Summary: Josef / Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean-1939 / 6 days from home

While Josef’s mother continues to tend to his father, Josef and Ruth enjoy their time aboard the MS St. Louis: they eat proper meals and even get to watch cartoons during movie night. They make friends with two girls, Renata and Evelyne, who are Ruth’s age and play pranks on other passengers. Having just turned thirteen, Josef looks forward to his bar mitzvah, where he will celebrate becoming a man. 

Summary: Isabel / Just Outside Havana, Cuba-1994

At night, Isabel and her family join Iván’s family, the Castillos, and carry the small boat to the beach. When they arrive, Isabel is amazed at how many other boats there are, built from all kinds of different items. A CNN news crew, using a camera with a spotlight, tries to talk to Isabel and her family, but they hurry into the water and try to start the boat. Isabel and her father are frightened when she sees two policemen running toward the boat, but these turn out to be Iván’s older brother, Luis, and Luis’s girlfriend, who are also trying to escape Cuba. Some other policeman on the shore shoot at Isabel’s boat, but it is only struck once, and once the engine revs to life, the two families escape unharmed.

Summary: Mahmoud / Just Outside Aleppo, Syria-2015 / 1 day from home

As Mahmoud and his family drive toward Turkey, he thinks about all of the factions in his country: the military, the rebels, the Daesh (ISIS), as well as the Russians and Americans with their airstrikes. When the car is stopped by a group of soldiers, the soldiers ask Mahmoud’s father which side he supports. Waleed pipes up to say that they are against whoever dropped bombs on their house. The soldiers laugh and agree: they are rebels. The rebels get into the car, tell Mahmoud’s father that the routes to Turkey are unsafe, and then ask to be driven south. Soon after, the gunfire hits the car, killing one of the rebels. Mahmoud and his family scramble into a nearby ditch as the other rebels run from the car and start fighting.

Summary: Josef / Somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean-1939 / 8 days from home

The first class social hall is transformed into a synagogue, and Josef has his bar mitzvah, but his father does not attend. Before the event, when one of the rabbis asked to have a portrait of Hitler removed from the social hall, the captain complied, but some of the crew were obviously angered. 
Josef enjoys the bar mitzvah and wanders around the promenade. He runs into Evelyne and Renata, who are locking the doors to bathroom stalls, and reprimands them. As Josef passes by two ship stewards, he overhears them talking about the need to get to Cuba quickly, in case Cuba decides to stop accepting Jews. One of the stewards also states that Schroeder, the captain, has not told the crew everything. Joseph wonders what will happen if Cuba does not let them in.

Summary: Isabel / The Straits of Florida, Somewhere North of Cuba-1994 / 1 day from home

The seven passengers on the small boat joke about Fidel Castro and talk about their expectations for America. After Luis’s girlfriend, Amara, introduces herself, Isabel’s grandfather Lito gives her flirtatious compliments. Lito says that there should be music and starts singing; he also invites Amara to dance with him in the middle of the crowded boat. Everyone sings and the two dance, until the boat’s motor dies.

Summary: Mahmoud / Kilis, Turkey-2015 / 2 days from home

Mahmoud and his family walk with a large group of refugees and successfully enter Turkey. Once across the border, the family walks through a refugee camp that consists of many tents. Mahmoud’s father tells the family that he has contacted a smuggler who can take them from Turkey to Greece; once inside the EU, they can apply for asylum as refugees. To meet the smuggler, the family must get to Izmir, on the Turkish coast—twelve hours away by car, if they can find a ride. Mahmoud stops at a used-goods market and buys a Ninja Turtle action figure for Waleed. Mahmoud’s father finds him and asks where the rest of the family is; he has found a ride, but they must leave immediately.


Josef’s bar mitzvah is a pivotal moment in his character development. It marks his formal transition from childhood to adulthood. Even at the start of the book, Josef is counting down the days until his bar mitzvah, telling the Nazi soldiers he has “six months and eleven days” left until he is a man. Although Josef is excited when the social hall is converted to a synagogue, meaning he can have his bar mitzvah aboard the St. Louis, the arrival of the day is bittersweet. Aaron, terrified it is a trap, refuses to go, an abandonment that marks a sad part of Josef’s growing up. Josef tells himself that part of becoming a man is no longer relying on his father. While Aaron believes no one will be foolish enough to risk exposure by attending the event, Josef’s fear that there will not be the necessary ten men for a minyan is needless. More than a hundred men attend, donning yarmulkes and prayer shawls, an image representing the pride and strength of the Jewish community in the face of danger. Josef does not become a man alone, but as a member of a full community.

The portrait of Hitler in the first-class social hall of the St. Louis represents the ever-present threat of the Nazi regime. Although the passengers on the St. Louis believe they are escaping the Nazis and most of the sailors and officers on the ship treat them with respect, the portrait of Hitler is a reminder that the ship is a German one, and until they disembark in Cuba or another free country, they are in danger. When Josef arrives for his bar mitzvah, the rabbi asks Captain Schroeder to remove the painting for the occasion. He argues that it is inappropriate to celebrate a Jewish rite of passage under Hitler’s gaze. While Schroeder immediately has the portrait taken away, Josef sees Otto Scheindick, watching from the gallery above the room, react in anger. Scheindick’s reaction foreshadows the abuse he will enact when the captain is not there to stop him. His observation of the bar mitzvah from above makes him a physical manifestation of Nazi power, a real person embodying the hatred the portrait of Hitler represents. Even as the ship nears Cuba with a sympathetic captain, the passengers are still under the threat from the Nazis.

The soldiers Mahmoud’s family encounters as they attempt to leave Syria criticize Youssef for leaving rather than staying to fight for the country, which exposes a theme of the tension between duty to family and duty to country. While the soldiers laugh at Waleed’s comment that they are “against whoever is dropping the bombs on us,” the soldiers disapprove of Youssef when they discover he is not staying to fight Assad but leaving for Turkey. When he tells them he is focused on keeping his family safe, one replies that his own family was killed in an airstrike, implying that people who leave rather than staying to fight contribute to the continuation of a war that is killing civilians. Mahmoud wonders in that moment whether leaving is the right thing to do. In this scene, Gratz shows how the duty to protect one’s family can be seen as a refusal to save one’s country and the other families that live there.

The piropos Lito gives to Amara and the salsa music they all begin to sing and dance to on the boat represent the Cuban culture Isabel’s family and the Castillos are carrying with them to America. Even as they tell jokes about the bad parts of life in Cuba and share their dreams for life in the United States, they enjoy the positive parts of Cuban culture, an example of the theme in the book of refugees blending the cultures of their countries of origin and their new homes. While they are eager to leave the instability and poverty of Castro’s Cuba, they nevertheless maintain a proud connection to the culture of Cuba that is bigger than one president. Lito’s piropos represent a Cuban culture older than Castro, which Gratz refers to as an art form. The salsa music they sing and dance to unites them all as Cubans, following the clave beat that Gratz compares throughout the text to a heartbeat, the living sound of Cuba. Although they are leaving Cuba behind, they are carrying the culture within them to the United States.