jolted awake. Three torpedoes had struck the ship. It was now a matter of life and death. We must get up to the top deck as fast as possible! Where was the closest exit? Happily, we knew its exact location. Within seconds, the corridors were jammed. Hundreds of persons were struggling to find their way upstairs. They were battling for their very lives. We fled with the others, not bothering to take anything along.
To prevent the ship from sinking, the bulkheads to some of her 12 watertight compartments were closed immediately. This meant sure death for those still there, for now all routes of escape were cut off. For them death came quickly, but for others, gradually, little by little. Some failed to reach topside because they lay injured or dazed somewhere within the ship. Out of desperation others—how many I do not know—committed suicide.
Meanwhile we had reached the icy deck, aware that the ship, now listing heavily, would be unable to stay afloat much longer. Alongside us stood a young sailor, who, although pale with fright, kept calling out in a steady voice: “There is no reason for panic. Rescue ships will soon be here. Just keep calm.” I can still see him. He did his best to put the passengers at ease. Truly, he was unselfishly interested in saving life.
In contrast to him was the woman who kept wailing: “My suitcases! My suitcases! My jewelry! All my jewelry is down there in the cabin. I have lost everything!” But I remember wondering if life is really of less value than jewelry.
Directly in front of us I caught sight of the merchant I mentioned who had contrived to get aboard the Gustloff. He was leaning against a dinghy, smoking a “last cigarette,” when the dinghy unexpectedly slipped, sending him and his entire family sliding with loud screams across the sloping deck into the darkness of the water, already filled with swimming bodies.
Our situation was rapidly becoming more critical. Kurt and I had been married only a short time, and we were very much in love. We did not want to die!
“Do you see that little raft down there?” Kurt pointed. “We must try to reach it. It could be our salvation.”
Yes, I saw it all right, but I also saw the icy waters. Even though I had dressed warmly—long trousers, winter coat and gloves—my whole being balked at the thought of jumping. I began to cry. Suddenly, my husband shoved me over the railing. Now there was only the slanting side of the ship between us and the water. What would await us below? Again I hesitated. He tore me loose: “If we don’t jump now, we’re lost!” he yelled.
For a moment we stood clutching one another ever so tightly. Then hand in hand, as though embarking on a toboggan run, we slid across the icy side of the ship before flying out into space and traveling who knows how far. The icy water snatched our breath away as we hit. But when we finally surfaced, we were still together, and the raft was nearby!
Already our legs and arms were almost frozen stiff. It was wise that I had dressed so warmly, because later we found that many of the victims had frozen to death in the frigid waters. It was all the three men on the raft could do to hoist us aboard. There we sat—four men and a woman on a raft in the middle of the Baltic Sea. What now?
Exactly an hour had passed since the torpedoes had struck. Suddenly, for some unexplainable reason, all the lights aboard the Gustloff went back on. Then, shining at her brightest, as if to live up to her name “ship of joy,” she plunged to her death in the depths below. Left now were only the freezing waters, the stormy wind, the eerie darkness, the hopeless situation!
Through the darkness we spotted a ship. Our hopes rose. Rowing with all their might, the men maneuvered us ever closer. We could see the ship’s silhouette quite clearly now. Rescue was at hand. And then a most terrifying thing happened! Right at that moment—although we did not know it at the time—a submarine warning forced the ship to abandon its position, leaving us behind!
After having been on the little raft for over an hour, we once again drifted toward a boat, a torpedo boat bearing the designation T-36. It was surrounded by rafts and swimming figures. Did we dare hope? We drew ever closer, but could not cry for help; we were much too hoarse for that. As our hopes grew, so did our determination to hold out. Soon we could see persons moving about on the boat. Then came a man’s voice: “The lady first.”
They pulled me up the boat’s icy side. Once topside, I was unable to walk. They let me down a slide into the ship where helpful hands reached out to free me from my wet and partially frozen clothes. I was wrapped up in warm woolen blankets, and laid in a berth. There I was given something warm to drink.
But my anxiety was not over. The rescue had been broken off abruptly as we sped away to escape a possible submarine attack. Depth charges were being detonated. At the sound of each explosion, I bolted halfway out of my berth, praying to die rather than have to go back into that icy water.
And what about Kurt? Just a few minutes after my rescue, the boat had turned and raced away. Had he been picked up? When a doctor approached to ask how I was, I told him I needed no help, but asked if he could find out whether my husband was on board. He promised to do so. How relieved I was sometime later to hear over the loudspeaker: “Attention! A message for Mrs. Habisch. Your husband is safe and is in room . . .” I forget the room number now.
I pulled on the clothes I found handy, since my things were in the engine room drying out. Kurt must have been quite startled to see his wife suddenly standing in front of him dressed in the uniform of a first lieutenant! For a long time, neither of us spoke. We just sat there, holding one another very closely. We could hardly believe it. We had survived!
Once Again Solid Ground
According to estimates, only 800 to 900 persons had been saved. The ship that rescued us had picked up 564 survivors. What a thrilling moment when we were able to leave the ship at Sassnitz and once again enjoy the feel of solid ground under our feet!
There were many remarkable survivals and heartwarming reunions. An injured woman, worried about her missing children, had found all four of them alive. We also rejoiced with a mother and her six-month-old baby, both of whom had come through the whole ordeal in the best of shape. How thankful we, too, were to be among the survivors of one of history’s worst sea disasters! We had lost everything of any material value in that sixth year of world war—clothes, linen, jewelry and important papers, certificates, diplomas, bankbooks. But we were alive! Some 5,000 or 6,000 others were not so fortunate. I wondered why. Why? Why?
For weeks thereafter, I could still hear those bloodcurdling screams, the gurgling of the water, the plaintive wail of the wind. Life must be something precious and valuable indeed, I thought, if one finds it so difficult to die.
Although I believed in God and my husband respected the Bible, we were not what you would call religious. What did bother me, however, was the question: “How could God permit such a tragedy to happen?” I was sincere in seeking an answer and one was forthcoming, although not until 10 years later.
By means of a Bible study with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I learned that God’s permission of such tragedies resulting from human violence is only temporary. And it has been for a reason, I was shown from the Bible. But soon, under the rule of God’s kingdom, these heartbreaking events will never occur again. A world change, I learned, is at hand!
The Bible clearly teaches that Almighty God will make way for his righteous rule by bringing this corrupt system to its end. Just as suddenly, and, to many, as unexpectedly as the sinking of the Gustloff, the world’s entire wicked system will plunge to its destruction. (Dan. 2:44; 1 John 2:15-17; 2 Pet. 3:7) But I was also happy to learn that ample provisions are being made by God so that those who really desire to survive, and who are willing to take necessary steps to do so, can live through that destruction to enjoy the righteous new system of things that will follow.—2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:3, 4.
Today, over 30 years later, my husband and I have not forgotten the men who helped to rescue us. Motivated by a spirit of helpfulness and at the risk of their very lives, they dangled on ropes and rope ladders over the surface of the waters and fished half-dead bodies out of the turbulent and icy sea. Their lifesaving work resulted in the rescuing of scores of persons from sure death. Their unselfish and whole-souled efforts serve as fine examples for us today, because, by preaching the good news of God’s kingdom, we, too, can help to rescue persons from sure death in the coming world catastrophe. Now that our three children are grown, we have been spending our full time in this important preaching activity. My husband has been serving as a traveling overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1971.
Our desire, should it be Jehovah’s will, is to gain life in his new order and become acquainted with some of our fellow passengers on the Gustloff, those who were not among the survivors. This hope we base on the Bible promise at Revelation 20:13: “And the sea gave up those dead in it.” Then, in that happy day of resurrection, we hope to be able to tell them the good news that God’s kingdom is reigning under which they may enjoy security, with the opportunity to gain everlasting salvation.—Contributed.