Summary: Josef / Berlin, Germany-1939 / 1 day from home
Josef, Ruth, and their mother ride in the Jewish car on a train from Berlin to Hamburg. They plan to flee to Cuba, one of the few countries still accepting Jews in 1939. Josef remembers when he was forced to stand in front of his class while the teacher pointed out all of the distinguishing features of Jewish people. While his mother and sister sleep, Josef removes his paper Star of David armband and walks through the non-Jewish train cars. He buys a newspaper and has a pleasant interaction with the man who sold it, but Josef knows that the conversation would have been very different if he had been wearing his armband.
While he is trying to get a coin out of his pocket, his armband falls on the floor. A boy wearing a Hitler Youth uniform grabs the armband and makes Josef follow him to another car. Josef remembers how he was attacked by boys in Hitler Youth uniforms outside of school. One the boys was his friend Klaus. Josef knew that it was shameful for families not to have their children join the Hitler Youth, but he also knew that it turned them into monsters.
Summary: Isabel / Havana, Cuba-1994
Isabel stops playing her trumpet as a riot breaks out: she hears gunfire and people shouting about Fidel Castro. She runs to find her father and grandfather while people smash storefronts and steal items. She finds her grandfather and gives him her trumpet, determined to find her father. After climbing onto the hood of a car, she sees her father throw a bottle at a line of policemen. The policemen attack the crowd with batons and circle around her father. Isabel runs over and almost gets hit with a baton, but she is saved by a policeman—Iván’s older brother, Luis. The police are called away, but one of them threatens Isabel’s father before he leaves. Luis gives Isabel a look of warning: they must get her father out of Cuba that night.
Summary: Mahmoud / Aleppo, Syria-2015
After praying, Mahmoud returns to his homework while Waleed watches cartoons. There is a loud noise outside as Mahmoud’s neighborhood is bombed. A blast that throws Mahmoud into a wall destroys his apartment. After catching his breath, Mahmoud starts looking for his family members. As more bombs go off, Mahmoud looks out across the street through the empty space where the wall of his apartment used to be.
Summary: Josef / On a Train to Hamburg, Germany-1939 / 1 day from home
The Hitler Youth escorts Josef back to the Jewish car, bypassing a member of the Gestapo and choosing not to turn Josef in. When Josef expresses his thanks, the boy becomes embarrassed and leaves. Josef’s family arrives in Hamburg and heads to the docks, where they meet Aaron, Josef’s father. The sight of Josef’s father startles the family: his head and beard have been shaved, he is much thinner, and he is very paranoid.
While the family waits to board their ship, Josef’s father runs ahead, pushing past people in line. Josef is surprised that all of the ship’s crew, who are not wearing Star of David armbands, treat Josef and his family like normal people. Once the family is inside their cabin, which is clean and comfortable, Josef’s father tells them that it is a trick. Josef and his sister are sent to the promenade while his mother looks after his father. Josef wonders what happened to him, to change him so much.
Summary: Isabel / Just Outside Havana, Cuba-1994
Isabel’s father Geraldo and grandfather Lito argue about whether Geraldo should leave the family and try to escape to America. Lito points out that Isabel’s mother, Teresa, is very pregnant. On the television, a newscast interrupts the baseball game, with an announcement from Fidel Castro that the Cuban navy will no longer try to stop people from leaving Cuba to go to America. Isabel knows that if the American Coast Guard does not catch refugees from Cuba on the ocean, then they are given refugee status and allowed to stay once they reach land. Isabel suggests that the entire family should escape to America together, since there will not be enough food for the new baby anyway.
When Isabel asks Iván’s father if her family can join Iván’s family on their boat, the father replies that there is too little room, and no gasoline. Isabel trades her trumpet to a nearby fisherman for two jugs of gasoline, hoping that they will buy passage for her family with Iván’s. She gives the kitten that she had been feeding to the fisherman, as well, hoping that he can feed it.
Summary: Mahmoud / Aleppo, Syria-2015
Mahmoud pulls his brother back from the edge left by the missing wall. The two, along with Mahmoud’s mother and sister, Hana, escape the building just before it collapses. Mahmoud’s father, Youssef, joins them and tells them that they must all flee the country. They will travel to Turkey in their car and then sell the car and travel to Germany, where refugees are accepted. When the family questions Youssef about the plan, he tells them that their home is destroyed, but they have some money and their lives. Mahmoud thinks about how far Germany was from Syria on the maps he studied in school.
The Star of David armbands Josef’s family and other Jews are required to wear are a symbol of their exclusion from full citizenship and German national identity. Josef notes that the armbands make them invisible as they move through the world. People in the train station move past them as if they were not people, which Gratz compares to water flowing past stones. Porters do not offer to help with their bags which points to their invisibility. When Josef removes his armband and walks into the rest of the train, he becomes visible to others again. The concession stand man talks cheerfully with him, and no one remarks on his being out of place. Without the mark of the Star of David, Christian Germans accept him as German, which shows that the distinction is an arbitrary one. No one can tell he is Jewish without the armband. When he accidentally shows his identity by dropping the armband, he is once again revealed to be Jewish, and the Hitler Youth boy marches him back to the segregated area of the train, which shows the power of the star symbol to determine how the world sees him.
In this section, Gratz uses the stories of Klaus to show the ways political conflicts cause children to take sides against each other. Klaus, a Christian, is Josef’s best friend at school. Although he does not want to join the Hitler Youth, he signs up to avoid the shame that will be directed at his family if he does not. This is an example of the pressure the Nazi regime puts on people to support their policies and how easily many people agree to side with powerful forces. When Herr Meier shows the class a racist illustration of supposed Jewish facial types, he calls Josef to the front of the room as an example. Josef does not resemble the pictures on the poster: the teacher’s point is to single him out for humiliation. Even though Klaus sympathizes with Josef in that moment, he nevertheless joins other members of Hitler Youth in beating Josef up after school, which shows how the children mimic the politics of the adults in Nazi Germany.
The riot on the Malecón is a symbol of the chaos of life in an unstable political regime. While Castro has a firm grip on power in Cuba, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its subsidies has destabilized the nation’s economy. Although there is no external aggressor causing a war in Cuba, the resulting poverty and starvation has left people ready to explode into violence. Gratz provides no explanation for the riot’s beginnings, emphasizing that for Isabel and other ordinary people, the cause of the violence is unimportant. What matters is the chaos that is always close at hand. During the riot, Isabel shows a brave character when she sees a policeman beating her father and rushes to intervene. The police officer, rather than recognizing that she is a child with no involvement in the action he is punishing Papi for, prepares to beat her, too. This moment demonstrates that the chaos of Cuba is a danger to Isabel and others regardless of their thoughts about the regime or even their actions. Life in an unstable regime is chaotic, one reason refugees leave their homes.
The story of Khalid continues Gratz’s theme throughout the text of political conflicts causing children to take sides against each other. Khalid is a Shiite Muslim, a minority in Sunni-majority Syria. Before the war, he and Khalid are best friends, but even though they do not personally believe that Sunnis and Shiites should not be friends, the war drives them apart. Mahmoud and Khalid share many interests, and when Mahmoud finds Khalid being attacked by bullies, he flies to his defense, leading to both of them being badly beaten. The bullies that beat them up are examples of children taking sides due to a political conflict. Their attack on him is shown to be political rather than personal by their statements that “Shia should know their place” in Sunni-majority Syria. Mahmoud and Khalid also alter their behavior as a result of the political conflict, both shutting down to avoid bullying, no longer speaking in class or going to the playground. Ultimately, they let their friendship die in order to avoid attracting more violence.
In this section, Gratz juxtaposes images of chaos and destruction with ordinary details of life, emphasizing his theme throughout the book that refugee children are regular people. While Isabel bargains for the gasoline necessary for her family to leave Cuba, she also takes care to find a home for the kitten she has found, telling the fisherman to call her Leona, after the Lions, Iván’s favorite baseball team. While she and Iván are about to become refugees, they are also ordinary children, with ordinary interests. As Josef’s family flees the Nazis, Ruthie grips her stuffed rabbit and complains that her coat is hot. Mahmoud, working on math homework after prayers, notices the sound of the incoming missile that will destroy his home gradually overwhelming the theme song of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon Waleed is watching. All these ordinary details make the lives of the refugee children feel more real and immediate, which makes it easy to identify with them.