The book is divided between the POVs of four people - Joana (Lithuanian), Florian (German), Emilia (Polish), and Alfred (German), each haunted by dark secrets that are revealed in turn.
Joana, Florian, and Emilia are fleeing Eastern Europe with the Red Army hot on their heels. They have heard the horror stories. They also know that no official evacuation orders have been given so they have to be careful. Their aim is Gotenhafen, where evacuation ships await - so they hear.
They meet in a forest under extreme circumstances. Emilia, beset upon by a Russian soldier, is saved by Florian just in time. Though he has no interest in her tagging along with him, she does so anyway. They meet a small group of people, of which Joana is a part. Other characters include a cobbler dubbed 'The Shoe Poet', a blind but extremely perceptive girl called Ingrid, a small boy whose grandma did not wake up, and a woman called Eva. They travel together towards Gotenhafen, though some of them are uncomfortable with having Emilia as part of their group.
The group reaches Gotenhafen, but it is here that disasters start to happen. One of their number is lost beneath the ice. Gaining boarding passes for the ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, is immensely tricky. And even once they are on the ship, all is not yet safe.
The short chapters really help with the sense of pace and urgency these characters would be feeling in their flight towards the ship, and the promise of safety. Certain events are told from more than one point of view, just so we can feel empathy in all its forms. If this was on a cinema screen, the camera would often be darting around every few seconds. As each secret is revealed, your empathy is necessarily increased. None of these characters were necessarily persecuted in the way that we know victims of the Nazi regime were treated, but that does not render the devastation of their lives any less awful. These characters have lost every part of their lives but their own bodies - and even then, they are not fully perfect. It seems so important to have stories like this that tell just a small part about the tens of millions of lives in between Germany and the Soviet Union - the Soviet Union may technically have been on the Allies' side, but it was no less brutal than any other country who took part in the war.
I would encourage everybody to read this if I could. Books about the Holocaust, the fighting in Britain, France, Germany, and other European countries will not become less important, but we need more stories like this, stories of civilians who suffered immensely just because they were in Hitler's sights for lebensraum.