In the Author’s Note of Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea she writes,
Every nation has hidden history, countless stories preserved only by those who experienced them. Stories of war are often read and discussed worldwide by readers whose nations stood on opposite sides during battle. History divided us, but through reading we can be united in story, study, and remembrance. Books join us together as a global reading community, but more important, a global human community striving to learn from the past.
What determines how we remember history and which elements are preserved and penetrate the collective consciousness? If historical novels stir your interest, pursue the facts, history, memoirs, and personal testimonies available. There are the shoulders that historical fiction sits upon. When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them.
Please give them a voice.
Sepetys’ work of historical fiction is a collection of vignettes told in alternating voices of young adults who are refugees trying to escape their war torn countries during World War II and hoping to board the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that will take them to safety. Caught between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia’s Red Army, many of these young people left their homes and families behind on a quest for freedom and safety.
During World War II the Wilhelm Gustloff was carrying more than 10,000 refugees, five thousand who were children, when on January 30th, 1945, a Soviet submarine torpedoed the ship, sinking with majority of the passengers on board. That is more than the lives lost on the Titanic and the Lusitania, and yet I did not know any of this until I read Sepetys’ book. In fact, she writes that “in the year 1945 alone, over 25,000 people lost their lives in the Baltic Sea due to ships being bombed and sunk.”
I want to hone in on the idea of “Hidden History.” What is the history that gets told and taught in our schools. This concept sparked two different projects for a history/humanities class.
Hidden History Project – Students research and uncover a piece of “hidden history.” Students can write about or create a video about some aspect of history that has been lost (like a piece of art or artifact), uncover a mystery, or share the story of a survivor or witness.
For example, National Geographic’s video on the mysterious Amber Room, considered the Eighth Wonder of the World, was lost during WWII when it was looted by the Nazis. The Amber Room, a world-famous chamber decorated in amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors, originally constructed in the 18th century in Prussia.
Historical Testimonies – When I taught a middle school drama class I asked students to interview a family member one or two generations older than the students and then turn the interview into a monologue to present to the whole class. This assignment has two parts. First students select a family member to interview and brainstorm a list of questions to ask the person about an important time in their life — See the Great Questions from StoryCorps. The second part of the assignment would be for students to read through and edit the interview responses to create a monologue that tells a memory moment of this particular family member. Students can dress up and bring in an artifact of the person when presenting the monologue.