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Number the Stars | Study Guide

Lois Lowry

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Number the Stars | Themes



Crossing toward freedom or away from danger is a theme in the novel. Number the Stars begins with Ellen Rosen and Annemarie Johansen running home from school when a Nazi soldier stops them. In childhood, the run home from school should feel like a run toward the freedoms and safety of home. However, this expectation is displaced by the threat of the soldier. It is the first of the transitions in the novel interrupted by soldiers.

When the news comes that the Nazis are planning to deport Danish Jews, Ellen's parents depart and go into hiding. Ellen is temporarily separated from them, but she, too, will travel toward safety. She, Mrs. Johansen, Kirsti, and Annemarie all take a train ride north along the Danish coast to Uncle Henrik's house. This trip is also interrupted by soldiers. The narrator describes an anxious Annemarie: "Annemarie tensed. Not here, on the train, too? They were everywhere." Mrs. Johansen and Kirsti talk to them, answering their questions, and the soldiers soon leave.

Later, when the Jews are gathered at Uncle Henrik's house preparing to be smuggled across the sea, the soldiers again arrive. The narrator describes the scene: "They filled the wide doorway. As always, their boots gleamed. Their guns. Their helmets. All of them gleamed in the candlelight." One soldier studies the room and the people closely, suspiciously. Annemarie looks him straight in the eye but doesn't speak. Again it is Mrs. Johansen who speaks to them.

The next important journey is when all the people gathered at Uncle Henrik's make their way through the woods to the boat waiting for them on the coast. They will head toward Sweden and freedom from the Nazi threat.

Annemarie travels to the docks carrying an important packet that is necessary for the journey to Sweden to be successful. Annemarie runs likes the wind through the woods, thinking of herself as Little Red Riding Hood as she does so. The path through the woods is dark and intimidating. Annemarie thinks to herself: "It was why Mama and Peter had needed to guide those who were strangers here—the Rosens and others. A wrong turn would have taken them into danger." Here, again, she is halted by soldiers. The threat of the soldiers and their guns is exacerbated by the growling dogs this time. Again, though, Annemarie endures.

The greatest journey to freedom, that of the Rosens and the other Jews' escape to Sweden, is not detailed as extensively. It is, however, the overall point of the story and the historical premise of the novel.


Courage is a central theme in Number the Stars. Annemarie's theory early on that "an ordinary person would never be called on for courage" is defining. Especially in a time of war, life calls upon everyone to be brave. Annemarie and Ellen have witnessed plenty of examples of bravery from their parents. The Rosens flee to hide and leave Ellen in the safety of the Johansens. The Johansens boldly lie to the Nazi soldiers about Ellen's identity. Peter, who was engaged to Annemarie's sister Lise, brings the Johansens copies of the Resistance newspaper. The rabbi tells his people to flee because of the coming raids. Bravery is necessary and many ordinary citizens, and children are doing things they would never have dreamed of previous to World War II.

That does not mean it is easy to be courageous. Uncle Henrik asks Annemarie, "How brave are you, little Annemarie?" She does not think she is—even though, at this point, she has already faced soldiers three times. When soldiers stopped her in the street, she stayed calm. When they came to find Ellen, Annemarie thought quickly enough to snatch Ellen's Star of David necklace from Ellen's neck in time so the soldiers would not see it. She clasped it so tightly in her own hand it left a mark.

Uncle Henrik tells Annemarie he thinks she would be brave: "Frightened, but determined, and if the time came to be brave, I am quite sure you would be very, very brave." This is proven true when she encounters the soldiers in the woods. She stands firm, speaks clearly, and the soldiers dismiss her; and then off she runs to the dock to deliver the packet with the drug-laden handkerchief. Afterward, Uncle Henrik points out that bravery isn't about being afraid. He says, "That's all that brave means—not thinking about the dangers. Just thinking about what you must do."

The ultimate bravery, of course, is that of the Jews who were forced to make life and death choices to hide themselves and their children, and walk away from everything. The narrator explains it wasn't just possessions left behind, but "all of those things, those sources of pride—the candlesticks, the books, the daydreams of theater." They left it all behind, trusting in the human decency of their friends and neighbors as they sought safety from persecution.

Human Decency

The author closes her note at the end of the novel by saying, "Surely that gift—the gift of a world of human decency—is one that all countries hunger for still." Her explicit goal, according to her afterword, is that "this story of Denmark, and its people, will remind us all that such a world is possible." It is unusual for the author to overtly share what she intends as a theme, but in this case, Lowry does so. Many of the acts in the novel that are thematically arguable as bravery are also examples of human decency. Protecting a child, as the Johansens do, is good and kind. Rescuing your neighbors when they are unjustly persecuted, as many Danes in history and in Number the Stars did, is what decent people do.

Smaller acts of decency are also evident. When Kirsti is upset to have to wear fish scale shoes, Ellen offers to help. "In our apartment," Ellen tells her, "my father has a jar of black, black ink. Would you like these shoes better if they were black?" Even though many people have very little, they continue to give. Later when the Jews are getting ready for the cold trip across the sea, Mrs. Johansen finds something warm for a baby. Further, Mrs. Johansen gives each person a package of food for their journey that Annemarie had helped her prepare.

The novel highlights minor and major acts of human decency. Those actions are inspiring, especially as this is a novel set in such a dark time in human history.

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