(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Jacob Schwart, a high school teacher, is fleeing Nazi Germany with his pregnant wife, Anna, and their two sons, Herschel and August, in 1936. The family has just arrived in the United States after crossing the Atlantic. Anna gives birth to a girl, Rebecca, aboard the ocean liner while it is docked in a New York harbor.

The family’s hope for a new and happy life is quickly dashed, as this land of promise falls short of their dreams. Jobs are scarce, and attitudes toward newly arrived immigrants are hostile. The intellectual Jacob is forced to take what is available: a position as a cemetery caretaker and gravedigger. The loss in status, from respected academic to menial laborer, brings his children ridicule and changes the personalities of all the family members. Jacob becomes hard and violent, Anna weak and withdrawn. August, or Gus, takes to his room and his studies, and Herschel becomes a bully and a troublemaker.

The children of a father in such an ignoble, albeit important, occupation are naturals for taunts, and they also are stigmatized as Krauts, Jews, and supposed Nazis. As the outside world grows uglier, the family starts feeding on itself. Herschel is slightly deranged. He is a wastrel who is close to acting on his incestuous feelings for his sister. Gus is oblivious. Only Rachel shows promise with her mental acumen. Her spelling skills win her a dictionary that she treasures, even though it is inscribed with her name misspelled. Jacob begins to buckle under the labor-intensive work and, eventually, Herschel drops out of school to begrudgingly help his father.

The children face constant abuse in school. Anna turns to her home for refuge, seldom going outside. Jacob is scorned, isolated, and ridiculed. The extent of the hatred the family has incurred is most evident at Halloween, when grave stones are broken and defaced with swastikas. There is no recovering from this outrage. Jacob grows more sullen daily, eventually turning from a gentle scholar into a man of violence. Rebecca returns from school one day to find her mother dead in a pool of blood, her father madly railing about with his shotgun. He turns the weapon on the frightened child but then says that she will survive because she was born on American soil. He turns the barrel and shoots himself in the face, splattering blood, bone, and brain on Rebecca. So begins Rebecca’s journey to womanhood.

In the meantime, Gus has fled, and...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)