On the bitterly cold night of January 30th, 1945, three torpedoes from the Soviet submarine S-13 sank a ship that was evacuating 10,573 German refugees from advancing Russian forces. In only 70 minutes, 9,343 of them would be lost with the ship causing the worst loss of life on a single vessel in maritime history.
*Disclaimer: The Wilhelm Gustloff Museum does not promote any views, political or ideologically, of Nazi Germany or Hitler in showcasing these items, which include the Nazi flag and swastika. We are dedicated to preserving memorabilia from the Wilhelm Gustloff and her sister ship, Robert Ley in their original form. By displaying these items as they are, they preserve a more authentic and powerful account of their place in history. The museum serves as a vast informational source as well as a physical collection for those who are interested in the Wilhelm Gustloff for research, educational purposes, and from a historical aspect of World War II.
Her name was the Wilhelm Gustloff.
Welcome to the Wilhelm Gustloff Museum At an early age in 1991, I was introduced to the RMS Titanic and the ocean liner obsession began. It started out just as any other collection, with the purchase of books. This gave way to reproduction items, then original items from various shipping lines - my first piece being a saucer recovered from the Empress of Ireland. In 2007, while doing some research, I discovered a website that touted menus (for sale) from history's most devastating shipwreck - the Wilhelm Gustloff. Until that point, I had never heard of the ship, but by the time I finished reading the accompanying information on her history & tragic ending, I was instantly captivated and purchased my first Wilhelm Gustloff item - a speisekarte (menu) from March 29th, 1939. Two years later, I decided to establish a museum dedicated to a ship that most have never heard of. Up until that point in time, most of the information available on the Wilhelm Gustloff was through www.wilhelmgustloff.com, run by Dave Krawczyk. Started in 2007, this fantastic website gave a detailed history on the ship, as well as photos, images, and facts on the liner from construction to survivor accounts. In early 2017, Dave decided to shut down his website and graciously allowed me to merge it into the Wilhelm Gustloff Museum. In April 2020, I was able to reach another goal on my list - a museum room to properly display the entire collection. It was a project that took me a full year to complete with plenty of room to display future acquisitions. Throughout these pages, you will learn about the deadliest maritime disaster in history; not just through her story, but by the physical effects she left behind. So many books on the Wilhelm Gustloff focus solely on her sinking, but I wanted to tell her whole life story from construction to her effect on the present. This site is not about politics, ideological views, or hatred of any sort - but rather it is an ever-growing memorial to 9,343 women, children, and men. The latter pages of the museum are dedicated to the Wilhelm Gustloff's sister ship, the Robert Ley. While not as famous as the Gustloff, her later years were also met with tragedy when Hamburg was bombed in 1945. This site is currently the only place in the internet where an exhibit on the Robert Ley can be found. My goal was to turn the Wilhelm Gustloff Museum into the world's largest online collection of artifacts from these two liners. Some of the images and information in my archives have already been published in books, including 'Salt to the Sea' by Ruta Sepetys. The complete list of published materials can be viewed under the Curator's Notes page. With the exception of the few items with credits, every item you will see is in my personal collection. The long-term plan is to open a museum exhibit for the Wilhelm Gustloff's 100th anniversary in 2045. A more recent addition to the online museum is a section under the souvenirs page regarding fake items. Lately, I have noticed an increase in fake Wilhelm Gustloff items in the market and decided to add this section to assist those in distinguishing a genuine souvenir from one made to look authentic. Furthermore, other German militaria sites have been listing such items for sale as originals when they are not - books from her library are the most "faked" item. I am always looking to expand the collection to keep the story of these ship's alive. If you would like to make an item donation from either of these ships, or have an item you are looking to sell, please contact me through the address or email provided below. With your efforts, the museum can help keep collections intact and artifacts displayed to keep her story alive instead of being lost to the world.
*Note: As I post photographs on social media, people often post how the placement of the Wilhelm Gustloff Museum bar across each photo ruins them. This is done to ensure photographs are not stolen and reused without permission, which is what happened with many of the photographs on Dave Krawczyk's website. Furthermore, online photo archives have been known to take and resell images of the Wilhelm Gustloff that do not belong to them. This way, photographs shared automatically have their source stamped on the image to show copyright. I have spent a lot of time and money acquiring these images and take every measure I can to protect them.
Mission Statement: The Wilhelm Gustloff Museum is an online non-profit museum dedicated to exhibiting memorabilia of historical value for public viewing and research benefit. By promoting and displaying such artifacts, they are prevented from falling into private collections where their history will be forgotten and be lost to the world.
The Wilhelm Gustloff Museum logo copyright 2010. All items are owned by the museum unless otherwise credited. The museum page layout is 1300 pixels wide, which is best viewed on an HD screen.
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This site was finalized & published for the first time on February 17th, 2010. Last Updated: April 2nd, 2021
Contact Information: The Wilhelm Gustloff Museum Edward Petruskevich - Curator P.O. Box 7035 Hampton, Virginia 23666 United States of America
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The torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff by the Russian submarine S-13 resulted in over 9,000 tragic deaths - a staggering figure by any comparison. Heartbreakingly, estimates have indicated that up to half of those who perished were children. Furthermore, examination of history and facts surrounding the Gustloff provide drama rivaling any award-winning movie or book ever made. However, ask most people to name the greatest ship disaster in history and you'll usually get a response that inevitably includes the Titanic (which is usually dismissed as being too obvious). Other suggestions will be offered like the Lusitania, Empress of Ireland, USS Arizona, Andrea Doria, etc. Depending on where you live in the world, the ship names may be different - with the probable exception of the Titanic due to its profile. Rarely will the Gustloff (or indeed other German ships evacuating the Bay of Danzig/Gdansk in early 1945) be among them. Why? Perhaps in the years to come, the Wilhelm Gustloff will be seen as much more than a footnote in history. In the meantime, many suggestions have been made as to why it is largely an "untold story" today. Here are some in no particular order: 1 - Occurred during wartime: Many view wartime disasters as less "tragic" than those occurring during peacetime. Perhaps it is because those trapped in a wartime environment should expect the potential for danger. 2 - Happened to the "losing" side: Quite simply, since the dawn of time, the "losing" side of any war suffers a loss of historical documentation and profile of their own events - even tremendously tragic ones. Much of the archival information on the Wilhelm Gustloff was destroyed when Blohm + Voss was bombed during the war.
3 - German war-guilt has repressed the disaster: Over the last 70 years, numerous Germans have felt war-guilt for their country's role in WWII. Many would have hesitated to mourn, lest they be accused of equating German suffering with Nazi atrocities. There are signs that enough time and healing have passed in Germany for proper acknowledgement of this tragedy. Günter Grass' book Crabwalk, deals with this issue in a sophisticated and coherent manner. 4 - Russian retribution for Nazi occupation: When the Nazis broke their pact with Stalin and invaded Soviet Russia in 1941, their tactics were often brutal and cold. Hitler himself made it clear that this was a war different from that waged in the West. He called it a "war of extermination". When the tide eventually turned and the Soviets were marching toward Berlin, the Red Army had no mercy - and exacted horrific revenge. Since the Soviets were the only Allies in control of the Bay of Danzig both near the end of the war and for many years after, they were not about to mourn the loss of life on any enemy ship. 5 - World sentiment regarding Nazi atrocities: As the world learned more about Nazi war-crimes and systematic genocide - above all the Holocaust, subdued global reaction to a disaster on this scale is understandable. Under other circumstances, 4,000 innocent children dying in a single disaster would certainly be mourned by almost anyone in a friendly or enemy nation.
6 - The ship was named for a prominent Nazi leader: Wilhelm Gustloff was a leader of the Nazi party (NSDAP) in Switzerland before his assassination. One wonders if the profile of this sinking might have been higher is the ship had been named after a city or non-Nazi figure. Ironically, the ship was originally to be named the Adolf Hitler, which may have repressed the disaster even more. 7 - Soviet submarine S-13 Captain Alexander Marinesko: Had a different submarine with a different captain sunk the Gustloff, the story may have received a much higher profile in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately for Marinesko, his reputation and indiscretions on land made his character incompatible with the Soviet ideal. His reputation was eventually resurrected many years later by the Soviet Government, but only as a hero who sunk a fascist ship filled with military personnel only. 8 - Demise of so many refugees (mostly women and children): For months, the disaster remained largely unreported both inside and outside Germany. Inside the imploding Nazi-Germany, Hitler wanted to suppress awareness about the death of so many (especially occurring on what once had been the flagship of the KdF and symbol of unity among the German Volk). With the western Allies, it would not have made for a popular news story involving the deaths of so many women and children. 9 - There is no American connection or Hollywood profile: Since comparisons are inevitable, we can see how the Titanic profile was raised even higher worldwide with an Academy-Award winning movie from Hollywood. Unlike the Titanic, the Gustloff was not sailing toward America, nor did it have any American passengers on its decks. This may very well change in the near future as more learn about the cope of this tragedy, and the incredible story that surrounds it. 10 - No world-renowned celebrities or citizens were on board at the time of the disaster: In another inevitable comparison to the Titanic, none of the Gustloff passengers on the fateful voyage were rich world famous, or of society's elite. Most were refugees simply trying to escape a terrible situation.
Wilhelm Gustloff: Najwieksza Morska Tragedia / Largest Maritime Tragedy For those who are more visual learners like myself, this video is a wonderful summary of the Gustloff's life with great scoring and original footage. It begins with original footage of the construction & launch of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1937. Much of the following material is maiden voyage footage of the Gustloff and includes color film from on board the Robert Ley in 1939. The video goes on to show her as an accommodation liner in Gotenhafen and naval operations during the war. Finally, Operation Hannibal and the discovery of the Gustloff by the S-13. The sinking footage is from the movie Die Gustloff as well as documentaries on the sinking. The video ends with footage of divers on the wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the 1990s / early 2000s.
"Once the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is known, the information on these pages not only becomes more meaningful - but an awe-inspiring exhibit for history."