Misha Pilsudski has only been Misha Pilsudski for a short time. Before he was given this identity by another boy, he had none to speak of. He knew only what others called him: Stopthief, Jew, Gypsy. When he encounters a group of boys slightly older than he is, they take him under their collective wing and give him a place to hide, a name, and a history. He truly embraces his identity, as it is the first time he has ever had one. Misha does not understand what it means to be a Jew or a Gypsy. It is sadly humorous when he tells Uri that he is glad not to be a Jew; he does not realize that it is just as bad to be a Gypsy. What he slowly realizes, however, is that he may have been better off without an identity after all. What is so poignant is that the quest to define one's identity is typical of adolescence, so young adult readers will certainly relate to this theme. However, Misha's quest is strikingly different because it means the difference between life and death.
Janina Milgrom is a young Jewish girl who becomes a surrogate sister to Misha. Their relationship begins when Misha steals food from her family's garden. Later, however, he steals food for her family and leaves it on the steps of their house. When Misha moves to the ghetto with her and her family, their lives become inextricably linked. Misha becomes a provider for the Milgroms since he is able to sneak in and out of the ghetto undetected. Oddly, Janina's mother remains skeptical about Misha even after he has proved himself. She refuses to allow him to participate in the family's Hanukkah celebration because he is not Jewish. This is rectified the following year after her death when Janina's father considers Misha truly a part of the family. Uncle Shepsel is a colorful member of the family as well; in fact, Misha thinks he looks like Himmler. Although Shepsel initially refuses to compromise his Jewish identity (for which he pays the ultimate price), he does "convert" to Lutheranism as he believes that will save him from the ghetto. Ultimately, the entire Milgrom family is deported and, one can safely assume, interned and probably killed at one of the concentration camps.
Uri is one of the most interesting characters in the book. He has assumed the role of caretaker for a group of boys who have become totally dependent upon him for their very survival. He seems comfortable in this role and knows what to do. His relationship with Misha is a complex one. He serves as a symbolic father for Misha after bestowing upon him an identity, and he continues to shield him from the reality that is theirs. When Misha does not understand the implications of the Nazis' arrival or the ghettoization of the Jews, Uri speaks to him evasively, trying to protect Misha's innocence.
Dr. Korczak is based on Janusz Korczak (the pen name for Henryk Goldszmit), a well-known author and doctor who ran several orphanages in Poland during World War II. Rather than save himself by going to the "Aryan" section of Warsaw, Korczak chose instead to not abandon the children for whom he had taken responsibility. He and the orphans went together to their deaths at Treblinka.
Katherine is Misha's (Jack's) daughter, born after his wife of five...
(The entire section is 871 words.)