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In the days following the end of World War II, a train carrying dozens of war orphans from all over Europe arrives at a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration camp that has been established to temporarily house the children. Many of the children have been found wandering the bombed-out ruins of Europe's cities and countryside, or have been rescued from various concentration camps. Their spirits are broken and their faces register only fear and distrust. After the children are cleaned and fed, interviews are conducted to determine their identities, a process that is conducted under the supervision of Mrs. Murray, an American. One of the young boys interviewed is French, and he explains that his mother was taken away from him and that his father was killed. After hearing the heartbreaking story of two Polish children whose parents were killed in a concentration camp, the interviewers listen to the equally sad story of a Hungarian girl who was ordered to sort the clothes of concentration camp victims, and who found her own mother's blouse among the clothes. The children are severely traumatized by their experiences, especially a young Czechoslovakian boy named Karel Malik, who had been separated from his family and last saw his mother Hanna at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The only words Karel is able to speak are in German: "I don't know." While being transported to more permanent camps in ambulances, some of the children panic, convinced that they are going to be gassed, and break out of the ambulances. Several of the children escape, and while most are quickly recovered, Karel and another boy elude capture by jumping into a river. Karel's companion drowns in the river, and Karel, whose identity is still unknown by the UNRRA authorities, is presumed drowned as well after his cap is found floating in the water. Meanwhile, Hanna, who has survived the concentration camp experience, has begun a search for her family. After learning that her husband and daughter have been killed, Hanna sets out to find Karel. She travels from one children's camp to another for many months and without success before she meets Mr. Crookes, an Englishman who tells her that her son is in the Catholic orphanage he oversees. Hanna's excitement is quickly dashed, however, when she realizes that the boy is not her son. The boy says he is Karel Malik, but it is later learned that he is a Polish Jew who had adopted Karel's name when it was read during a roll call and no one responded. Karel, meanwhile, continues to wander among the war-torn ruins of Germany until he is found one day by an American soldier named Ralph "Steve" Stevenson. Steve gives Karel food, takes him home and teaches him English. Though Karel makes rapid progress learning the new language, he is unable to remember enough details about his identity for Steve to locate his parents. Hanna's search eventually leads her to the UNRRA camp where Karel was first processed. When Hanna describes Karel's features and clothing, Mrs. Murray recalls the cap found by the river and grimly shows it Hanna as evidence that Karel had drowned. Hanna, however, refuses to accept the news that her son is dead, and continues her desperate search. Hanna eventually gives up her search, however, and accepts a job working with Mrs. Murray at the UNRRA camp. Steve, meanwhile, becomes convinced that Karel's mother is dead, and makes plans to take the boy back to the States with him. One day, after the Jewish orphans at Mrs. Murray's camp leave for Palestine, Hanna decides to quit her job and continue her search for Karel. Only minutes after Hanna leaves the camp, Steve arrives with Karel to secure formal permission from Mrs. Murray to take the boy back to the States. Mrs. Murray recognizes Karel and races to the train to prevent Hanna from leaving, but she arrives just as the train is pulling out. Hanna, however, is not on board the train because she has decided to stay on at the camp. Without telling her the news, Mrs. Murray takes Hanna back to camp, where mother and son are reunited.