Refugee Summary
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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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...

(The entire section is 1,329 words.)