Lois Lowry was born in March 20, 1937 in Honolulu, Hawaii. She’s an American writer credited with more than thirty children’s books and sue has won many awards, including two Newbery Medals, for The Giver and for Number the Stars, published in 1990. As an Author, Lowry is known for writing about difficult subjects matters within her works for children. She has explored complex issues such as racism, terminal illness and murder, among other challenging topics. Number the Stars is her first historical fiction – a story about the escape of Jews from Denmark in 1943.
The story centers on ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen, who lives with her parents and young sister in Copenhagen during the Second World War. Though the world is suddenly a scary place, with soldiers at every corner of the city, food shortages and curfews, she is largely unware of the extent of the danger around her. It’s in this frightening atmosphere – while maintaining the naïve bravery of a child – that the reader is directly immersed.
“They plan to arrest all the Danish Jews. They plan to take them away. And we have been told that they may come overnight.”
When a rabbi tells his congregation that the Nazis have taken the synagogue list of all the Jews: where they live, what their names are, the Johansen family decides to take in Ellen, Annemarie’s Jewish friend, to hide her while her parents find some safer place to go. They risk their lives by pretending that Ellen is Annemarie’s late older sister Lise, who had died earlier in the war. Annemarie then remembers a story her dad had told her shortly after the war began: Each morning, King Christian, the beloved King of Denmark, rode alone through the streets of Copenhagen, greeting his people. One day, one of the Germans soldiers had asked a question to a teenage boy outside: “Where is his bodyguard?” the boy had smiled and answered: “All of Denmark is his bodyguard”.
“Now I think that all of Denmark must be bodyguard for the Jews, as well.” – “So we shall be”
Later, Annemarie’s mother brings her two daughters and Ellen to her fisherman brother’s house on the coast, where they will all be safer. There, Annemarie learns that they are organizing the funeral of her Great-aunt Birte. But she has no Great-aunt Birte. She’s confused as she sees men carry a casket in the living room, and people coming quietly, mourning and praying. She is even more confused when Ellen’s parents show up. However, she stops asking questions when her uncle Hendrik tells her: “it is much easier to be brave if you do not know everything”. Like Annemarie, the reader is protected from the full implications of events, but is caught up in the suspense and menace of several encounters with soldiers. Little by little, Annemarie understands that the Jews are being transported by fishing boats to Sweden, and that this is taking place in front of her eyes. The morning after the escape, she has to demonstrate great courage by bringing a mysterious package to her uncle, knowing that it is of great important to the Resistance. During her run, she is halted by Nazi soldiers with dogs, who discover that the packet is only a small handkerchief, and let her go in time for her to bring it to Hendrik.
The book concludes two years later, when the war ends, the whole of Denmark celebrates and the Jews who were forced to leave, return to homes well-kept for them by their neighbors.
But where do facts end and fiction begins? How much of Annemarie’s story is true? As Lois Lowry writes, she’s a child of her imagination, but the sacrifices she and all of Denmark made, are true. During the war, soldiers were visible on almost every street corner, always armed, they controlled newspapers, rail system, government, schools, hospitals, and the day-to-day existence of the Danish people. But they never controlled King Christian. It is true that he rode every morning on his horse, unguarded, and the story that Annemarie’s father told his daughter is true too. It is true that the Jews were warned by the rabbi that they were to be taken and “relocated”, and that, thanks to this warning, most Jews fled the first raids.
“They fled into the arms of the Danes, who took them in, fed them, clothed them, hid them, and helped them along to safety in Sweden.”
The Danish church were publicly in favor of the rescue, and throughout the country, priests, in their sermons, incited the population to help the Jews. Universities closed their doors so that all students and professors could participate in the rescue operation. The Danish police opposed the German police and prevented them from entering the apartments of Jewish families.
In the weeks following the warning, Denmark’s fishermen smuggled across the sea to Sweden almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark – nearly seven thousand people were saved.
The handkerchief as well is part of history: a powerful powder composed of dried rabbit’s blood and cocaine, which destroyed temporarily the Nazi’s dogs’ sense of smell. Many lives were saved by this device, which prevented dogs from discovering the people hidden in the boats.
And it’s for all these reasons that the whole country received the title of Righteous among the Nations, the unique title in the world awarded to an entire country.
Lois Lowry finishes with a paragraph written by a young man, part of the Danish Resistance, to his mother, the night before he was executed by the Nazis:
“[…] and I want you all to remember – that you must not dream yourselves back to the times before the war, but the dreams for you all, young and old, must be to create an ideal of human decency, and not a narrow-minded and prejudiced one. That is the great gift our country hungers for, something every little peasant boy can look forward to, and with pleasure feel he is a part of – something he can work and fight for.”
This story of Denmark, and its people, reminds us all that such a world is possible.