The Baltic Sea was as gray as storm clouds when the four of us jumped into the water. We each had several tanks filled with different mixtures of gases for breathing at depths up to 235 feet (72 meters)—more than twice as deep as conventional scuba diving. The waves kicked us around as we swam, so when we reached the marker buoy, we submerged as quickly as possible, and the weight of our equipment seemed to lighten.
We were on our way to examine the recently discovered remains of Steuben, a German ship sunk during World War II with the loss of perhaps 4,500 lives—three times the death toll of Titanic. A private Swedish team and later the Polish Navy had both scanned the ghostly wreck with sonar. But only a handful of divers had seen it since it was hit by two torpedoes from a Soviet submarine on February 10, 1945.
By the time we reached 70 feet (20 meters), the sea was as dark as night: Even with our powerful underwater lights we could see nothing but the dive line from the buoy going down. The deeper we went, the gloomier it felt. Finally at 150 feet (46 meters) a huge shape emerged from the darkness—difficult to recognize at first because it was resting on its side. But as we swam closer, I made out the outline of the gracious ship's hull, crowned with an elegant railing and straight rows of portholes.
Built in 1923, Steuben had been converted in 1944 to transport wounded soldiers. Armed with antiaircraft guns, the 550-foot-long vessel was jammed with more than 5,000 people, including at least 1,000 civilian refugees, when it was attacked 40 miles off the German coast. Only 659 people were rescued from the icy water.
Thoughts of the terrible scenes from 60 years ago rushed through my head as I swam past the promenade deck. I imagined the crowd of people squeezed into the narrow passageways, struggling to reach the stern deck in time to find a raft or a boat. When I peeked inside through the large, smashed windows, what surprised me most was the complete emptiness: no ship equipment, no baggage thrown around, nothing. The power of the water surging through the decks must have been so tremendous that it swept away everything, leaving just naked walls.
Past the promenade deck I saw the entrance to the concert halls that had been packed with wounded German soldiers, and I knew that inside there must be the remains of thousands of them. I remembered what Polish Navy officers had told me after they'd investigated the wreck in late May 2004. They'd taken a good look at the sea bottom with a remotely operated vehicle and found the entire area around the wreck "covered with human remains, skulls, and bones."
We didn't swim into the ship. Not only because it was dangerous—we might get entangled and run out of air before we could get free—but also because we believed this underwater tomb deserved respect. It was easy to imagine the dramas that had taken place here, having heard the stories myself from some of the last living survivors. Despite what the Nazis had done to my country, I had tears in my eyes as I listened.
Early winter of 1944 was surprisingly warm in East Prussia, a German province squeezed between the U.S.S.R. and Nazi-occupied Poland. Muddy roads had prevented Stalin's tanks from renewing the offensive that had been interrupted a few months earlier. The Soviet commanders were just waiting for a little frost on the ground to smash through the ramshackle defense lines that German civilians had hastily erected.
The frost arrived in the middle of January, and an avalanche of 200 Soviet divisions rushed forward along the eastern front. The dwindling armies of the Third Reich could not stop them, the front line shattered, and soon the roads were filled with retreating German soldiers. Ivan's coming! they told civilians. Run!
German residents knew all too well what an encounter with the incoming Soviet Army could mean, having heard the story of Nemmersdorf (Mayakovskoye), a village in East Prussia overrun by the Soviets the previous autumn. There the Red Army had taken bloody revenge for three years of suffering caused by the German invasion of Russia. After seizing the village, the soldiers had first raped all women, regardless of age, then had crucified them on doors of barns and houses. Men and children had been clubbed to death, shot, or run over with tanks. When Germans later retook the village, they invited reporters from neutral countries—Sweden, Switzerland, and Spain—to see what the Red Army had done. German theaters were soon showing a horrifying newsreel filmed in the village.
Near the end of January, Helene Sichelschmidt, a 19-year-old kindergarten teacher, was working at her school in Aweyden (Nawiady) when fleeing German soldiers brought wounded to the courtyard.
"They were exhausted from the fight and frightened," she remembers. "They warned us that the Russians had surrounded East Prussia and that it was time for us to run away." Together with Marti Gleich, a friend from work, Sichelschmidt decided to escape, taking only a small suitcase she had with her at school.
The two young women found the roads jammed with an endless river of refugees. Dodging strafing runs by Soviet planes, the pair spent nights in abandoned homes or in car wrecks on the road. After two weeks of wandering in the snow, sometimes on foot, they were finally transported in a fishing boat taking soldiers across Frisches Haff (Vislinkiy Zaliv) to the Baltic port of Pillau (Baltiysk). The town had a depressing look. Bombed a few days earlier, it was full of wounded from the eastern front. Refugees at one point outnumbered inhabitants by four to one.
"The port was full of soldiers in bandages soaked with blood, many lying on stretchers outdoors," Sichelschmidt says. "They asked for water, for help. There were also many refugees like us looking for a chance to get on a ship."
In the middle of January, Germany had begun Operation Hannibal, a naval withdrawal that grew to include civilians in the largest maritime evacuation in history. Over a period of four months nearly 1,100 German ships would transport some 2.4 million people to safety across the Baltic Sea. Every sort of ship would sail west from Pillau, Danzig (Gdańsk), Gotenhafen (Gdynia), Zoppot (Sopot) and Hel: ocean liners, naval vessels, merchant ships hauling refugees in cargo bays formerly used for iron ore, even small fishing boats. The main staging point for refugees was Pillau; from that port alone 441,000 people would be transported to Germany proper.