“His father was gone. In many ways, his father had never really come back from the concentration camp. Not the father Josef knew and remembered. Not the father he loved. He had come back in body, but not in spirit.”

In the third chapter titled “Josef: Just Outside Havana Harbor – 1939,” Josef watches his father being rescued from sharks after he jumps overboard. Although the other passengers watching are relieved to see Aaron rescued, Josef understands in this moment that, although he is alive, his father is nevertheless lost to him, an example of Gratz’s theme of the lasting effects of traumatic events. Throughout their journey on the St. Louis, Aaron has shown that he has been psychologically damaged by his time in the concentration camp. He is a different man than he was before Kristallnacht, terrified of the world, easily angered and frightening to his children. Josef has to threaten him into submission in order for their family to pass the port medical inspection, because Aaron remembers the brutality of the roll call at Dachau and the memory of that trauma leaves him crying out “like a wounded dog.” Although Aaron was released from the camp, the horrors he lived through there have left him with lasting psychological injuries.   

“Of the four members of his family who were left, he was the only one who wasn’t broken.”

When Mahmoud is in the Hungarian detention center, in the second chapter titled “Mahmoud: Hungary – 2015,” he sees how the war and their time as refugees has hurt his family member’s spirits, an example of the theme throughout the book of the lasting effects of traumatic events. Even before they leave Aleppo, Mahmoud sees Waleed as a “robot,” never smiling, crying, or showing any other emotion. Losing Hana has left Fatima unable to focus on anything except asking everyone she sees if they have news of her. Once they are detained in Hungary and Youssef is beaten, even he has no more jokes to lighten the mood and just sits staring into space. Even Mahmoud is not truly left unharmed by what they have gone through: life in the war has left him highly anxious and afraid of being noticed. Nevertheless, he is able to overcome the fear of being seen to rise up against the guards at the detention center and inspire the other refugees to leave. While no one in his family has been left unharmed by the traumas they have experienced, there is still hope for all of them to recover. 

“Lito’s arm found Isabel again now and wrapped her in a hug. ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ he said close to her ear where she could hear him. ‘I’m thinking about it too.’”

As Isabel works hard to bail out the water filling their boat in the storm, in the chapter titled “Isabel: Somewhere on The Straits of Florida – 1994,” she cannot help thinking of the death of her grandmother, who was swept away by the ocean in a hurricane. This is an example of the novel’s theme of the lasting effects of traumatic events. The trauma of watching her grandmother killed by the sea has left her with thoughts that intrude while she is desperately trying to survive. The same is true of Lito, who saved Isabel from the hurricane but not his wife. However, even though both of them are thinking of the same terrible memory, they can support each other to stay focused on their current need to survive. Lito’s hug comforts Isabel, and after she sheds a few tears, she continues bailing out the boat. Even though the trauma of Abuelita’s death has left marks on her and Lito, they are able to acknowledge their shared sadness and still face their current challenges.