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Refugee

by Alan Gratz

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Refugee Summary

Refugee is a novel by Alan Gratz that examines three interrelated stories of the refugee experience.

  • Josef Landau is a Jewish boy in Germany in 1938. He and his family try to escape to Cuba on the St. Louis but are turned away. Josef’s sister, Ruth, is offered asylum by a French family and survives the Holocaust.
  • Isabel Fernandez lives in Cuba in 1994. Lito, Isabel’s grandfather, allows himself to be deported so that the Fernandezes can make it to Florida.
  • Mahmoud Bishara’s story is the most recent: he and his family live in Aleppo, Syria, in 2015 and escape to Germany.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Alan Gratz’s novel Refugee (2017) illuminates the worldwide refugee crisis through the stories of three children fleeing possible death with their families in different times and places. Though the stories are fictionalized, the events they draw from are historical, enabling readers to empathize with the perils of those whose lives are too often dismissed as remote news stories.

The novel begins with the story line of twelve-year-old Josef, a Jewish boy in Germany. On Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” members of the Brownshirts, the police force of Nazi Germany, invade Josef’s house and take away his father, Aaron Landau. Aaron’s purported crime is that he is still practicing law when the Nazis have expressly forbidden the Jewish community from that profession. Aaron’s real crime, of course, is that he is a Jew, the minority group that Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler wants to eradicate.

Six months later, Aaron tells his family in a letter that he has been released from the concentration camp Dachau by the Nazis on the condition that the family leave Germany immediately. Josef; his mother, Rachel; and his sister, Ruth, leave for Hamburg, where they are to meet Aaron and sail to Cuba, which is said to be offering asylum to those fleeing Nazi Germany. Meeting Aaron at Hamburg, Josef is shocked to see his once-confident father visibly anxious and harrowed. This immediately places Josef in the role of an adult, forcing him to grow up quickly.

On the ship, Ruth, born in Nazi Germany, has the freedom to play openly for the first time in her life. Heartrendingly, Josef notes that he and “Ruthie” never want to leave the St. Louis, the first place they have been treated as human beings in a long while. However, despite the presence of kind adults like Captain Schroeder, the ship is also haunted by Nazi spies, like Otto Schiendick, who mistreat Jews.

Meanwhile, there is a rumor spreading that the ship’s passengers are likely to be turned back from Cuba, a thought too terrible for Josef to accept. The rumor proves all too true, however, when the ship is marooned at the Cuban harbor for days, with officials telling the passengers day after day they will be allowed to disembark mañana—Spanish for “tomorrow.” Aaron, who suffers a mental breakdown and jumps ship, is rescued by a Cuban police officer called Mariano Padron and allowed into Cuba, but Josef, Rachel, and Ruth—and the rest of the passengers of the St. Louis—are turned back.

The ship leaves for Europe, and Captain Schroeder promises to divide the passengers between England, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. The Landaus disembark in France, which gives them some months of respite. However, soon enough, Germany invades Poland, thus beginning World War II. The Nazis invade France in 1940, forcing the Landaus to go on the run once again. On their way to Switzerland, the Landaus unfortunately run into German soldiers. In exchange for Rachel’s diamonds, the soldiers offer her an impossible bargain: she can save just one of her children from being arrested.

In Cuba in 1994, eleven-year-old Isabel Fernandez lives a life of poverty and uncertainty in the middle of civil strife. With the fall of the Soviet Union, aid to Cuba has dried up, and many families starve. In large numbers, Cubans are protesting the regime of Fidel Castro, whose flawed policies they believe have led to the economic catastrophe. After the police see Isabel’s father participate in a riot, there is no option but for the Fernandez family to leave Cuba by boat. Like Josef, Isabel too has to grow up overnight in the face of uncertainty and assume the mantle of the adult of the family. Not only does Isabel rescue her father from arrest, she also sells her beloved trumpet to enable the family to buy gasoline to power the boat her neighbors, the Castillos, have been secretly building. Along with the Castillos—including Isabel’s best friend, Iván—Isabel; her father, Geraldo; and her pregnant mother, Teresa, leave Havana for Florida.

Isabel’s beloved grandfather Lito—short for Abuelito—is on board as well, though he is unsure about leaving Cuba. Braving extremely choppy and shark-infested waters, the two families make the ninety-mile run to Florida. However, unspeakable tragedy occurs when Iván dies in a sudden shark attack. Thus, Gratz presents the stark reality of the perils of such a passage. Lito keeps reminding himself and Isabel that they will get to America tomorrow—mañana—a promise that soon reveals a deeper meaning.

After drifting off to the Bahamas, the Fernandez and Castillo families finally steer back on course to reach Florida, but not before Isabel’s mother delivers her baby brother in the boat. The passage of the two families is secured by Lito, who throws himself into the water to distract the US Coast Guard. Lito is rescued and deported to Cuba. In doing so, he is able to atone for a past crime: he is Mariano Padron, one of the police officers who kept the passengers of the St. Louis from disembarking in Cuba in 1939, and only after stalling them for days with the false promise of mañana. Forced to be an asylum-seeker himself, Lito finally understands the predicament of those on the ship. According to history, most of the St. Louis’s passengers had to return to Europe, denied asylum by Cuba and Europe. Out of the 937 aboard, roughly 254 ultimately perished in Nazi concentration camps.

The third story belongs to thirteen-year-old Mahmoud Bishara, who lives in war-torn Aleppo, Syria, against the backdrop of a crisis which continues into the present day. Once a beautiful, thriving city, Aleppo is now a bombed shell of its former self. Mahmoud and his traumatized younger brother, Waleed, have learned to survive the frequent bombings and the bullying by majority Sunnis by learning to be “invisible.” However, the family is forced to act when their neighborhood is bombed.

Mahmoud; Waleed; their parents, Youssef and Fatima; and their baby sister, Hana, leave for Germany. Making their way past ISIS operatives, they get to Turkey by road, where a boat is to take them to Greece “tomorrow.” Again, like it was for the Landaus at the Cuban coast, that “tomorrow” is deferred, day after day and week after week, and the family is forced to take shelter in an abandoned Turkish mall.

When the family finally gets to their promised boat, they find that it is merely a rubber raft. The Bisharas set sail on the crowded raft, standing in the freezing rain and cold. Before long, the raft capsizes, and the family stays alive by floating in the frigid water, their counterfeit life jackets refusing to work. Fatima holds little Hana over her head, while Mahmoud keeps Fatima afloat. A passing, overcrowded boat cannot accommodate all of them, but at Mahmoud’s insistence, a woman onboard agrees to take Hana.

Eventually, the rest of the family is rescued by the Greek Coast Guard and taken to Lesbos, where the coast is littered with the bodies of Syrian refugees who drowned in transit. Finally, the Bisharas reach Germany, where they are offered a place to stay by a kind older Jewish woman. The woman promises Mahmoud that she will help them find Hana and reveals to them her own story of being a refugee. Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud’s strands begin to converge.

The elderly woman Mahmoud meets is Ruth, Josef’s younger sister. That day in 1940 in France, her mother could not make the impossible choice before her. Josef did, and he sacrificed himself for Ruth. Josef and Rachel were captured by the Nazis, while Ruth was adopted by a kind French family. After the war ended, Ruth returned to Germany to look for Josef and Rachel, but learned that the two were killed in concentration camps. In their memory, she decided to make Berlin her home.

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