Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen wants to race her best friend Ellen Rosen home from school through the streets of their Copenhagen neighborhood, but Ellen wants to walk. When Annemarie pleads, though, insisting she needs to practice for an upcoming race at school, Ellen acquiesces, and the two take off down the sidewalk. Annemarie’s little sister Kirsti, who has been walking with them, asks them to wait up, but the older girls don’t even hear her.
This passage establishes just how close Ellen and Annemarie are. Even though Annemarie’s little sister Kirsti is with them, Annemarie is much more interested in Ellen’s attention and company.
As Annemarie and Ellen arrive at the corner, they run smack into two German soldiers who are stationed at the end of the block wearing shiny boots and holding rifles. The soldiers demand to know why the girls are running and ask what they’re carrying in their backpacks. Both Ellen and Annemarie insist that they are just schoolgirls having fun on their way home. One of the soldiers tries to touch Kirsti’s blonde hair, stating that she reminds him of his own daughter back in Germany, but Kirsti pulls away from him. After a tense moment, the soldiers send the girls home—but warn them not to run the rest of the way there.
The fun, carefree energy of the opening passage is dashed here as the truth of the girls’ lives is thrown into relief—they live in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen, and the threat of soldiers stationed on every street corner harassing them—or worse—is omnipresent.
Annemarie, Ellen, and Kirsti arrive back at the apartment building where they all live. Ellen tells Annemarie how scared she was, face-to-face with the soldiers, and Annemarie admits that she, too, was frightened. Kirsti, though, seems to have forgotten about the incident already, and chatters about school and homework. To the five-year-old Kirsti, the soldiers are “simply part of the landscape.”
The Nazis have been in power in Copenhagen so long that Kirsti is used to them—but for Ellen and Annemarie, they represent the upheaval of the happy, peaceful lives they once knew.
Ellen and Annemarie agree not to tell their mothers about the incident, for fear of upsetting them. Ellen goes into her apartment on the second floor, and Annemarie and Kirsti head up to their apartment on the third floor. Kirsti bursts in the door and begins telling her mother all about their encounter with the soldier—Annemarie’s mother Mrs. Johansen is sitting with Mrs. Rosen at the kitchen table. The women are having “coffee,” as they do most afternoons, though there hasn’t been coffee in Copenhagen “since the beginning of the Nazi occupation.” The women drink hot water and herbs now, but still enjoy one another’s company.
As Annemarie and Kirsti return home, Lowry uses Mrs. Johansen and Mrs. Rosen’s afternoon routines alongside their daughters’ to show that the adults, just like the children, are still trying to cling to normalcy and old comforts even in the face of fear and danger.
Hearing Kirsti’s story, Mrs. Rosen becomes frightened, and asks where Ellen is—Annemarie assures her that Ellen is safe downstairs. As Kirsti continues talking about the encounter, Mama goes over to the window and looks down at the quiet street. She comments that the soldiers may be “edgy because of the latest Resistance incidents,” and cites an article she’s read in an illegal Resistance newspaper about nearby bombings. Annemarie knows that her parents support—but are not directly involved in—the Resistance, a group of “very secret” Danes who are “determined to bring harm to the Nazis” by any means possible, even at the risk of their own lives.
Annemarie’s knowledge of the existence of the Resistance—but her ignorance as to many of the details of their operations—shows that she is just on the cusp of being old enough to know certain things.
Mrs. Rosen heads downstairs to talk to Ellen, urging Annemarie to walk to school a “different way” tomorrow—she says it’s important for the German soldiers to never learn the girls’ faces, and for one to always be “one of the crowd.”
Mrs. Rosen knows that anonymity is an important tool, and that hiding in plain sight is the surest way to avoid trouble with the Nazis. As a Jewish woman, she cannot risk confrontation or provocation, and neither can her daughter.
Annemarie asks if there’s anything to eat for a snack, and Mama tells her there’s some bread, though they can’t spare any butter. Kirsti sighs and says she wants a “big yellow cupcake with pink frosting,” but Mama laughs at her daughter’s fancy. Kirsti asks if there will ever be cupcakes in Copenhagen again—Mama tells her there will be, but only after the war is over and all the soldiers leave.