Sunday, July 6, 2014

Number the Stars - Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks - Week 28

Number the Stars has been on my list of books I've wanted to read for many years now. I finally got around to reading it during the 28th week of the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge.

My anticipation of reading this book was well-matched with the content and suspense that Number the Stars provided. I began reading it one morning and couldn’t put the book down until I finished it.

Number the Stars is a work of historical fiction by American author Lois Lowry. Although it was a book written for a much younger audience (upper elementary school/low junior high school), it still provided an interesting perspective about WWII, the occupation of Denmark, and how an entire country managed to save almost its Jewish population.

When I was in school, I don't ever recall learning about how Denmark was occupied by the Germans during the second World War. According to Wikipedia:

The rescue of the Danish Jews occurred during Nazi Germany's occupation of Denmark during World War II. On October 1, 1943 Nazi leader Adolf Hitler ordered Danish Jews to be arrested and deported. 

Despite great personal risk, the Danish resistance movement, with the assistance of many ordinary Danish citizens, managed to evacuate 7,220 of Denmark's 7,800 Jews, plus 686 non-Jewish spouses, by sea to nearby neutral Sweden.

The rescue allowed the vast majority of Denmark's Jewish population to avoid capture by the Nazis and is considered to be one of the largest actions of collective resistance to repression in the countries occupied by Nazi Germany. 

As a result of the rescue, and the following Danish intercession on behalf of the 464 Danish Jews who were captured and deported to Theresienstadt transit camp in Bohemia, over 99% of Denmark's Jewish population survived the Holocaust.

So, Number the Stars, provides a fictional account about the escape of a Jewish family from Copenhagen during the occupation of Denmark in WWII in order to evade the Holocaust.

The story centers around ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen, who lives with her family in Copenhagen in 1943. Germany has already occupied the country, and seeing soldiers on street corners and controlling so many aspects of the everyday life of the citizens is commonplace.

Annemarie becomes a part of the events related to the rescue of the Danish Jews. Annemarie risks her life to help her best friend, Ellen Rosen, by pretending that Ellen is Annemarie's late older sister Lise, who had died earlier in the war. (Lise, who was involved with the Danish Resistance, was killed because of her work.)

Number the Stars shows the impact of the Jewish “relocation” program had on two families – Annmarie’s family (who is not Jewish) and Ellen’s family (who is Jewish). Both families were equally affected, but in very different ways.

Ellen’s family was notified of the relocation program by their rabbit who had called a meeting at the synagogue the night before the Nazis were going to go to homes where Jewish people lived and take them away. In the author’s Afterword, she said that the rabbi knew that the Germans were going to relocate the Jewish people because “a high German official told the Danish government, which passed the information along to the leaders of the Jewish community. The name of that German was G.F. Duckwitz…a man of compassion and courage.

The book described how Annmarie’s family took in Ellen while her parents were helped by non-Jewish families to hide and stay safe. The agony and uncertainty of being separated – child from parents – was traumatizing for both parents and children. They could only hope that they would see each other once again.

Number of Stars described the secret operations of the Danish Resistance which was mostly composed of very young and brave individuals. Many of the young people in the Danish Resistance died. This is how Annmarie’s family was involved with and negatively affected by the war.

Initially it was Annmarie’s sister, Lise, who was run over by the Germans as she was trying to escape after a Danish Resistance meeting was discovered by the Germans and they tried to arrest those involved. Later, another family member – Lise’s fiancé – was executed when it was found out that he was helping the Jewish people escape.

This story was a captivating depiction of what life must have been like for the Jewish people who wanted and needed to escape Denmark for the freedom of Sweden. Likewise, it shows the determination, compassion, and selfless actions of the Danish people in helping those who were just like them…except a different religion…safely hide and escape the country in order to live.

The author found a quote from a young man who was executed in the 1940s after providing assistance to Jewish people. He wrote on the night preceding his execution: “…and I want you all to remember – that you must not dream yourselves back to the times before the war, but the dream for you all, young and old, must be to create an ideal of human decency, and not a narrow-minded and prejudiced one.”

Number the Stars was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1990 as the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." I would highly recommend this historical fiction book to both youth and adults as a way to learn more about Denmark's role in helping its Jewish population survive the Holocaust.

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