I remember one evening when I was a teenager, although the exact occasion escapes me now, sitting around the dining room table with my family. We fell silent when my father’s voice filled the space, as he drifted into memory and then into story, as he was apt to do. He recalled a day from long ago and I wondered what had dredged up such a terrifying tale. I could see the pain on his face, hear the tremor in his voice, feel the tension in the air. My mother remained silent, her eyes cast to the table cloth, her forefinger tracing the pattern on the tablecloth. I could make little sense of his story then and I dared not ask any questions or interrupt his emotional retelling. I imagined my brothers felt the same.
Twenty-five years later, I finally understood what he had been trying to share with us. It was the end of his war, but not the end of the nightmares that would plague him for the next seven decades.
For some reason unknown to me, significant dates, both pleasant and tragic, connect to our consciousness in a way that doesn’t allow time to erase the memories. For my father, this was one such date among a slew of terrible days from his youth. While most of us are familiar with famous maritime disasters, like the 1912 sinking of the Titanic that saw the loss of 1, 517 lives and shocked the world, we are less likely to be familiar with the events of May 3, 1945, yet it is one of the most significant maritime tragedies of the twentieth century.
On that day, three days after Hitler’s suicide and four days before Germany’s surrender, having been transported by barge along with hundreds of other inmates from concentration camps all over Poland and Germany, my father was in Neustadt, waiting for his turn to board a boat that would deliver him to one of the three ships anchored in the bay.
The ocean liners Cap Arcona and Thielbeck, along with the smaller Deutschland were in Lȕbeck Bay, and already overflowing with prisoners. As my father took the rungs of the ladder to enter the boat, he heard the screaming of RAF Hawker Typhoons above, followed by bombs striking the ships.
The Thielbeck and Deutschland were destroyed and sank, while the blazing Cap Arcona eventually capsized. Many of the prisoners who survived the attack were strafed as they swam in frigid waters toward the shore. Before the day concluded, more than 7 000 concentration camp prisoners (some say closer to 10 000) from at least thirty countries had lost their lives.
It is difficult and painful to imagine what that day was like for my father and his fellow prisoners, whose months and years of survival in concentration camps culminated in such tragedy. Although May 3, 1945 marks the day of my father’s liberation, it can never be a day of real celebration. Not when so many never made it home to tell their tale.
If you are interested in the events of May 3, 1945, check out some of the resources below.
I wish I’d had this book when I was researching my father’s story. After being a passenger ship and before becoming a prison ship, the Cap Arcona was featured in a 1942 German propaganda film Titanic.
- The Nazi Titanic: The Incredible Untold Story of a Doomed Ship in World War II by Robert P. Watson (2016)
This was a valuable and startling book about the RAF’s role in the tragedy of May 3, as well as suggests why the British sealed the records related to this event until 2045.
- The 100-Year Secret: Britain’s Hidden World War II Massacre by Benjamin Jacobs (2004)
I visited the Cap Arcona Museum in Neustadt, as well as the memorial to the victims in Neustadt Bay, during my research trip to Poland and Germany in 2013. It was a tiny museum, but powerful and moving.
- The Cap Arcona Museum, Neustadt, Germany