Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. 

Bitsy the Rabbit

Bitsy, Ruthie’s stuffed rabbit, is an important source of comfort and a symbol of children’s resilience. Ruthie carries Bitsy everywhere, an indication of how young she is and a marked contrast with Josef’s eagerness to be an adult.  When Aaron, caught in the grip of terrifying memories of the concentration camp, behaves in frightening ways, Ruthie finds comfort burying her face in Bitsy. When Schiendick tears apart their cabin, he rips Bitsy apart, symbolizing his destruction of the comfort the family has found aboard the St. Louis, but Rachel sews the bunny back together, a representation of children’s capacity to recover from scary experiences. Bitsy is the only thing they carry all the way from Germany, throughout their time on the St. Louis, and throughout France, even as they run from the Nazis there. When Mahmoud’s family arrives in Berlin, 77 years after Ruthie first fled the city, she immediately presents Waleed a white corduroy rabbit just like Bitsy that she has made for him, a gift that signifies her understanding of the terror of being a refugee and that he is a child who can heal and recover from the experience, as she has. 

The Castro Sign

The sign Rudi Castillo uses in constructing the bottom of his boat, a portrait of Castro with the words “Fight Against The Impossible And Win,” is a symbol of the constant presence of Castro in the lives and minds of Cubans. Even though the Castillo and Fernandez families have left the country at a moment when Castro promised not to punish those who left, the sign represents his power and the implied threat of prison or other consequences for the families. Until they arrive on U.S. soil, they remain at risk, since they will be deported back to Cuba if they are caught by the U.S. Coast Guard, or as the Bahamian officer warns them, if they land in the Bahamas. The words on the sign have a double meaning: while the caption is meant to encourage Cubans to side with Castro and see him as an ally in their struggles, in the context of the boat, the impossible fight comes to mean the struggle against Castro and the many forces working against their safe arrival in the U.S. While Castro’s face haunts them throughout the voyage, the sign also reminds them why they are working so hard to escape. 

Fake Life Preservers

The life preservers that fail when the dinghy carrying Mahmoud and his family bursts on the rocks, throwing them into the ocean, represent the ways people take advantage of the refugees, rather than helping them. The family buys the life preservers from the same boy in Izmir who finds them a place to stay at the mall. Just as the promise of shelter at the mall turns out to be a trick, when others arrive and demand exorbitant rent, the life preservers they have been told will keep them safe are a sham, only an opportunity to take the money of desperate people in need of help. Mahmoud’s family has fled a war, yet even once out of the range of the missiles falling on Aleppo, they are in constant danger, including from people who claim to be there to help. The fake life preservers, which cause them to lose Hana and nearly their own lives, are an example of the ways many people they encounter see them as people to cheat or steal from, a source of income, not real people in need of compassion and aid.