Number the Heroes


Katherine Hauswirth


Maybe it’s because I grew up in a heavily Jewish area, but at Christmas time I am sensitive to the friends around me who don’t celebrate the holiday. It can’t be easy to be surrounded by Christmas-oriented conversations, commercials, and events when Christmas simply isn’t part of your belief. I did a lot of thinking about this as a child, and also thought about the Jewish experience at large. I used to wonder: if I found myself in an occupied area, like Poland in World War II, would I be someone who had the courage to help and even hide the persecuted? Only recently did it occur to me that my imagined scenarios always included me as the potential protector, never the persecuted. If you are Jewish and your thoughts turn to a similar scenario, do you imagine being hunted, do you wonder “how best could I hide; who could I turn to help me stay safe?”

I was surprised when my  fourth grade son began speaking recently of questions in a similar vein. His teacher read the children’s novel Number the Stars to the class, and each child got to keep a copy of the book. The Newberry Medal stamp on the book caught my eye, and I was interested in how a children’s author might go about describing something as overwhelming as the Holocaust.

The first thing I noticed was how almost half of Lois Lowry’s chapters are titled with a question. I am sure everyone’s minds, but especially those of children in occupied Denmark, must have been overflowing with questions about what would happen to their families and their neighbors, what would happen to their previously peaceful and happy surroundings. The protagonist, ten-year-old Annemarie, gradually catches on to the gravity of the situation and what it means for her best friend Ellen’s family. Annemarie is able to play a small but crucial role in smuggling Ellen’s family across the water to Sweden.

The book is based on well-researched history—I learned that nearly 7,000 Jews, almost the whole Jewish population of Denmark, were smuggled across the sea to safety by a powerful resistance movement. Secrets had to be kept and resistors had to be clever in unprecedented ways. Annemarie’s role includes a covert invention by resistance scientists that was used by almost every boat captain—a handkerchief scented with rabbit’s blood and cocaine that threw off the search dogs’ sense of smell.

This may technically be a children’s book, but Lowry does an artful job of blending fact and fiction that allows for a quick but moving read for an adult as well. The title words come from Psalm 147, in which God “heals the broken in spirit and binds up their wounds/he who numbers the stars one by one”. In her afterword Lowry honors an actual Resistance leader on whom she based her fictional young man Peter Nielsen. Before his execution, twenty-one-year-old Kim Malthe-Brun wrote, “…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.”

When I was about ten years old, my mother read me The Hiding Place. (Her book choices for me were often adult-level reads). Many of its details had faded from my mind, but when I saw the memoir at a used book shop it was like rediscovering an old friend. This book, too, is about a resistance movement during World War II, this one led by a middle-aged woman in Holland. It was written by a central figure of the movement, Corrie ten Boom (with help from professional authors).

As with Number the Stars, I was struck by the core of decency evident in so many of the story’s characters. While the only allusion to spiritual belief in Number the Stars may be the sharing of a psalm by families during a tense time, the ten Boom family is driven by their deep-rooted Christian belief. It is a belief that includes rather than excludes; Corrie’s father sets an example by welcoming all into his watch shop and his life. He has amiable arguments with neighboring scholars of the Old Testament. Not only does he not condone prejudice, he seems incapable of understanding it. It seems only natural that a false wall is erected in Corrie’s bedroom and before long ration cards are diverted and hiding drills are conducted on a regular basis; before long there is a secret code and a widening network of help and hope.

The ten Booms manage to save all but one of the Jews they hide, but they are severely punished for their courage by being transported to a concentration camp. Corrie loses her beloved father and sister during the long ordeal. She is sustained by tiny Gospel editions that she manages to keep hidden. A lesson she learned early in life from her mother seems to be confirmed at every turn and enriched by her growing faith: “love is larger than the walls which shut it in.” Corrie goes on to open a healing center for war victims after her release from Ravensbruck, and visitors today can still visit Corrie ten Boom (aka Hiding Place) Museum in Haarlem, near Amsterdam.

The Christmas season is about many things; we all know that commercialism has largely taken center stage at this time of year. But the roots of the story still get acknowledged at Christmas Eve services everywhere: Christians believe that someone came to save us from ourselves. It’s easy to forget as we stroll through our malls and cook our feasts that genocide is still a reality in other parts of the world, that it’s not implausible that we may someday be called upon to save others. My own hope is that readers of Number the Stars and The Hiding Place recognize the need to vigorously pursue the “ideal of human decency”. There’s a great and profound comfort knowing that there are more and more people, many humble and methodical in their defiance of evil intent, in a far reaching constellation of heroes. For more information on today’s anti-genocide efforts, visit Genocide Watch.

Books mentioned in this column:
The Hiding Place: 25th Anniversary Edition by Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill (Chosen Books, 1996)
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (Yearling Books, 1989)


Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of the book Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Chronogram, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers is her personal website. Contact Katherine. 



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