“The German Refugee” Short Summary

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“The German Refugee” by Bernard Malamud is a true-to-life story depicting the struggles of many victims, during and after the 2nd World War. This particular story takes place in the USA, Broadway some time during the Polish invasion, 1939. The main characters Oscar Gassner and Martin Goldberg show just how difficult those times must have been for all refugees, and what strength and courage it took to keep sane, have faith and start a new life.

The main themes which are realistically portrayed into this heart gripping story are the language barrier, humanity and faith. The moving motion of this story is based on the main character Oscar Gassner needing lessons in English, so he can start a new job and a new life like so many others before him. At his aid comes a young life-hungry, ambitious student Martin who offers his services to the desperate journalist of Berlin. From here on a profound friendship starts where neither of them completely understand each other.

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Oscar is terrified of speaking in public as his job requires, but on the other side he is left with no choice, he would rather utter mangled English than write or speak German which mostly makes him clench in a ball of disgust, disappointment, shame and depression. Because of the language barrier, he cannot completely talk about his feelings or fears, and even under Martin’s persistent, positive and kind care, in the end things turn rotten.

The language barrier is what creates an ocean of unsaid things between Oscar and Martin and if any refugee fails to swim out, they eventually drown into their own suppressed words. The second theme in “The German Refugee”, humanity, is faintly underlines in all actions of this story’s heroes. Oskar and martin seem to be on the opposite sides about this matter but in the end they slightly agree. Oskar agrees that humanity should’ve kept his nation pure, should’ve kept his family together but things turned very different for him.

Even if he sounds as if he believes in it, ironically in his lecture what is supposed to keep men as brothers, women as sisters, is nowhere to be found in the real world. And that’s what frustrates him most, his inability to see humanity in his nation, family, in the world. On the other side martin constantly tries to show him that not everything is lost and life could still mean something. Martin Goldberg is a true representation of just how humanity works, bold and kind, sympathetic and emotional he starts with Oskar till the very end.

On the whole, in this tragic story where both character know how terrible war can be, one turns for humanity as a healing force for all refugees, the other dismisses it as a lovely illusion of how things should’ve been. The last and most important theme in this short story is faith. Oskar Gassner is a man with no faith. The harsh and cruel setting of his life will bring him to a point where he gives up and suicide. He is alone in an unknown county, he regrets leaving his family, feels betrayed by his nation and spouse, useless and worthless where he stands now.

In the end not many choices are left for him, he either starts a new page and struggles to become someone have a new life or he can give in and slowly fade into his depression and purposeless, faithless life. Goldberg desperately tried to reach his friend. Once more he shows positive behavior and urges Oskar to have faith. Martin knows very well where things are going in the refugee continues the way he is and feels fear and the strong need to stop him from harming himself. In the end even if things started to look for the better there is a passage which reveals it all.

The truth is that Oskar has given up long ago and his faith ceased the moment he became a refugee, he had planned to finish the lecture and kill himself against all odds. Ultimately, the language barrier, disbelief in humanity and lack of faith is what will bring Oskar’s life to an end. This tragic story teaches of values lost amongst refugees which are hardest to come by during war. Sometimes it’s easier for them to give up than accept the truth that some things are lost forever and other might just never be the same.

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“The German Refugee” Short Summary. (2016, Nov 14). Retrieved from


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