Summary: Josef / Somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean-1939 / 14 days from home

The St. Louis reaches Cuba and drops anchor a fair distance from Havana. The St. Louis is visited by a Cuban doctor who asks to conduct a medical inspection of the passengers. Josef and his family stand in line with the other passengers in the social hall, but Josef worries that his father’s mental state will get them in trouble. Josef decides that he must be the man of the family and slaps his father. He tells his father that the Cuban doctor is checking to see who should be sent back to Dachau, and Josef’s father stands at attention, just as he did when he was a prisoner. The doctor approves the passengers, but the man beside Josef says that it was just a charade. “A giant waste of time.” After the doctor leaves, several Cuban police officers block the only way off the ship and tell the passengers that they will go to Havana “tomorrow.”

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

Isabel has a hard time swimming in the choppy waves but finds Iván’s father and helps him to the surface. The boat circles around and picks them up, but Iván’s father is unconscious. He eventually revives, but the engine has died again and everyone has to bail water out of the boat. They continue to bail water while taking turns sleeping. In the morning, looking at the red clouds in the sky, Lito announces that a storm is coming.

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

Mahmoud and his family are hesitant to board the smuggler’s boat because it is just an inflatable raft with an outboard motor. They decide instead to cram themselves onto the raft with thirty other refugees. None of the smugglers join them as they push out into the Mediterranean. They get the engine started and try to navigate toward the island of Lesbos, but it starts to rain. After someone shouts that they can see rocks ahead, Mahmoud is knocked out of the boat.

Summary: Josef / Just outside Havana harbor-1939 / 17 days from home

Three days after the St. Louis reached Havana, two other boats with refugees are allowed to dock and then sail away. Schiendick grabs Josef and forces him to unlock his parents’ cabin, so that Schiendick and two other men can ransack the room and intimidate Josef’s parents. Schiendick spits on the floor before leaving the room, letting Josef’s father know that the visit was payback for the argument at the funeral. When Josef’s father says that Josef promised that they would not try to take him back to Dachau, Josef realizes that lying to his father during the medical inspection might have only created more problems.

Summary: Isabel / The Straits of Florida, Somewhere North of Cuba-1994 / 2 days from home

Under a heavy rain, almost everyone in the boat frantically bails water just to keep up. The engine has not worked since the encounter with the tanker. The storm reminds Isabel of “The Storm of the Century” that had swept Lito’s wife, Isabel’s grandmother, out to sea. Lito tells Isabel that he is also thinking of his wife. Isabel starts to imagine that their journey is a song and that the chorus is “leaving home.” She wonders how long it will be until the song ends.

Summary: Mahmoud / Somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea-2015 / 11 days from home

The rubber dinghy has burst against sharp rocks. Mahmoud swims past other refugees, trying to find his family. The life jackets that they bought do not work: his mother struggles to keep Hana above the water and his father holds Waleed. Mahmoud grabs one of his parent’s cell phones as it floats by, still sealed in a plastic bag. Another dinghy approaches but does not slow down. Mahmoud and his mother grab the dinghy, but the passengers yell at them, telling them that there is no room. Mahmoud pleads that they should at least save his sister. A woman takes Hana, and he and his mother let go of the dinghy. They are left in the dark sea, unsure where Waleed and Mahmoud’s father are.


When the St. Louis arrives in Havana, Josef can see the Malecón, a detail included as an example of countries changing over time from places refugees flee, to those they come to seeking safety. In Josef’s time, Cuba is a potential safe haven for him and other Jews fleeing the Nazis. Havana in this period is a wealthy city, and the Malecón features fancy hotels and restaurants with waiters in tuxedos. Although he is still held on board the ship, Josef runs to the window to see it. It is a marked contrast with the Malecón of Isabel’s time period, 55 years later. In her time, Cuba is a place to leave, made unstable by poverty. The Malecón has an air of faded grandeur, with paint peeling off the buildings and people driving 40-year-old cars.  In that scene, a riot breaks out on the Malecón, turning it into a site of chaos. The contrast between the same place in different time periods illustrates how countries change over time, becoming more and less stable.

When Rachel tells Aaron to be strong during the medical roll call, as he was strong at Dachau, Aaron corrects her, saying he was lucky rather than strong. This is an example of the theme in the book of the role of luck in survival. While it is tempting to believe that the people who survive dangerous situations do so because of their strength or virtue, Gratz uses Aaron’s statement to argue that those who survive are not better than those who do not but simply more lucky. In the same way, the refugees in the book are not different from people who can safely stay in their home countries but just less lucky. They have not done anything to deserve their bad luck, just as Aaron did not deserve to survive Dachau more than the many men he saw die there. Throughout the book, Gratz emphasizes the role of luck in survival.

The slap Josef gives Aaron to get him to be quiet during the medical roll call represents the moment he trades roles with him, becoming the father rather than the son. As much as Josef longs to grow up, it is a horrible moment for him. He takes the action out of desperation, and he is as shocked by it as his father is. His goal in becoming an adult has never been to take his father’s place, yet Aaron’s psychological collapse has left Josef with no other ideas for controlling his behavior and preventing the family from being excluded from Cuba on medical grounds. In that moment, Josef loses his childhood idolization of his father, seeing him now only as a “broken old man.” This scene is an example of how refugee life forces children to become adults too early, a theme throughout the book.

In this section of the book, Isabel and Mahmoud’s stories both deal with the danger of the ocean. Isabel imagines the ocean as a living creature, comparing it to a cat playing with her as if she were a mouse. While she is in the ocean herself, trying to rescue Rudi, Gratz describes the ocean as actively fighting her, spinning her around and forcing her legs away. In her nightmares, a giant monster emerges from the sea, coming to get her. These images show the terrifying danger of the ocean for people on a small, open boat. Similarly, Mahmoud compares the roiling Mediterranean Sea to something with a mouth that can swallow him alive. When their dinghy bursts on the rocks, throwing them into the ocean, his full attention goes to helping his mother keep baby Hana from drowning. The people on the boat that picks her up cannot help anyone else, since they, too, are overloaded and in danger of being swallowed by the ocean. The danger of the ocean to the migrants is an example of the physical danger of displacement.