Let it be known that my prime emotion upon writing this post is anger. Not towards you or towards any one person in particular, but rather the American Education System. I’ll start off by saying that I really love history. I love to learn about it, especially lesser known things, but I don’t like History classes. I feel like they are picky and biased in their teaching and never truly explain the truth. How are we supposed to learn from lies if we don’t even know they’re lies? I love learning about History on my own, but put me in a History class and I will protest and ask difficult questions and spend all my time researching some small event or person that is completely passed over in the class.
I’ve learned so many things from History that I was never taught in school. Things that make me upset because I believe they are important. I’ve learned from them and they’ve changed the way I look at the world. So buckle up kids, because it’s time for a real history lesson.
We’ll start in 1912, with a familiar shipwreck: The Titanic. The Titanic was this amazing ship, made of mostly metal and believed by everyone to be unsinkable. Perhaps that’s why it became such a famous tragedy when on an April night the ship struck an iceberg and was lost to the sea. The lifeboats of the titanic were not filled to capacity, and left with a third of the people it could really hold, forcing others to be left behind. (NOTE: While researching this for the facts of this blog post I typed into google “How many people” and the first thing to pop up was “how many people died on the titanic”) Just over 1,500 people died. Now, let it be clear that I’m not insensitive to this event. It’s sad, okay? But what I don’t understand is why EVERYONE knows about the Titanic (partial blame on the movie and Leo’s wonderful face) but NO ONE knows about the Wilhelm Gustloff. I can hear you all through your computers reading this saying “Huh?” or “Yeah I’ve heard of it. So what? The sinking of the titanic was just so tragic.” Well I’m here to tell you to shut up and listen to this, the story of a bigger tragedy. Something a tad more significant than a passenger liner sinking into the Atlantic Ocean. Here goes:
The Wilhelm Gustloff started off as a cruise ship. It had a number of significant features making it desirable, such as a swimming pool (NOTE: The Wikipedia page for the Gustloff is like 9,400 x 1,517 times shorter than the titanic page) and often featured concerts and other such entertainment. The Gustloff later went on to become a hospital ship for the military, playing an important role. But what I find the most significant of all the roles played by the Gustloff, was its duty in Operation Hannibal. The ship was to be used as a method of evacuation from Prussia carrying refugees and military personnel. The ships carrying capacity was 1,465 but for this particular evacuation, there were 10,582 people aboard. It was estimated that 5,000 of those were children. Shortly after its departure, the ship was struck by 3 of 4 shot torpedoes causing it to sink less than 40 minutes after being struck. 9,343 people died. There hadn’t been enough lifeboats on the ship to even carry half of the passengers aboard but those loaded were filled past capacity. 1,252 people were able to be saved. One notable rescue, an 18 month old was rescued miraculously alive in the freezing water. Another significant feature of the Wilhelm Gustloff, was that is was said to have had the Amber Room aboard which sunk into the depths of the Baltic Sea with the ship. The Amber Room was considered to be the 8th wonder of the world before it was lost and today would be worth $400 million. It was a chamber decorated completely with amber and gold. It contained over 13000 lbs of amber. Because of the Amber Room, this shipwreck earned a lot of attention from treasure seekers.
So why, why, why, does the Titanic recieve so much more attention than the sinking of a ship, the death of 9,400 passengers, and the disappearance of the Amber Room? I don’t know but I definitely have a problem with not having learned about the Gustloff until this year when I read Salt to the Sea. (NOTE: The author of Salt to the Sea has another book, Between Shades of Grey, that included more history I’d never learned about. I’ll save that post for another day).
And that brings me to History problem #2:
We all learn about the New Deal and FDR and how he put it into place and all this stuff, blah, blah, blah, right? But ever heard of Frances Perkins? No? She was the US Secretary of Labor under FDR. He specifically asked her to fulfill that role and she said she would, upon some conditions. She demanded his committing to “massive unemployment relief, a giant public works program, minimum wage laws, a Social Security program for old age insurance, and the abolition of child labor.” (Brooks 2015). So if Frances Perkins, an amazing woman, who changed so much in way of social policies, participated in the early years of the Hull House and became so inspired by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (another lesser known albeit significant historical event), why had I never heard of her before today? Perhaps it could be that she was mentioned and I wasn’t paying attention, but to think someone who was the start of so many important movements had not been a part of my memory from History classes really bugs me. FDR gets all this credit with the New Deal, but it was this woman who was behind the ideas of the New Deal. That should mean something. She should be more recognized. The Wilhelm Gustloff and all of its lost refugees should be more recognized.
I am saddened that my History classes didn’t teach me more about these events and I’m sure there’s more that I’m missing. I ache to know more, to know what else I’m missing. I want my children to know about these events and to know how important they are. Most of all, I want to scream to the world and the American education system about how I have been missing out on this knowledge for such a long time. I wish, I wish I had known about it all sooner.