Refugee Characters
by Alan Gratz

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Refugee Characters

The main characters in Refugee are Josef Landau, Isabel Fernandez, and Mahmoud Bishara.

  • Josef Landau is a twelve-year-old Jewish boy living in Berlin, Germany, in 1938. After his family is denied asylum in Cuba, Josef sacrifices himself so that his sister, Ruth, will be spared from the concentration camps.
  • Isabel Fernandez is eleven and lives in Havana, Cuba, in 1994. She plays trumpet and is deeply tied to Cuban culture. Most of her family is able to make it to Florida.
  • Mahmoud Bishara is a thirteen-year-old in Aleppo, Syria, in 2015, during the ongoing civil war. He and his family escape to Germany.

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Josef Landau

Twelve-year-old Josef is a Jewish boy in Berlin, Germany, in 1938. Awaiting his bar mitzvah—the Jewish ceremony that marks the passage from boyhood to manhood—Josef is shown to be proud of his heritage. However, his cultural pride is spoiled by fear. The Nazi Party rules Germany, and their leader, Adolf Hitler, wants to eradicate Jews from Europe. Forced to flee Germany, Josef and his family set sail for Cuba on the MS St. Louis.

From this point, Josef’s character arc takes on a new trajectory. With his father, Aaron, almost incapacitated by his experiences at the Nazi concentration camp Dachau, Josef is thrust into the role of a decisive adult. After his father is left behind in Cuba and the St. Louis turns back to Europe with most of its passengers, Josef grows more pensive, now placed firmly in the role of the man of the household. It is clear that his story is placed on a more tragic path than that of Isabel and Mahmoud, but Josef still holds out hope for a better future.

Though Josef, Rachel, and Ruth find asylum in France, the Landaus’ peaceful interlude is brief, as Hitler invades France in 1940. Forced to flee again, this time by foot to Switzerland, the Landaus run into four German soldiers. In exchange for Rachel’s diamonds, the soldiers allow her to leave one of her children behind in France—and in relative safety. Rachel is paralyzed by the impossible choice, and Josef steps in and decides to spare Ruth.

Decades later, Ruth returns to Germany to look for Rachel and Josef and learns that they both died in a Nazi concentration camp during the war. Josef sacrificed his life for his younger sister, performing the ultimate heroic act.

Isabel Fernandez

Isabel is eleven years old and lives in Havana, Cuba, in 1994, under Fidel Castro’s regime. Like Josef, Isabel is deeply connected to her heritage, especially through music. An expert trumpet player, Isabel worries about her inability to count the Cuban rhythm called clave. Despite her love for the music and boulevards of Havana, Isabel is acutely aware of the civil unrest and poverty plaguing her country. Though she is initially torn between her deep cultural ties for Cuba and the prospect of a safe existence elsewhere, she is spurred into decision when her father, Geraldo, runs into trouble with the Cuban police.

Isabel is shown to be extraordinarily courageous and resourceful, saving her father from the police and trading her trumpet for gasoline so the family can leave Cuba by boat along with their neighbors, the Castillos. Deeply attached to her best friend, Iván Castillo, and her grandfather Lito, Isabel makes heroic choices that prioritize human ties over everything else. Not only does he save Señor Castillo from drowning, she also guides her family to safe harbor in Miami, Florida. Yet she too faces her share of tragedy: Iván is attacked by a shark on their way to America and bleeds to death before Isabel’s eyes.

However, Isabel’s story ends on a positive note. After she lands in America, her great-uncle Guillermo gives her a trumpet, on which she spontaneously counts clave. Although Isabel has left Cuba, Cuba has not left her. In this, Isabel is an example of how displaced communities can continue their culture.

Mahmoud Bishara

Living in war-torn Aleppo, Syria, in 2015, thirteen-year-old Mahmoud has learned to survive the daily threat to...

(The entire section is 1,357 words.)