authors: Marzena Hmielewicz and Marcin Jamkowski






 By Marcin Jamkowski
THE BALTIC SEA WAS AS GRAY AS STORM CLOUDS when the four of us jumped from our ship into the water with 200 pounds of diving gear apiece. We each had five or six tanks filled with different mixtures of gases for breathing at depths up to 250 feet—more than twice as deep as conventional scuba diving. Swimming with all that gear wasn’t easy in the choppy sea, so when we finally reached the marker buoy we submerged as quickly as possible, and the weight of the equipment seemed to lighten.
By the time we reached 70 feet, the sea had turned as dark as night. Switching on our powerful dive lights, we couldn’t see a thing except the dive line from the buoy going down, and the deeper we went the gloomier it felt. At 150 feet a huge shape emerged from the darkness. At first it was difficult to recognize 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 lines of round windows.
Built as a luxury liner in 1923, Steuben had been converted during World War II to transport wounded soldiers. On February 10, 1945, the 550-foot-long vessel was jammed with more 5,000 people, including 1,000 or more civilian refugees, when it was struck by two torpedoes from a Russian submarine and quickly sank off the Polish 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 in there, struggling to reach the stern deck in time to find a raft or a boat. I peeked inside through the large, smashed windows. What surprised me most was the complete emptiness. Not a single item, 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 soldiers, and I knew that inside there must be the remains of thousands of people. I wasn’t going to look in there. I didn’t want to. Not only because it was dangerous, and the view would not be pleasant, but also because I thought those people and that tomb deserved respect and shouldn’t be treated as a cheap sensation. I remembered what Polish Navy officers had told me after they’d investigated the wreck in late May, 2004. Sending down a remotely operated vehicle, they’d taken a good look at the sea bottom and found the entire area around the wreck “covered with bones, skulls and bones.” A Swedish group that had dived on the ship a few months earlier confirmed the grisly facts.
I had no troubled imagining the dramas that had taken place on this ghostly ship because I’d heard the stories myself from the mouths of the last few living survivors. And as I’d listened to their stories I had tears in my eyes.
THE EARLY WINTER OF 1944 was surprisingly warm in Eastern Prussia, a German province squeezed between Poland and the U.S.S.R. Muddy roads had prevented Stalin’s tanks from renewing the offensive that had been interrupted a few months earlier. All the Russian commanders needed was a little frost on the ground to smash through the ramshackle German defense lines hastily erected by civilians.
The frost arrived in the middle of January, and an avalanche of 200 Russian divisions rushed forward. 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, one of the first villages taken by the Soviets in Eastern Prussia. Here Russian soldiers took a bloody revenge for their country’s three years of war suffering. After seizing the village, the soldiers first raped all women, regardless of age, then crucified them on doors of barns and houses. Men and children were clubbed to death, shot, or run over with tanks. When Germans retook Nemmersdoorf not long after, they invited reporters from neutral countries – Sweden, Switzerland and Spain – to witness what the Russians had done. German movie theaters were soon showing a horrifying newsreel filmed in the village.
The advance of the Soviet army was so fast it took many towns by surprise. Near the end of January, Lene Sichelshmidt, a 19-year-old kindergarten teacher, was working at her school in Nawiady when fleeing German soldiers arrived in the courtyard. “They were exhausted from the fight, and frightened,” she remembered. “They warned us that the Russians had surrounded Eastern Prussia and that it was time for us to run away.” Together with Marti Gleich, her friend from work, Sichelshmidt decided to escape, taking only what she had with her.
The roads were jammed with an endless river of refugees. Dodging air raids by Soviet planes, the two young women spent nights in abandoned homes or in car wrecks on the road. After two weeks of wandering in the snow, mostly afoot, the two were finally transported in a fishing boat through the Vistula Sound to the Baltic port of Pilawa. The town had a depressing look, not only because it had been bombed a few days earlier, but also because it was a gathering point for the wounded from the Eastern front. Refugees at one point outnumbered inhabitants by three or four to one.
“The port was full of soldiers in bandages soaked with blood, many of them on the stretchers, most of them outside,” Sichelschmidt said. “They asked for water, for help. Between them, many refugees, just likes us, were looking for their chance to get on some ship.”
 The Steuben had recently entered the port after having made an earlier voyage across the Baltic to the German mainland. “It was the first time in my life I’d seen a ship that large,” Sichelschmidt recalled. “I was speechless. Marti said, ‘wouldn’t it be great to sail west on that ship?’”
One of Germany’s most luxurious pre-war ocean liners, Steuben was owned by a North-German shipping company Lloyd of Bremen. Tremendously popular with passengers, the ship was known as the “Beautiful White Steuben.” Pictures from the era show tasteful, art nouveau-inspired cabin interiors, cozy concert halls, and stylish smoking parlors. When WWII began, the elegant white hull was repainted with shades of camouflage military gray, and the decks where vacationers used to linger were marred by 12 anti-aircraft guns.
“Despite the changes, you could still smell the lingering aroma of the luxury there,” says Paul Niehaus, then a steward on Steuben, today an owner of a hotel and an office cleaning company in Germany. On February 9, 1945, Niehaus watched in Pilawa as the ship, which had a capacity of just under 1,100 passengers, took on several times that number.
“The most severely wounded soldiers had priority in boarding,” says Joachim Wedekind, a merchant marine officer living today near New Orleans who was also on Steuben’s final voyage. Wedekind was a captain of the liner, Marburg, another ship taking part in the evacuation of Germans from Eastern Prussia. He boarded Steuben in order to get to his own ship, which was anchored in Świnoujście. During the voyage, his duties were to accommodate the wounded and assign them to appropriate doctors. That put him in a good position to estimate the number of wounded onboard. “All cabins, halls and corridors were filled with wounded soldiers. When it seemed that nobody else could squeeze onto the ship, Steuben’s captain, Karl Homann, decided at the last moment to admit an additional thousand refugees,” Wedekind said. They weren’t allowed to carry any baggage onboard. They spread throughout the ship and found room for themselves among the wounded in the crowded corridors. “Before we set off, we estimated with other officers that we had 5,200 people onboard.”
One of the wounded soldiers who managed to get on Steuben was Gerhard Döpke. Today a retired teacher and passionate gardener of flowers, he served as a bomber pilot in the Air Force until Germany run into fuel shortages and planes spent most of the time sitting in hangars. Then he was sent to join the ground forces, ending up with the Herman Göring division on the eastern front, where he found “mud, hunger, and death.” In late January 1945, Döpke was severely wounded in the head and arm by an exploding grenade near Magnitogorsk. “I had 30 pieces in my body. I was semi-conscious when I was transported through Królewiec to Pilawa in a hospital train,” he recalled. There he was taken aboard Steuben on a stretcher. “The severely wounded were placed on the upper decks, and that saved me,” he said.
As wave after wave of wounded soldiers flooded Steuben’s decks, Lene Sichelschmidt and her friend Marti were still stuck on shore in a snow-covered train track hit during an air raid. Then a sailor from Steuben’s crew walking along the shore smiled at them. “He said they would pull us through a window,” Sichelschmidt remembered. After a long while, two seamen came and helped them squeeze through a narrow window into the ship. “The seamen were on a watch at the time so they let us use their cabin. For the first time in two weeks we could wash up and sleep in real beds,” she said. They just couldn’t leave the cabin before the ship left the shore so the ploy wouldn’t be discovered.
In the early afternoon on February 9, 1945, Steuben raised the mooring lines and set off from Pilawa, sailing off toward Swinnemünde on the northern coast of Germany, two days away at 12 knots. Until the ship reached the Hel Peninsula, Steuben was escorted by just one minesweeper, later by two torpedo boats. Weather was a nice surprise, becoming slightly warmer in the afternoon, the temperature close to 32°F. After sunset, a cold but quiet night arrived, the wind died down, the sea was calm, and the sky full of stars. The moon appeared. The voyage was peaceful. In the makeshift operating rooms on Steuben surgeons tended to the most severely wounded, and three babies were delivered. The atmosphere was jubilant, and people were happy that they’d managed to get out.
The captain had only one worry: Soviet subs. Until recently, they’d been deemed to be little threat by German Navy commanders. But only ten days before, one enemy sub had scored a spectacular victory.
THE SOVIET SUBMARINE, S-13, was commanded by a skilful and brave captain, Alexander Ivanovich Marinesku. The Ukrainian-born seamen with Romanian roots had come to Leningrad as a young man, where he’d quickly gained fame and climbed the ladder of a military career. “The crew loved him, the soldiers respected his successes in the fight, but the commanders didn’t like his impulsive character and sharp tongue,” said Tatiana Marinesku. That was the way she remembered her father as we talked in her apartment in Kronstadt, Russia.
In late 1944, the S-13 was stationed at the base in Turku, Finland. “Marinesku was very demanding and punctual at sea, but on shore he would immediately loosen up, and what can you say, he loved to party,” remembered Alexander Shagin, director of the A. Marinesku Museum of Submarine Forces of Russia in St. Petersburg. On New Year’s Eve, Marinesku met a Swedish woman, an owner of a Turku restaurant, and proposed that they spend the evening together. Not only did she agree, but she also sent away her date for the evening,” says Lilya Kurayeva, a guide at the Marinesku museum. Suddenly an alarm was called at the base, and a hectic search for the commander of S-13 began. One of the sailors found Marinesku at the restaurant and told him that he had to return immediately. “But that Swedish woman said, ‘I sent my guy away, now you have to send away yours.’ So, the commander did not come back to his boat before morning,” said Kurayeva. A storm over Marinesku erupted immediately. If he’d done something like that at the beginning of the war, he would probably have been court-martialed and shot. But toward the end of the war, experienced commanders were as precious as gold. So his superior gave him one last chance: “I’ll be waiting for your victories,” he said, and sent him back to sea.
Marinesku took the order to heart, determined to prove at all costs what he was capable of. He set course for the Polish coast to hide and wait for big game.
Beginning in the middle of January 1945, the Germans in the Baltic Sea had been carrying out the largest evacuation in history, called Operation Hannibal. In less than six months, nearly 1,100 German ships had transported some 2.4 million people to safety across the Baltic. Every sort of ship had sailed west from Pilawa, Gdansk, Gdynia, 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 Pilawa, from which Steuben departed. From that port alone, 441,000 people were transported to Germany proper.
 On January 30, Capt. Marinesku’s watch officer informed him he’d observed enemy ships in the area. After a short discussion, Marinesku decided to give chase to gain the best position for an attack. A few minutes after 9 p.m., he launched three torpedoes, all of them hitting the passenger ocean liner, Wilhelm Gustloff. The ship, more than 650 feet long, started sinking immediately, carrying 5,000 to 9,000 people to their deaths. It was one of two largest sea tragedies in history (the other was the sinking of Goya on the Baltic Sea, in April 1945, with 6,000 to 7,000 people on board).
Just after midnight on February 10, the crew of S-13 saw the glow from another ship’s stacks. Marinesku reviewed a ship design guidebook and decided it was a cruiser. In fact it was Steuben. A few minutes before 1:00 a.m. Vladimir Kurocznik launched two torpedoes from the aft tubes, and S-13 headed toward the open sea as fast as she could.
“I was wakened by a terrible bang,” said Paul Niehuas. “A shiver went through the ship that shook me out of my bed. I’d experienced the sinking of another ship so I had a hunch what might be happening.” Unlike most of the crew, the steward slept in the stern. That saved him: The torpedoes hit the bow of the ship at the bridge level, killing the crew resting there immediately. “I ran toward the deck. On my way, I heard shots reverberating through corridors. The severely wounded soldiers who’d lost all hope were committing suicides.”
 When he reached the deck, the ship was already tilting and people, in unspeakable panic, were jumping into the water. They didn’t stand a chance in the ice-cold Baltic. “I ran toward the inflatable rescue rafts, and threw one of them into the water,” Niehaus said. “But when I went to jump into it, I saw it was occupied by other people who’d had landed in the water earlier. So I threw another one, and the same thing happened. The third one I tied to myself with a rope before I jumped overboard with it. Two civilians, a nurse, and a wounded soldier joined me. A few more people clung to the side of the raft but they all perished within minutes in the icy water.”
Gerhard Döpke, meanwhile, was fighting for his life. “My right hand was completely immobilized with bandages,” he said. “I started to climb up steep stairs with one hand, but the surging crowd pushed me down twice. When I heard the shots of the suicides, I knew I had to rescue myself. With the last bit of my strength, I reached the deck and crawled toward the railing. The ship was already sliding into the depths and a wave swept me off the deck into the sea. I grabbed a piece of a board in the water but it was too small and I nearly sank. I began to pray then, and I remember saying, ‘My Lord, don’t let me sink like a rat.’ And then a miracle happened: An empty life raft floated right onto me. I grabbed the rope of the raft with my teeth, and started climbing into it with my good hand. When I managed to get in, I fell on my face, exhausted. Soon after someone climbed over me, then another person, and my face ended up just above the surface of the water. I shouted with all my strength, ‘Don’t let anyone else in because I’m going to drown,’ and I lost consciousness for a few hours.”
Lene Sichelschmidt and Marti Gleich, awakened by the explosions, immediately ran into the corridor. “The soldiers were calming down everybody saying that it was nothing major, just two ships had collided. But I felt we were going down and I didn’t trust them,” said Sichelschmidt. Holding hands, the two young women made their way through crowded corridors, filled with refugees screaming in panic, toward the upper levels of the ship. “I was holding some kind of a ladder when the ship tilted rapidly. My legs dangled in the air. I would have fallen and never reached the deck if not for a soldier who was below me. He pushed me up where Marti grabbed my hand. Nobody who was behind me got out,” she remembered. When they pair reached the deck, they realized they were on the bow. Figuring the ship was going down, they removed their shoes, held hands, and waited until the water took them. “I don’t even know when I went under the water,” Sichelschmidt recalled. “When I reached the surface, Marti was not near me. I started calling her but there was no answer from anywhere.” She soon reached a life raft. In less than 20 minutes, Steuben had vanished beneath the waves.
AFTER HIS SUCCESSFUL HUNT, Marinesku returned to Turku convinced that sinking three Nazi ships on one mission would be the turning point of his career. He was even hoping to be awarded the prestigious title of Hero of the Soviet Union. “There was a huge feast when he came back to the port, with a roasted pig,” said Boris Medvedev-Marinesku, a step-son of the S-13 commander. But despite his achievements, his superiors hadn’t forgotten his earlier insubordination. So Marinesku was awarder the less prestigious Medal of the Red Banner. “He kept his disappointments to himself,” said Medvedev-Marinesku. “But you could feel he never accepted that.”
After the war, headquarters lowered Marinesku’s military rank by two grades and transferred him to a minesweeper. When he refused, he was removed from the Navy. He tried working in the merchant marine, but fell into trouble again. One freezing winter, he let his employees take home briquettes of peat wasting in a courtyard. His boss accused him of stealing state property and he was sentenced to three years in Siberia gulag. “A snowstorm covered our entire house, up to its roof. In order to get out, we had to crawl through a hole in the roof next to the chimney,” he wrote to his wife from the camp. Released after a year and a half, he returned to Leningrad. He died of cancer in 1963. Three decades later, as the Soviet Union itself was falling apart, Mikhail Gorbachev awarded Marinesku the title Hero of the Soviet Union
His tomb in a St. Petersburg is black granite with golden letters, his bust placed high above the ground. As I stood before it, I tried to understand the man. Was he a killer of refugees, as some people in Germany would describe him? Was he a talented soldier who obeyed orders and made “the attack of the century,” as his supporters say? Or was he perhaps a free-spirited warrior for whom battle was simply an opportunity to shine?
And finally: Did he have the right to shoot at those ships? I posed this question to Heinz Schön, author of a dozen books on German naval warfare during World War II, and himself a survivor of the Gustloff sinking. After hesitating for a long time, he answered with a resolution I found surprising. “The suffering was deserved,” he said. “We were the oppressors. We attacked Poland, we started the war and had to be punished.”
OUR EXPEDITION to Steuben was nearly at a close when Dr. Heinz Peters, a diplomat at the Germany Embassy in Poland came to pay respect to the dead. “May the nations along the Baltic Sea shore never witness another war, because the event we commemorate today fell upon its victims as the last and tragic consequence of the war waged by their own nation,” he said, laying a large red and white bunch of flowers into the water.
The flowers floated for a long time before they vanished beneath the rising swells.


Text was published in National Geographic in February 2005
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