Bearing the Burden of Another: A Review of ‘Number the Stars’

“We must stand up for the rights of our neighbor who is suffering from injustice; we must defend them all the more vigorously because we see Jesus present in them. Surely this is our duty because of our love for others for his sake. We have no right to be ‘sleeping watchmen’ or dumb watch-dogs. Whenever we see evil we must sound the alarm.” — Blessed Charles de Foucauld

Reading Level:   5.2 [according to Scholastic which reflects the grade level at which a student reading on grade could read the book independently]

4.5 [AR level]

Interest Level:  Grades 3 – 6

Review and Comments:

Number the Stars is a historical fiction that takes place during WWII in Denmark.  The danger and turmoil in Copenhagen at the time are seen through the eyes of a ten year old girl named Annemarie. She witnesses cruelty and personally experiences fear amidst the bravery and heroic sacrifices of many who “honor the humanity of others.”

From the first chapter Lois Lowry sets the tone for the anxiety Annemarie experiences.  Her story is constantly changing from bursts of tension that has the reader holding his or her breath to short intervals of calmness and a bit of relief. We first meet Annemarie and her closest friend Ellen Rosen when they literally run into two German soldiers.  “There were two of them.  That meant two helmets, two sets of cold eyes staring at her, and four tall shiny boots firmly on the sidewalk, blocking her path to home.  And it meant two rifles, gripped in the hands of the soldiers.”  Their families tell them, “It is important to be one of the crowd, always.  Be one of many.  Be sure that they never have reason to remember your face.” This is our first glimpse into her world.

The war brings so many changes.  Soldiers are on every street corner watching everyone. The King of Denmark no longer has control of his beloved country yet he continues to inspire everyone.  Shops run by Jewish citizens are forced to close.  Her cherished sister, Lise, is killed in an accident just before she is to be married.  And Peter, dear Peter, her almost brother-in-law, is not the cheerful friend she once knew.  He is now quiet and secretive. The only person who does not seem to be affected by the war is her little sister Kirsti.  Kirsti still has dreams, but deep down Annemarie knows there are “no more silly dreams.”

Persecution escalates and news of arrests and the ‘relocation’ of Jews force the Rosen family to escape the country.  Again there are angry soldiers and more fear of discovery, but there are also many unknown people resolved to help Ellen’s family and others escape the evil threatening them.  The Rosen family is taken to Uncle Henrick’s for the final phase of the plan.  He will smuggle them on his fishing boat to Sweden where they will be safe.  Annemarie loves visiting her Uncle, but she is old enough to observe things that are quite suspicious.  She listens to conversations that sound like code.  Unfamiliar people gather for the funeral of a relative who does not exist.  And again there are violent Nazi soldiers even at Uncle Henrick’s little cottage.  Annemarie reflects, “The whole world was: too cold, too big.  And too cruel.”

The plan is almost complete.   Ellen’s family and the other fleeing Jews are hidden on the boats waiting for their escape to Sweden.  Then Mama and Annemarie find an extremely important packet lying on the ground.   It was suppose to be delivered to Uncle Henrick this very night!  Annemarie volunteers to deliver the packet to Uncle Henrick even if it means facing the Nazis. She calls on all the courage she has as she takes the basket her mother prepares with the package hidden at the bottom. Then, just as she is about to make the delivery she comes face to face with threatening soldiers and vicious dogs.  The discovery of the packet and the plan of escape seem inevitable and that would be disastrous.  Annemarie’s strategy to diffuse a very dangerous situation is successful, and she delivers the packet to Uncle Henrick just in time.  He tells her, “…because of you, Annemarie, everything is all right.”

So, Annemarie’s story comes to an end for the reader. Ellen is gone but safe.  Peter is dead – executed as part of the Resistance.  And Annemarie and her family wait for the war to end.

Lois Lowry explains that this story evolved after hearing about her Danish friend’s childhood growing up in Copenhagen in 1943.  This friend’s experiences then became the model for the character of Annemarie.  She clarifies the parts of the story that are true, very instructional, interesting historical facts, and the parts that are her inspiration.  She also states that the age of the children reading Number the Stars today is probably the same age as Annemarie.  At this age “young people are beginning to develop a strong set of personal ethics. And they are beginning to realize that the world they live in is a place where the right thing is often hard, sometimes dangerous, and frequently unpopular.” She then poses a few direct, thought-provoking questions to the reader. “Would I have done that?  What choice would I have made?”

This is one of my all time favorite books for this age group. I have read it to fifth grade classes, and it is always a hit.  Students love Annemarie’s story of bravery in a world of unrest.

Possible Concerns:

  • When the family is gathered after Great-aunt Birdie’s death, she observes the mourners. “Annemarie glanced through the door and saw the woman open her blouse and begin to nurse the infant, who quieted. The young woman lifted her baby’s blanket, covering its face and her own breast.” [This concern by no means indicates there is anything wrong with nursing a child. I just want to make parents aware of the way it is described.]
  • A Nazi officer slaps Mama across the face hard enough to leave a mark.
  • It is reported that Peter is captured and executed by the Germans in the public square.

Further Discussion:

  • [Annemarie is told the story of King Christian.] “King Christian X became a prominent figure for the majority of the Danish population. The King made it his practice to ride his horse alone through Copenhagen every morning to underline his continuing claims for national sovereignty, unarmed and without escort. He became a national symbol for rich and poor alike, a positive contrast to German militarism and to the cult of the Fuhrer. In fact King Christian rejected many aspects of the occupation, made speeches against the occupying force and became known as a protector of the Jews.”   Read more here.
  • [Annemarie refers to the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson.] “Hans Christian Anderson was a Danish author best known for writing children’s stories. He wrote 168 tales.”  Read more about him here. These are some of his more familiar tales:
    • The Tinder Box
    • The Princess and the Pea
    • Thumbelina
    • The Little Mermaid
    • The Emperor’s New Suit
    • The Ugly Duckling
    • The Snow Queen
    • The Little Match Girl
    • The Steadfast Tin Soldier

 

  1. [The story of the Danish Resistance is told through the character of Peter.] “The Jews were smuggled out of Denmark by transporting them by sea over the Øresund from Zealand to Sweden, a passage of approximately 10 miles. Some were transported in large fishing boats of up to 20 tons, but others were carried to freedom in rowboats or kayaks. The Danish underground movement took an active role in organizing the rescue and providing financing, mostly from wealthy Danes who donated large sums of money for the rescue. Some rescues had to take place from isolated points along the coast. While waiting their turn, the Jews took refuge in the woods and in cottages away from the coast, out of sight of the Gestapo.”   Read more here.  
  • Make a journal. Write about the major events of the story from the viewpoint of one of the characters. [Annemarie, Ellen, Peter, Uncle Henrick, Mama or Papa, etc.]  Add illustrations to the entries such as: Star of David, soldier, Uncle Henrick’s boat or cottage, storefront with closure sign, etc.]
  • Make a collage. Use words or phrases and pictures that express the atmosphere of Denmark during WWII. [Word examples: Nazi, No Jews, arrest, fear, secrets, Halte! Resistance, relocation, etc.  Picture examples: German helmet, Star of David, fishing boat, handkerchief, newspaper, helping hands, etc.]
  1. Try using colors to indicate the feeling and emotion of the words.
  • Use a map of Europe.
  1. Locate: Denmark, Copenhagen, Oresund Strait, Sweden, Germany, and surrounding bodies of water.

Catholic Resources:

  • When the fleeing Jews gather at Uncle Henrick’s house, they are assisted by others in order to meet their needs. This scene brings to mind the corporal works of mercy. [CCC 2447 “……The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.”]
  1. Feeding the hungry – Everyone receives a package of food.
  2. Clothing the naked – Blankets and warm clothing are given to each person.
  3. Sheltering the homeless – Many people help the Jews reach Sweden and freedom.
  • Annemarie and other characters exemplify many virtues:
  1. Fortitude “enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause. [CCC 1808]
  2. Justice “disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good….it is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbor.” [CCC 1807, 1836]
  3. Prudence “immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.” [CCC 1806, 1835]
  4. Charity is the “theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” [CCC 1822]

 

  • “Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter:
    whoever finds one finds a treasure.
    Faithful friends are beyond price;
    no amount can balance their worth.
    Faithful friends are life-saving medicine;
    those who fear God will find them.” -Sirach 6:14-16

 

  • “They Must Never Be Forgotten: Priests and Nuns Who Rescued People from the Holocaust” by Sally M. Rogow, is an article about the Catholic priests and nuns who rescued Jews during WWII at the risk of their own lives.
    • Included in this article is a book for children entitled ‘Faces of Courage: Young Heroes of World War II’ by Rogow. It tells twelve stories of courageous teenagers from all across Europe who resisted the Nazis.  Read the article here.
  • Definition of the word courage: “Virtue of bravery in facing difficulties, especially in overcoming the fear of consequences in doing good. As moral courage, it enables a person to pursue a course deemed right, through which one may incur contempt, disapproval, or opprobrium. As physical courage, it is simply bodily or emotional strength to withstand opposition. It differs from fortitude in being more aggressive in undertaking, whereas fortitude is more patient in undergoing what is virtuous but hard.”  Taken from this source.
    • CCC 839 “Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways.” The relationship of the Church with the Jewish People. When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People, “the first to hear the Word of God.” The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ”, “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”

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