Summary: Josef / Somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean-1939 / 10 days from home

Josef and some other children are given a tour of the ship. On the bridge, Josef asks the captain if they are racing two other boats to Cuba. The captain looks irritated, but tells Josef that there is nothing to worry about. When Josef and the other children are led to the engine room by a sailor named Jockl, they all hear another group of sailors singing “The Horst Wessel Song,” the anthem of the Nazi Party. Jockl tries to get the kids to the engine room unnoticed, but one of the singing soldiers, Schiendick, stops them. Jockl says that they have the captain’s permission to be below deck; Schiendick calls the children “Jewish rats” before letting them pass.

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

Several people try to get the engine working again by pouring seawater over it, thinking that it has overheated. While they float, adrift, Lito talks about how Cuba has changed over the years and how they shouldn’t have left, because now everyone is in danger. He says that Isabel’s father, his son-in-law, doesn’t even have a plan. Isabel defends her father, saying that they had to leave so that he would not be arrested. While arguing, they notice a large tanker headed toward them.

Summary: Mahmoud / Izmir, Turkey-2015 / 4 days from home

Mahmoud and his family stand in the rain in Izmir, talking to the smuggler who is supposed to take them to Greece. The smuggler tells them that they have to wait another day for the boat and gives them directions to a hotel that will take Syrians. After learning that the hotel is full, Mahmoud and his family walk to a park that is packed with refugees. A young boy offers to show them a better place to stay if they pay him. Although they are trying to save money, the family pays the boy and follows him to an abandoned shopping mall. There are other families squatting in the mall; Mahmoud’s family is led to a rundown yogurt shop. The boy who led them also convinces them that they will need to buy life jackets for their boat trip.

Summary: Josef / Somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean-1939

After hearing that one of the passengers has died, Josef’s father insists on going to the funeral, saying that he saw too many men die in Dachau without funerals. Josef attends the funeral-at-sea with his father, where they observe several Jewish traditions, including tearing their own clothes and grabbing handfuls of sand. Before the body is dropped overboard, Schiendick says that German law requires that the body be covered by the national flag. When Schiendick presents a Nazi flag to put over the body, Josef’s father spits at Schiendick’s feet. Captain Schroeder breaks up the ensuing argument and tells Schiendick to take the flag and leave the funeral. Josef notices that the captain and first officer give normal salutes as the body goes overboard, instead of Nazi salutes.

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

The occupants of the boat argue with one another as they try to start the engine. Before they can get the engine going, the tanker comes very close, rocking the boat with large waves. Barely clear of the tanker as it passes, the boat is full of water and Iván’s father is thrown overboard. Isabel jumps into the water to try to save him, while Iván yells to his father.

Summary: Mahmoud / Izmir, Turkey-2015 / 11 days from home

For more than a week, the smuggler has told Mahmoud’s family that the boat is coming “tomorrow.” The family walk back to the abandoned mall but are not allowed inside. Two men in tracksuits, one with a gun in his waistband, tell Mahmoud’s father that they have to pay to stay at the mall. The price is outrageous, so the family leaves, but Mahmoud is exhausted. While trying to find a place to sleep, Mahmoud waves down a car and tells the occupants that they need somewhere to stay. The driver agrees to help them, but Mahmoud’s father receives a text from the smuggler saying that the boat is ready. The driver takes them to the boat instead.


Otto Scheindick and his fellow Nazis among the crew represent the terrifying world waiting for the refugees should they be forced to return to Germany, an example of the danger they are in even on board the apparently safe and pleasant St. Louis. On the first part of the tour, the children visit the bridge, where Captain Schroeder welcomes them and shows them the ship’s controls. While it is clear that the captain is uncomfortable with Josef’s questions about whether they are racing the other refugee ships to Cuba, the captain radiates calm command, intending to put the children at ease. When Josef and the other children on the tour encounter Scheindick singing Nazi songs in the crew deck, Josef realizes that the St. Louis is only a respite from life under the Nazis, not a true safe haven. Although he had imagined he had escaped the hatred that characterized his life in Germany, in fact it lurks just below the surface, literally in the decks below those he and his family walk in an illusion of freedom and safety.

The abandoned shopping mall Mahmoud and his family settle in while waiting for their boat in Izmir represents the sense of helplessness and invisibility the refugees suffer while on their journeys. Although the family has hurried to arrive in Izmir in time for their promised boat to Greece, the smuggler tells them they must wait another day, a frustrating moment that emphasizes their helplessness as refugees dependent on others for transportation. They are also dependent on others for shelter, as it is raining and the hotels are full. The boy they meet in the park who takes them to the mall is part of a host of people taking advantage of the refugees while claiming to help them. However, since the family does not know anyone in Izmir, they have no choice but to pay him to take them to the abandoned mall, where they can at least sleep inside.

The funeral at sea for Professor Weiler forms part of Gratz’s motif throughout the book of religious ceremonies that give meaning to people’s lives. Although Aaron refused even to attend Josef’s bar mitzvah, he wants to go to the funeral, seeing it as an opportunity to mark the life of a Jew in a time when the Nazis are killing Jews for no reason, as if their lives have no meaning. During the ceremony, he teaches Josef Jewish traditions of mourning, a symbolic welcoming of his son into adult Jewish life. Josef copies Aaron tearing his collar, a symbol of the mourners’ sympathy with Professor Weiler’s widow. Aaron leads Josef to the sandbox by the pool to gather a handful of sand, which they release over the ocean after the body is buried at sea as a symbol of human bodies coming from dust and returning to dust again after death. As broken as Aaron has seemed since his release from Dachau, he summons the courage to fight with Scheindick over the Nazi flag Scheindick tries to place over the body, an example of how the ceremony gives even Aaron the strength to fight against the Nazi regime, at least briefly.  

The tanker that nearly destroys the migrants’ boat in the Straits of Florida represents the impersonal hazards that refugees face, an example of the novel’s theme of the physical dangers of displacement. Without the passengers realizing it, their boat has drifted into the shipping lanes, where ships too large to notice them can swamp and destroy their vessel, drowning them. Isabel’s family and the Castillos have worried about Castro and the Cuban forces stopping them from leaving and the U.S. Coast Guard capturing them at sea and sending them back, but the first great danger they face is from an impersonal force that nearly kills them by accident. Although the boat is not sunk by the tanker, Rudi is swept overboard in the dark, lost until Isabel dives in to save him, and example of her bravery and determination to keep the group together. In order to reach safety in the United States, they will have to survive not only the political forces that oppose them but also the physical dangers inherent in crossing the ocean in a small vessel.