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Number the Stars

by Lois Lowry

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In Number the Stars, what does Papa's phrase "Is the weather good for fishing?" signify?

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In Number the Stars, some code phrases the characters use include the one that Papa uses, "Is the weather is good for fishing?” The word “weather” means surveillance or how heavily the ports are being watched. He uses the word “fishing” to signify smuggling. Papa and Henrik contemplate smuggling people out of Copenhagen to keep them out of the clutches of the Nazis. Papa uses “cigarettes” as code for refugees who need to escape.

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When Papa asks whether the weather is good for fishing, he is actually asking whether current Nazi surveillance levels are low enough to allow for people to be smuggled out of Denmark. While Annemarie is initially confused by this (because her uncle goes fishing every day), she soon realizes that the question relates to whether or not it will be safe for the Rosen family to make their escape by boat to Sweden.

Another code phrase used is a carton of cigarettes. When Annemarie’s father calls Uncle Henrik and informs him that his sister will be bringing “the girls and just one carton of cigarettes,” Annemarie once again has to think about what this means because she knows that cigarettes have not been available for a long time. She realizes that it is her friend Ellen who is being referred to as a carton of cigarettes, and this is her father’s way of informing Uncle Henrik that Ellen will be accompanying the family.

Another great example of trickery in this book is the placement of a coffin in the living room, allegedly containing a great aunt who died of a highly infectious disease. The actual point of the coffin, which did not contain a body at all, was to claim that there was a funeral going on, thereby justifying the number of people in the house. By claiming that the aunt in the coffin had died of typhus, they were able to discourage the officers from opening the coffin for fear of catching the disease. In doing this, of course, they manage to keep the fact that the coffin is actually empty a secret.

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In Number the Stars, some code phrases that the characters use include the one that Papa uses when he asks Uncle Henrik, "is the weather is good for fishing?” Papa is speaking in code and not referring to the weather at all. In this phrase, Papa uses the word “weather” to learn how heavily the ports are being watched. He uses the word “fishing” to signify smuggling.

Thus, what Papa is really asking Uncle Henrik about is whether the ports are being heavily guarded at the moment. If they are, then the timing is not good to try to smuggle across the water. However, if the Nazis are not actively watching the ports, then the timing is good for smuggling.

What Papa and Uncle Henrik contemplate smuggling is not contraband but people. Papa wants to help get Ellen out of Copenhagen, where they are at risk. Prior to this conversation, the rabbi of Ellen’s synagogue alerted his congregation that the Nazis are looking to round up Jews and deport them. Papa wants to keep Ellen’s family out of the clutches of the Nazis.

Annemarie listens to Papa’s side of the conversation and is puzzled, particularly when Papa says that Inge will be bringing Henrik a carton of cigarettes. Annemarie knows that it is difficult to obtain cigarettes in wartime Copenhagen with rations and lack of provisions. Papa tells Uncle Henrik:

"But there are a lot of cigarettes available in Copenhagen now, if you know where to look.“

Annemarie realizes that Papa is speaking in code. Annemarie is able to puzzle it out and understand that “cigarettes” is short for people or refugees, referring to the Jews who need to escape. Papa is really telling Uncle Henrik that there are a lot of Jews in Copenhagen who need to get to safety.

Furthermore, Papa tells Uncle Henrik that he is sending him only one carton of cigarettes. The cigarettes are the code word for refugees and the number represents how many refugees will be using Uncle Henrik’s boat to escape to safety. Annemarie understands that Papa and Uncle Henrik are referring to Ellen, who will be leaving Copenhagen for the duration of the war if Papa and Uncle Henrik can get her to safety.

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It's vital for Annemarie's father and uncle to use code-words to make sure that no one tumbles their plans. If the Germans have tapped their phones, then they're in serious danger of being discovered. The consequences for Annemarie's family, not to mention the Danish Jews they plan to help escape, would be terrible indeed.

So there's no choice but to use code-words. "Going fishing" means that it's safe for Annemarie and her family to travel to Uncle Henrik's home in Gilleleje. It's too dangerous to stay where they are, but they must still have a pretext for going to Gilleleje, one that won't elicit the authorities' suspicions. "Fishing" as a code-word for illicit activity is also used in connection with ferrying Danish Jews to safety across the Kattegat strait to neutral Sweden. "Is the weather good for fishing today?" means "Are the conditions right to ferry more Jews across to Sweden?"

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Annemarie's Papa and uncle speak in code when referring to Ellen and her family, as well as other Jews.  Uncle Henrik helps Jews escape to Sweden on his fishing boat.  With the help of Papa, Mama, and Annemarie, Ellen and her family are able to escape, too.

One day, Annemarie overhears her father speaking on the phone to her uncle.  Her father's end of the conversation puzzles her.  Papa asks Uncle Henrik if "the weather is good for fishing" (Number the Stars, Chapter 6).  He asks this to see if it is a good time to bring Jews across to Sweden.

Then Papa tells Uncle Henrik that Mama and the girls will bring cigarettes to him.  He also states that there are many cigarettes in Copenhagen.  This is especially puzzling to Annemarie, as cigarettes are no longer available in the stores in Copenhagen.  Cigarettes is code for Jews.  Papa tells Uncle Henrik that there are still many Jews in Copenhagen.  Papa mentions there being one cigarette.  This is code for Ellen.

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