“Number the Stars," by Lois Lowry, won a Newberry Award for its accurate and moving portrayal of a child’s life in Denmark during World War II. This summary of the book includes all of the main events.
Annemarie is a ten-year-old girl growing up in Nazi-occupied Germany. Her older sister, Lise, died several years before the start of the story, and she and her five-year-old sister Kirsty remain. Her best friend, Ellen Rosen, is Jewish, and much more studious and serious than she is.
The Germans occupied Denmark three years before the novel begins, but the Danish people have not accepted them. In fact, their loyalty to King Christian is unparalleled. King Christian opposed the Nazi occupation, but let them in for fear of losing thousands of Danish lives in a battle that was doomed to fail. Of all of the surrounding countries, Sweden alone remains free from Nazi occupation.
(See this article for more introductory information about the novel.)
Rumblings of Danger
When Annemarie and Ellen encounter a German soldier on the streets of Denmark, they are terrified. Their parents warn them to walk a different route home from school in order to avoid the soldiers, but the soldiers seem to be everywhere. Good food is scarce, due to the occupation, and Jewish stores are suddenly closed unexpectedly.
The next day, the Rosens leave Ellen with the Johansens as they go into hiding themselves. The Germans arrive and threaten the Johansens, who pretend that Ellen is their daughter Lise. Annemarie rips Ellen’s Star of David necklace from her neck so that it will not give her away, and the star becomes imprinted on her palm.
Who is Great Aunt Birte?
Mrs. Johansen takes Ellen, Annemarie, and Kirsty to her brother Henrik’s house by the ocean. They enjoy a peaceful day in solitude until Henrik announces that there has been a death in the family – the death of Great Aunt Birte. Annemarie knows that no such person exists, but Henrik silences her, telling her that it is easier to be brave when you don’t know everything. Several people arrive, dressed in dark clothes, and Henrik explains that they are mourning relatives. German soldiers arrive and order them to open the casket, but Annemarie’s mother explains that Aunt Birte died of typhus, a contagious disease. When the soldiers leave, they all hold a mock funeral, and Henrik takes the Rosens and the other “mourners" to his boat, leaving Annemarie behind at his home.
Annemarie wakes in the middle of the night, and her mother is not yet home. She finds her mother dragging herself towards the house, having broken her ankle on the return trip. Suddenly, Annemarie finds a small handkerchief that Mrs. Rosen dropped on the way out, and her mother informs her that it is important to the escape, and that Annemarie must immediately run to deliver it to Henrik. Soldiers stop her, and Annemarie pretends to be a naïve little girl, like her sister Kirsty, which convinces them. She delivers the handkerchief to Henrik, who later explains to her that it contains a drug to confuse the soldiers’ dogs.
Two years later, the war ends. Peter has been killed in a public square, and Annemarie learns about how Lise truly died. Annemarie decides to wear Ellen’s Star of David necklace until she returns.
Any true summary of “Number the Stars" would be incomplete without mentioning the Afterward, in which Lois Lowry explains that Annemarie is a fictitious character, but that many of the people and events in the story are based on historical fact.