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Number the Stars | Study Guide

Lois Lowry

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Number the Stars | Chapter 10 : Let Us Open the Casket | Summary



Uncle Henrik departs, and Annemarie's mother tells her she may go to bed. She refuses and not long afterward, soldiers arrive. They say they have noticed that an "unusual number of people have gathered at this house tonight." Annemarie's mother tells them that it is because of the death of Great-Aunt Birte. The soldiers point out that they know that the custom is to look at the face of the dead. The German officer says, "Let us open it up and take one last look at Great-Aunt Birte!"

Annemarie's mother agrees and goes toward the soldier and the casket. She tells him he's right, but the doctor had said not to because Great-Aunt Birte died of typhus. She continues on, exclaiming that she would prefer to open it. "Surely typhus germs wouldn't linger in a dead person!" The officer responds by slapping her and suggesting she open it after the soldiers leave.

After they leave Peter Neilsen opens the Bible and reads a Psalm. "The Lord is rebuilding Jerusalem; he gathers in the scattered sons of Israel. It is he who heals the broken in spirit and binds up their wounds, he who numbers the stars one by one." Moments pass, as Annemarie thinks about the words, about how Ellen's mother thought the sea was too big and cold. She thinks the "whole world was: too cold, too big. And too cruel."

Then Peter opens the casket lid.


The risk of exposure is not for typhus, but for Resistance activities. Typhus, however, is a valid reason not to open the casket. Typhus was fatal in 40% of cases at the time, and it is transmitted by lice, fleas, and chiggers. The excuse to not open the casket is believable enough; the soldiers are not willing to test it. They strike Mrs. Johansen, emphasizing their vile nature. The officer also shows his character by his parting words: "Open it after we leave." He doesn't care if the Johansens contract typhus.

The quote Peter Neilsen reads to the assembled crowd is selected from Tehillim, more commonly known to American and non-Jewish readers as Psalms in the Old Testament of the Bible. In the context of the novel it is significant because it is read before they begin their flight from Denmark to Sweden. Readers ought to note that, at this point, Jews were in hiding, pursued during Rosh Hashanah and on Shabbat as well. These days of celebration, community, and rest are the days the Nazis chose to target the Jews for transport. Peter reads to them a passage from the Torah to remind them to have hope.

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