My daughter insisted that I read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars (Yearling) because “it’s a good story,” but I was reluctant. A new semester was beginning, and I had things to do for my students. In retrospect, I’m glad she insisted, though, and (to generalize) it’s nice to be able to report that there actually are some decent stories floating around out there for young teens, that some of these stories are actually decades old, and that some don’t have even a single vampire in them.
This is the case with Lowry’s 1989 novella about a ten-year-old Danish girl who plays a terrified part in protecting a family of Jews who must flee the Nazis occupying their homeland.
Annemarie Johansen is best friends with Ellen Rosen. As the action of the story begins, they are simply little girls growing up, doing their best to be little girls growing up. Tall, blonde Annemarie seems to be destined to be an athlete. She races her friend in the street in anticipation of an upcoming race at school. Dark-haired Ellen may turn out to be an actor although in the forties, of course, that would have been “actress.” The girls also do their best to ignore the occupying German troops they pass on corners on their way home to the same apartment building from school each day.
But that becomes impossible all of a sudden. The Nazis begin to “relocate” the Danish Jews. Ellen is temporarily hidden in the Johansen apartment, and it’s a good thing that the family has a baby picture of a deceased daughter who had dark hair because it’s definitely needed.
Lowry does a fine, spare job of creating the tension inherent in the interactions of the Danes and the occupying Nazi troops, as well as moving things along from this point as the Danish Resistance acts quickly to spirit away as many Jews as possible to free Sweden.
What happened in history was this: Danish fishermen built secret compartments into their vessels to hide those fleeing, and when those compartments were occupied, often piled fish on top of them or against them to discourage searches.
Accordingly, Lowry’s Rosen family and a couple of other Jewish people are to be smuggled to Sweden across the Kattegat (the sea) in a boat belonging to Annemarie’s Uncle Henrik. With Mrs. Johansen they trample through woods in the dead of night to the boat, but one of them drops a flat packet he was entrusted with right outside the farmhouse where most of the Johansens are staying – as they begin their trek. This item isn’t explained at the time, but it is meant for Henrik. Annemarie is concerned and puzzled, and initially unaware that the packet has been dropped.
The next morning she is tasked with taking the found packet to her Uncle because her mother has broken her ankle, apparently, which sometimes will happen when one tramples through the woods in the dark in order to save people. The girl is instructed, if stopped by soldiers, to say that she is taking a “lunch” (which contains the packet) to her Uncle, who absent-mindedly forgot it in his haste to start on a day’s work.
Somewhat predictably, Nazi troopers stop her. They begin to rummage through the lunch, eating some of the bread they find – basically, being rude occupiers. Then they find the packet, which was hidden under a napkin.
Will Annemarie end up in front of a firing squad?
Lowry builds more tension, beautifully, right through the soldiers ripping open the packet. (Annemarie babbles about her uncle like “an empty-headed little girl” as she’s been instructed.) The occupiers are thorough because one of them says that the dogs they have with them smell meat. Oddly, though, all they find is a hand-made handkerchief, which prompts an insult to Danish women about wasting time with hemming. They send the girl on her way more mystified than ever, and she delivers the packet to her uncle.
After the fact of the Rosens’ escape, Uncle Henrik explains the matter to Annemarie. The Nazis had begun, he says, to use trained search dogs to locate the Jews hidden among the fish on the boats used for escape, but handkerchiefs treated with a special substance that destroys a dog’s sense of smell are being employed by the fishermen to protect their threatened neighbors.
“What!?” says the reader to himself. “Gimme a break!” Could Newberry Medal winner Lowry have conjured up this weak deus ex machine to save the Rosens?
It’s not a weak resolution tool at all.
As Lowry explains in an her afterword, once the Danes and Swedes working to save the Jewish population of Denmark had realized that the Nazis would consistently be using search dogs on the fishing boats, Swedish scientists were prodded to create a solution to the problem. They came up with a powdered mixture of rabbit’s blood and cocaine to sprinkle on handkerchiefs that were then turned over to the fishermen helping the Jews. The Nazis’ dogs would be drawn to the rabbit blood when a Dane produced such a handkerchief to, say, mop his brow, and upon sniffing at the cloth, would have their senses of smell temporarily disabled. The hidden Jewish refugees would remain undiscovered.
And there’s something you likely didn’t know about the rescue of some of the Jews during World War II.
Disclaimer: The author has no connection to either Lois Lowry or Yearling books.
Lowry, Lois. Number the Stars. New York: Yearling, 1989.[Map] “Stazione Paradiso.” simplicissimus.it. 20 September 2010.