Hitler's Titantic: Film recalls horror of world's worst maritime disaster
The life jackets on "Hitler's Titantic" were designed to save adult lives, the manufacturers had not thought about children. So when the ship's trainee purser, Heinz Schön, bobbed to the surface of the icy Baltic on 30 January 1945 after the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Russian submarine, he was confronted with a sight he will never forget.
"There was this sea of adult heads floating all around me, but alongside them there were hundreds of children's legs half sticking up in the air. Their heads were under water," Mr Schön, now 82, said. "They all drowned. Nobody realised that a child's head is heavier than its legs."
More than 9,000 of the 10,000 passengers and crew drowned or died of exposure after the ship sank. The vessel is often referred to as "Hitler's Titanic" yet the death toll was six times higher than the Titanic's, making it the world's worst maritime disaster. Some 5,000 of the dead were children.
Nazi Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust meant that the plight of the Wilhelm Gustloff remained a taboo subject for decades after the war. There were fears that it would be seen as an attempt to equate German suffering with that of the Jews in Auschwitz. Even the Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass's attempt to address the disaster in his 2002 novel Crab Walk provoked controversy.
Last night, however, more than eight million Germans viewers tuned in to the ZDF channel for a two-part €10m (£7.6m) dramatised TV feature about the sinking. It tells the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a Nazi "Strength through Joy" liner built in the 1930s to give German workers a chance to cruise the world. But by the end of 1944, the ship was being used to accommodate U-boat crews and was moored in the Baltic port of Gotenhafen, now Polish Gdynia.
The ship was a symbol of hope for tens of thousands of German refugees from East Prussia fleeing the invading Red Army in January 1945. Shortly after midday on 30 January, the ship set out for the port of Kiel at the western end of the Baltic with 10,000 people on board. Most were women and children. Hitler had ordered the men to stay behind and fight to the death.
Nine hours later, Wilhelm Gustloff was in its death throes, after being hit three times by torpedoes from the Russian submarine S13, which assumed it was full of troops and a legitimate target.
Mr Schö*remembers the torpedoes striking the ship and then trying to climb the main gangway to the upper deck. "After a few metres there were just the dead bodies of women and children who had been trampled to death in the panic," he said. On the heavily listing upper deck he ran into a Nazi official who pulled out a pistol and shot his wife and child in the head before turning the weapon on himself. "At that point he ran out of ammunition and had no option but to drop into the sea," he said.
Mr Schön, who acted as an adviser to the producers of the TV film, was among the approximately 1,000 survivors who were picked up by two German torpedo boats that were escorting Wilhelm Gustloff. They did not hold a reunion until 1984. Only 55 are still alive.
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and scores of MPs attended the premiere of the series, but the production still managed to provoke controversy, more than 60 years after the event. Der Spiegel magazine's online site accused the film-makers of failing to mention the Holocaust: "The production makes the outrageous suggestion that a nation of innocents drowned," it said.