Avi is a young boy, a refugee who lives with Leah in the camp. Before being taken to the United States, Avi had lived with his grandmother in Europe. His grandmother hid Avi in a cupboard in her kitchen when Nazi soldiers came to their home. The soldiers did not find him; however, Avi’s grandmother never returned, and Avi spent three days without food or water in that cupboard before someone rescued him. When he was found, he would not speak. Even in the refugee camp, Avi continues to be silent except for a few words he says to Leah. Leah takes him into her care and brings him food she was given at school. The food is not kosher, so Leah refuses to eat it. However, she knows that Avi will not know the difference between kosher and non-kosher food. Avi begins to talk more because of Leah’s love. Sometimes Leah refers to Avi by her brother’s name, Natan, because she misses her dead brother.
Mr. Forest is one of the teachers at the school that Suzy and Leah attend. He pairs Suzy with Leah, making Suzy a mentor for Leah in learning English. Mr. Forest recognizes Leah’s language skills and wants Suzy to help Leah learn English as quickly as possible. He knows that if Leah can speak English well, she then can help teach the other refugee children.
Leah Shoshana Hershkowitz
Leah is a young Jewish girl who has been rescued from Nazi Germany, where her mother and brother have died in a concentration camp. The details of her rescue are not told. The first time readers meet Leah is at the refugee camp somewhere in the community in which Suzy lives. Leah is more standoffish than the other children in the camp. She refuses to act like an animal in a zoo, as she puts it, and to rush to the fence for treats that the American children bring.
Leah’s story is told through her writings to her mother. Leah keeps a journal and though she knows her mother is dead, she writes to her out of loneliness. The horrors of Nazi Germany make her wary of everyone around her. She has trouble understanding people’s motives because the Nazis told her and her family so many lies.
Except for her journal, Leah keeps all her feelings to herself. She even hides the pain she feels when her appendix is about to burst. She is afraid that if she opens up and tells anyone how much she hurts, she will be killed. By remaining so closed, the American children around her conclude that Leah is snobbish. They do not understand her fears, because they have no experiences that compare to hers. Leah is also afraid of allowing her positive emotions to come out. For instance, she is afraid to open her heart to Suzy’s mother, because she believes this might displace her feelings for her own mother.
Suzy Ann McCarthy
Suzy shares the protagonist role with Leah. The girls are approximately the same age. Suzy is American. It is in Suzy’s community that the refugee camp is set up. This allows Suzy to visit the camp and to later build a relationship with some of the refugee children when they attend Suzy’s school.
Suzy is only vaguely knowledgeable about the situations and backgrounds of the refugee children. She does not comprehend their fear, their lack of clothes, and their inability to speak English. Suzy mocks the children for not knowing that they should peel an orange before eating it and the strange way they pronounce English words. She does not understand how anyone could not know the words of popular American songs or how to dance.
To some, Suzy could appear selfish in her dealing with Leah. She dislikes that Leah wears her hand-me-down clothes. But Suzy’s actions are the result of her ignorance of the horrors these children have been through. Her misinterpretations of Leah’s fear and lack of trust are due to Suzy’s inability to imagine that so much cruelty could exist in the world. In comparison to Leah, Suzy has lived a very privileged and sheltered life.
As Suzy’s world grows wide enough to include the ravages of war and the Nazi persecution of Jews, she becomes more compassionate. Instead of thinking of how the refugee children affect her, she begins to empathize with Leah for the loss of her mother and the torture Leah has endured.
Mutti is the name Leah uses to address her mother. The last time Leah saw her mother was in the Nazi concentration camp. Leah knows her mother is dead, but she finds comfort in writing to her as if she were still living. There is little known about Leah’s mother, except that Leah misses her badly.
Natan is Leah’s baby brother. Natan was killed in the concentration camp. Sometimes when Leah feels very lonesome, she calls Avi, the young boy at the refugee camp, by Natan’s name.
Ruth is a refugee in the same camp that Leah is in. Leah mentions that Ruth is a friend. Ruth, unlike Leah, runs to the fence that encloses the refugee camp in attempts to take the treats that the American children bring.
Suzy’s mother makes a few brief appearances through Suzy’s diary entries. Suzy presents her mother as a kindhearted, compassionate woman. When Suzy is confused by Leah’s mannerisms and behavior, Suzy’s mom helps clarify the situation, explaining what is happening in Europe during the war. Suzy’s mother encourages Suzy’s relationship with Leah, suggesting that Suzy invite Leah home for dinner. Leah also writes about Suzy’s mother, stating that she could find comfort in the woman, if only Leah were not so afraid of opening her heart. When Leah is taken to the hospital, Suzy’s mom goes out of her way to make sure Leah feels emotionally supported.
Yonni is another of Leah’s acquaintances in the refugee camp. Very little is said about this child.
Zipporah is one of Leah’s friends in the refugee camp. Though Leah knows a few words in English, Zipporah is one of the children who knows none, and Leah worries about this.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Jane Yolen, Published by Gale Group, 2001.