Number the Stars

by Lois Lowry

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Number the Stars Summary

Number the Stars is a novel by Lois Lowry in which 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen and her family shelter Annemarie's Jewish friend Ellen Rosen from the Nazis.

  • Ellen Rosen is Jewish. Her family is forced to flee when the Germans begin rounding up Jewish people. Ellen stays behind in Copenhagen and lives with her friend Annemarie Johansen's family.
  • The Johansens care for Ellen and hide her from Nazi patrols.
  • The Johansens visit Uncle Henrik on the coast and reunite Ellen with her family. Uncle Henrik and his friends are members of the resistance movement, and they smuggle the Rosens to safety.


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Last Updated on March 15, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3952

Blonde-haired Annemarie is racing her dark-haired friend Ellen down a street in Copenhagen to practice for the running races that will be held at school on Friday. Kirsti, Annemarie’s little sister, is struggling to keep up; Ellen is shorter than her friend and is clearly not going to win this race. Suddenly two German soldiers yell at Annemarie to stop and point rifles at her. She stops immediately, and one of the men questions her. He asks why she is running and what she has in her backpack. She tells him the truth as first Ellen and then Kirsti appear behind her. The men continue to ask questions, and Ellen is frightened. Kirsti does not recognize the potential danger and is bold and a bit sassy when one of the soldiers pats her head. When the girls have been warned not to run and are free to go home, the two older girls admit they had been afraid and decide not to tell their mothers of the incident, for fear it would worry them. They pass several other soldiers on the walk home but do not make eye contact.

When they arrive at their apartment building, Ellen goes to her second-floor home and the Johansen sisters go on to their third-floor home. Before Annemarie even walks through the door, Kirsti is already recounting the incident to both mothers, who are drinking tea. (There has been no coffee in Copenhagen since the Nazis came to occupy the city almost a year before, and even the tea is little more than water with a few herbs. Butter and sugar are also not available.) Although Annemarie tries to downplay the incident, both women are visibly worried. They quietly discuss the unrest among the soldiers since the Danish Resistance movement, which they have read about in the underground newspaper (that they promptly burn after reading). As Mrs. Rosen leaves, she asks the girls to promise to travel a different route to school from now on and tells them to always be part of a crowd. Never give them a reason to remember your faces, she says. She exacts the same promise from Ellen.

That night Annemarie tells her sister a bedtime story about a beautiful princess in a wonderful kingdom; once Kirsti is asleep, Annemarie thinks about the real-life king of Denmark who used to ride through the streets, greeting people as he passed them. She remembers her older sister, Lise, taking her outside more than once to see King Christian pass by them, but remembering makes her sad. Lise is now dead and the king is now joined by German soldiers on street corners. Three years ago, Lise died in an accident two weeks before her wedding. Three years ago, King Christian had to surrender his country to Germany because they were too small to fight, just as all the countries surrounding them had already done—all but Sweden. As Kirsti sleeps, Annemarie thinks that fairy tales are the only unchanging things in her world, the only place where happy endings are still possible.

Winter is coming soon, and it will be cold both inside and outside of houses because electricity is now rationed and other fuel is scarce. Kirsti’s coat has a broken button, and Mrs. Johansen asks the girls to stop at Mrs. Hirsch’s store on the way home for a replacement. When they arrive, the store is closed and there is a sign written in German on the door. The girls are puzzled. When they tell their mother, she is worried and goes to tell Mrs. Rosen the news. That night...

(This entire section contains 3952 words.)

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Peter, Lise’s intended husband, comes to visit after dark, breaking the city’s curfew law. He brings the family treats as well as the news that the Germans are closing Jewish-owned stores in the city. Annemarie is immediately concerned for the Rosens and her friend Ellen. Mr. Rosen is a schoolteacher, so he will probably be safe from the Jewish persecution. They discuss how the Danish Jews have been spared such things until now; these things have been happening in other countries for many years already. Annemarie assumes that the Danish people will take care of these families who can no longer make a living, bringing them food until the occupation is over in Copenhagen. As she crawls back into bed, she is frightened and wonders if she would be willing to die to save Ellen, her family, and the rest of the Danish Jews. She dismisses the thought as being too much like a fairy tale, something which would never happen in real life. She is thankful she will never be called upon to demonstrate such courage.

The next day, the two older girls are playing with paper dolls cut from old magazines when Kirsti barges in. She is disgruntled and complains about the new shoes her mother has gotten her. She says she refuses to wear fish shoes—shoes literally made out of fish because there is no leather to be had. While the girls silently empathize with her, they try to be encouraging. Ellen even volunteers to have her father use some black ink to dye the green shoes. All three girls play dolls. One of the places the dolls go is Tivoli, which holds both good and bad memories for Annemarie. The Tivoli Gardens, in the center of town, was a place where families could gather and have fun: there were carousels and ice cream and fireworks. The Gardens are now closed and German forces have burnt some of it. On Kirsti’s last birthday, she saw bursts of light in the night sky and was excited to see the fireworks. In fact, the explosions were the ships of Danish naval fleet being blown up by the Danes themselves, one at a time, before the Germans could confiscate and use them.

Ellen must go help her mother prepare for the Jewish New Year celebration on Thursday; she invites the sisters to come watch her mother light the Sabbath candles. They readily accept the invitation, though they have seen the ceremony before. She cannot understand the words, but Annemarie is always awed by the ritual and moved by the depth of feeling she sees in the Rosens. This Thursday is different, though. The Rosens dress up and walk together to the synagogue in the morning; in the afternoon Mrs. Rosen comes to the Johansens’ door and has a long, quiet conversation with Annemarie’s mother. After her neighbor leaves, Mrs. Johansen announces that Ellen will be spending the night with them and staying as their guest for several days. She tries to make it seem like an exciting adventure. The girls question the sudden change of plans, but their mother tells them the Rosens have been called away on a family emergency and briskly sets about preparing for Ellen’s arrival.

Although the meal is festive, the mood is somber and Ellen looks terribly sad. Once Kirsti and her mother leave the room, Mr. Johansen explains to Annemarie what Ellen already knows. Synagogues have been forced to give the Germans their lists of members, and soon—perhaps as early as tonight—they will be rounded up for something called relocation. No one knows quite what that means, but Peter has taken the Rosens to a safe place somewhere else. Ellen will stay here. If anyone asks, they will say she is the third daughter of the family, sister to Annemarie and Kirsti. After darkening the room as is now required, Mr. Rosen kisses both girls goodnight and says he is glad to have a third daughter again. The girls whisper as they get ready for bed, remembering Lise and the tragic car accident that took her life. Annemarie tells Ellen, who is a good actress, she can pretend to be Lise if she ever needs to. Both girls agree that Ellen is safe here and that it is unlikely soldiers will ever come to their door, and they finally drift off to sleep.

A few hours later, when it is still dark, they are awakened by a pounding at the door. The officers are looking for the Rosens and insist on searching the apartment to see if the family is hiding at their friends’ home. Annemarie has been watching and listening at her door. When the soldiers head toward her bedroom, she tells Ellen to hurry and take off her Star of David necklace, which she has always worn. When Ellen is fumbling and cannot undo the clasp, Annemarie warns her this may hurt and then yanks the gold necklace off her friend’s neck; she keeps it clasped tightly in her hand. The soldiers immediately notice Ellen’s dark hair is a contrast to the blond hair of the other two girls. Mr. Rosen grabs a family photo album and tears out three baby pictures, one for each of his daughters. Annemarie knows he tore them out of the book because their birthdates were written under each photo and Ellen is clearly not twenty-one years old, as the real Lise would be. The picture of Lise is a perfect answer to the soldiers’ questions, though, for as a baby Lise had brown, curly hair—just like Ellen. The soldiers turn and leave in disgust. Annemarie finally unclenches her fist and sees the Star of David imprinted into her palm.

It is starting to get light out, so they all stay up; Mr. Rosen expresses his dismay that the soldiers had been much more invasive than he thought they would be. The girls will not go to school as usual today, despite Ellen’s protestations that her parents insist that she get an education. It may be, says Mr. Rosen, that the soldiers will come to school looking for Jewish children. Their plan, suggested earlier by Peter, is for his wife to take the girls to stay with Uncle Henrik for a few days. He wants to go, but if the entire family leaves together and fails to keep some kind of routine, they are likely to arouse suspicion. Father calls Henrik, Mrs. Johansen’s fisherman brother, and tells him to expect a visit later today. Annemarie listens to him tell Uncle Henrik that his sister will be bringing the girls and just one carton of cigarettes. She is confused, for she knows there are no cigarettes to be found anymore. Then she realizes that her father is speaking in code: Ellen is the carton of cigarettes.

They ride the train along the beautiful Danish coastline, a familiar ride for Annemarie because she has spent a lot of time visiting her grandparents and the bachelor uncle whom she loves. When the train makes a stop at Klampenborg, home of a famous deer park, two German soldiers board the train. They are speaking randomly to passengers, and they ask Mrs. Johansen where she and the girls are going. They are apparently satisfied with her answer, for they soon leave the train. They arrive in Gilleleje; the smell of the ocean is strong in the air. They walk toward the house, and there is no one around to observe their arrival. Annemarie runs ahead to be the first to see the house. Ellen has never seen the sea except for the harbor in Copenhagen, and she is in awe. As they look across the water, they can see a “misty shoreline” that is Sweden. Maybe, says Annemarie, there are two girls in Sweden looking at them, too. When they return to the house, mother warns them to stay away from people while they are staying at this house; even friends would want an explanation for Ellen’s presence, and they are better off not answering any questions. After a dinner of fish and applesauce, the girls get ready for bed. Ellen asks where her necklace is; Annemarie tells her she put it in a secret hiding place and will keep it until it is safe for her friend to wear it again. Ellen misses her parents and wonders where they are; Annemarie is content to be in this house again, listening to her mother and Uncle Henrik teasing and talking downstairs. Unlike other such nights, though, tonight she hears no laughter in their conversation.

In the morning, Kirsti is trying to get a young kitten, whom she named Thor, to drink some milk. Mother has prepared oatmeal with cream from Uncle Henrik’s cow, and she tells her daughters their uncle has even managed to save some butter for them. Kirsti wonders if the Germans would relocate the butter if they found it, and they all laugh at the thought, though Mrs. Johansen’s laugh is rueful. The girls spend the day playing outside, and Mrs. Johansen spends it cleaning her brother’s rather dusty bachelor home.

When Uncle Henrik arrives home, he tells them tomorrow will be a day for fishing. Annemarie is confused because her uncle goes fishing every day. The two adults exchange glances. Uncle Henrik tells the girls he will be spending the night on his boat, and the coffin of their great-aunt Birte will be placed in the living room tonight, according to family custom. Annemarie is confused again because there was no phone call to announce a death in the family. Even more, she has always loved hearing her mother’s stories of family members, and she is certain great-aunt Bertie does not exist.

That evening, Annemarie finds Uncle Henrik in the barn and asks why he and her mother are lying to them. He sees she is angry and finishes milking Blossom before he asks her a question: “How brave are you, little Annemarie?” She is dismayed at the question because she is afraid of the answer. “Not very,” she tells him. He assures her she is like her mother and will be as brave as she needs to be, but it is often much easier to be brave if one does not know everything. Annemarie tells him she thinks she understands, and her uncle apologizes for their having lied to her. He tells her she has guessed correctly. The coffin that has just arrived does not contain the remains of an imaginary aunt; however, he will tell her no more for her own good.

That night, a solemn group of people gather for what appears to be a wake for the dead woman, but no words are spoken. Uncle Henrik is getting nervous and prepares to leave. He looks out the window and sees something he has been expecting, and he asks Ellen to come with him. Although she is frightened, Ellen goes with him into the night. In a moment, Peter walks through the door and greets Mrs. Johansen, then Annemarie. In a moment, the door opens and in walks Mr. Rosen, with Ellen in his arms and his wife by his side. They all wait in nervous silence, and then German soldiers arrive. They come into the room, demanding to know why so many have gathered. It is a funeral, they are told, and a soldier asks Annemarie who has died. She knows now what her uncle meant about having to be brave, and she answers with the same lie her mother and uncle told her. One of the soldiers is suspicious that the coffin is closed. He tells them he knows their custom is to look upon the face of their dead and starts to lift the coffin’s cover. Mrs. Johansen quickly tells him they were told by a doctor that her aunt probably died of typhus, but he may have been wrong and they should certainly open the casket, for she would dearly love to see her dear aunt’s face one last time. The officers do not want to catch the disease, so they do not open the casket, and they leave.

Peter reads a psalm that says:

It is the Lord who heals the broken in spirit and binds up their wounds, he who numbers the stars one by one.

Annemarie ponders this scripture as she looks at the stars out the window. How could anyone number the stars, she wonders. There are too many, and the sky is too big. In fact, the entire world seems too big and too cruel to her. Peter reads a bit more scripture and then quietly announces it is time, and he lifts the lid of the casket. Inside is nothing but blankets and some old clothes. Those in the room, including the Rosens, begin putting on the warm but tattered garments. As Peter takes a small bottle from his pocket, he asks a young mother how much her baby weighs. Although she protests that her daughter always sleeps through the night, Peter gently places several drops of liquid on the baby’s tongue to make her sleep. Just before they all leave, Peter takes Mr. Rosen aside and asks him to give a very important packet to Henrik once they are on the boat; Mr. Rosen puts the envelope in his coat pocket. Annemarie understands that not knowing some things helps everyone be less afraid. Peter will lead the first group along the path in the dark; Inge Johansen will lead the Rosens after enough time has passed. Peter will not be coming back after he delivers his people to the boat; Mrs. Johansen will return to the house and her girls. As Annemarie looks at the Rosens for the last time, she thinks of all they were losing in exchange for mismatched, ill-fitting, worn clothing. Their pride must be suffering. She thought of the fears they must have at the thought of crossing the ocean and going to a foreign country, but she understands it is another kind of pride that will sustain them. Ellen hugs her friend and promises she will come back; as Annemarie closes the door behind them, she weeps in the dark.

The clock strikes two-thirty, and Annemarie calculates her mother will be back in an hour. She sits in the living room next to the empty casket and thinks of her father back home. She falls asleep and wakes to a light out the window; day is beginning to dawn, and Annemarie sees that it is after four o’clock. She races upstairs to see if her mother is home, but all the beds, except the one in which Kirsti and Thor are sleeping, remain empty. When she looks outside again, she sees a heap on the ground. It is her mother. Annemarie quietly runs to her, and her mother tells her all is well. The Rosens and the others made it safely to Uncle Henrik’s boat. On her way home, she tripped and broke her ankle—it is a small price for her to pay for the freedom of the others. She has been crawling her way home, and she is relieved to be here at last. As Annemarie settles her exhausted mother on the steps, she sees something in the grass. It is the packet Peter gave Mr. Rosen to give to Henrik. Mr. Rosen had tripped when he left, and it must have fallen out of his pocket. Peter had told him it was very important; mother’s eyes widen in panic. Annemarie knows her uncle will leave as soon as it is fully light, so she volunteers to take the envelope so all is not lost. Her mother tells her to put the packet at the bottom of a basket and cover it with a napkin, an apple, a small loaf of bread, and some cheese—and to hurry. Her mother’s last warning is to play a foolish girl taking lunch to her uncle if she is stopped.

She walks the long, familiar path in the chilly dawn, thinking of the story she has told her little sister so many times, the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Soon she can see the harbor ahead, but she suddenly hears a rustling in the brush and comes face-to-face with four soldiers holding the leashes of two straining, snarling dogs. Annemarie quickly decides to do what her mother told her and acts as Kirsti had when they were stopped by the soldiers for running down the street. They question her, and she tells them her errand. One of them grabs the loaf of bread and tears it in half, throwing each half to one of the dogs. He then takes the cheese but decides to leave the apple, for it has brown spots on it. Annemarie is indignant at their ravishment of her uncle’s lunch and asks to take what is left to him before he sails. Just then the soldier reaches in and takes the napkin, exposing the packet. When he asks what it is, Annemarie starts crying and says she does not know but both her mother and her uncle are going to be angry with her and asks if she can please go. The soldier opens the packet and scoffs at the hemmed handkerchief he finds inside it. He scornfully calls her uncle womanish and sends Annemarie on her way. Uncle Henrik is waiting fretfully and is relieved to see the packet, even opened, at the bottom of the basket. Thanks to her, he says, all will be well.

When she arrives at the house, she finds a note that says the doctor has taken them to the hospital. Blossom is lowing in the barn, so Annemarie attempts to milk her. They all laugh about it later: her mother in a cast to her knee, Kirsti and Thor, and Uncle Henrik. He offers to teach his niece how to milk a cow, and they go to the barn. She watches as he milks Blossom and asks about the Rosens. Henrik explains that he and some other fisherman, along with Peter, are part of the Resistance, and they often smuggle Jews across the sea to Sweden. Soldiers come to search the boats but they rarely find anyone, especially because the fishermen toss fish upon the decks of their boats. German soldiers do not like to get their shiny boots dirty. The handkerchief is something Peter provided for the fishermen. Dogs were too often sniffing out the human cargo, so Peter enlisted some scientists to solve the problem. They created a scent that attracts the dogs to sniff it and then causes them to lose their sense of smell. That scent was on the handkerchief, and Henrik used it on the search dogs a mere twenty minutes after she left it with him. She is directly responsible for saving their lives, and he commends her bravery.

The war ends two years later, when Annemarie is twelve. Denmark is celebrating, and in Copenhagen friends are preparing the homes of their Jewish friends who will soon be coming home. There are tears of joy, but there are also tears of sadness as Annemarie remembers that dear Peter was captured and executed by the Germans in the town square. That night, her parents finally tell her how Lise really died. She, too, was part of the resistance movement. A meeting had been raided by German soldiers and the members scattered in an effort to save themselves. Lise was run down in the street by German soldiers. Annemarie goes to the trunk in her room, which contains Lise’s yellowing wedding dress. In its folds she finds Ellen’s Star of David necklace, where she had placed it for safekeeping. She asks her father to repair the clasp so she can give it back to Ellen when she returns. Until then, Annemarie will wear it.