Annemarie Johansen and her best friend Ellen Rosen are thick as thieves, and have been all throughout their childhoods. Their mothers, too, are close friends who get together every day for an afternoon coffee—and keep up with the tradition even when the closest thing to coffee left in Copenhagen is hot water steeped with herbs. Even though Annemarie has a younger sister, Kirsti, she still feels a void in her life when it comes to sisters, having recently lost her older sister, Lise, in a fatal hit-and-run. Complicated notions of sisterhood are rife throughout the pages of Number the Stars, and as the novel progresses, Lois Lowry uses the relationship forged between Annemarie and Ellen to show that sometimes sisters are bound together by more than blood—shared experience, mutual devotion, and respect for the other’s individuality are what sisterhood is made of.
When the Johansens take Ellen into their home, they tell her and Annemarie that if any soldiers come, they will need to pretend to be sisters. Annemarie’s Papa insists it will be “easy” for them to pretend, as they’re together so much already. As Annemarie and Ellen, who have been the best of friends for years, perform the relationship of sisters in order to shelter Ellen from being captured by Nazis, the pretense becomes real—by the end of the novel, Annemarie and Ellen really do see themselves as sisters, bound together by the love, solidarity, and support they have shown one another. At the same time, Annemarie must contend with her feelings of obligation towards and contempt for her younger sister Kirsti, and the pain of having lost her older sister Lise.
At the start of the novel, Annemarie does indeed treat her friend Ellen as something of a sister. They are together nearly all the time, and they play and study together every day. Annemarie even attends Ellen’s family’s religious ceremonies on the Sabbath each Friday. Their lives are deeply intertwined. Unable to forge a real relationship with her five-year-old sister Kirsti, but desperate for a sense of sisterhood in the wake of having recently lost Lise in a mysterious accident, Annemarie longs for a sisterly relationship, and finds it in her friendship with Ellen.
After the Nazis begin arresting the Jews of Copenhagen, the Johansens take Ellen in and decide to hide her while her parents seek shelter with the Resistance. Ellen is frightened to be separated from her family, but Annemarie’s Mama and Papa assure Ellen that they are “proud” to call her their daughter—even if it’s just pretend. When Nazis storm into the Johansens’ apartment, however, the ruse is put to the test—Annemarie swears to the soldiers’ faces that Ellen is her sister, and Mama and Papa swear the same. Realizing the city is not safe for Ellen, Annemarie, Kirsti, and Mrs. Johansen take her to the countryside, where on the train Nazis again question the relationship between Ellen and the rest of the family. As Annemarie is made to declare over and over that she and Ellen are sisters, the pretense becomes more of a truth. The frightening and life-threatening experiences they share bond them close together in a profound way, and by the time Ellen is taken from Uncle Henrik’s countryside house to be smuggled to Sweden alongside her parents, she is devastated to leave Annemarie’s company.
At the end of the novel, after the Nazis have been expunged from Denmark and the Allies have won the war, Annemarie asks her Papa to repair Ellen’s broken Star of David necklace, so that it will be ready for her to wear when she returns. Annemarie decides that in the meantime, she will wear the necklace. This moment is symbolic of Annemarie’s strong feelings not just of solidarity but of sisterhood—she knows that there is no difference between her and Ellen, and that they are bound together forever by the experiences they’ve shared and the sisterly devotion they feel for one another.
The act of pretending to be “real” sisters, sisters by blood, actually serves to show Ellen and Annemarie the ways in which they have effectively been sisters all along. Though not related to one another, Ellen and Annemarie provide one another with the love, support, empathy, and comfort that sisterly relationships often yield. When Annemarie, towards the novel’s end, reveals that she has hidden Ellen’s Star of David necklace for years inside the folds of Lise’s yellowing, never-worn wedding dress, Lois symbolically acknowledges that sisters can be found outside of one’s blood family. Though Lise’s loss can never be replaced, in her absence Annemarie has found yet another sister—one whose beauty, bravery, and kindness she admires just as much as she did Lise’s.
Sisterhood Quotes in Number the Stars
Redheaded Peter, her sister’s fiancé, had not married anyone in the years since Lise’s death. He had changed a great deal. Once he had been like a fun-loving older brother to Annemarie and Kirsti, teasing and tickling, always a source of foolishness and pranks. Now he still stopped by the apartment often, and his greetings to the girls were warm and smiling, but he was usually in a hurry, talking quickly to Mama and Papa about things Annemarie didn’t understand. He no longer sang the nonsense songs that had once made Annemarie and Kirsti shriek with laughter. And he never lingered anymore.
Papa had changed, too. He seemed much older and very tired, defeated.
The whole world had changed. Only the fairy tales remained the same.
“And they lived happily ever after,” Annemarie recited, whispering into the dark, completing the tale for her sister, who slept beside her, one thumb in her mouth.
Alone in the apartment while Mama was out shopping with Kirsti, Annemarie and Ellen were sprawled on the living room floor playing with paper dolls. They had cut the dolls from Mama’s magazines, old ones she had saved from past years. The paper ladies had old-fashioned hair styles and clothes, and the girls had given them names from Mama’s very favorite book. Mama had told Annemarie and Ellen the entire story of Gone With the Wind, and the girls thought it much more interesting and romantic than the king-and-queen tales that Kirsti loved.
“Come, Melanie,” Annemarie said, walking her doll across the edge of the rug. “Let’s dress for the ball.”
“All right, Scarlett, I’m coming,” Ellen replied in a sophisticated voice. She was a talented performer; she often played the leading roles in school dramatics. Games of the imagination were always fun when Ellen played.
Annemarie grinned and walked her Scarlett toward the chair that Ellen had designated as Tivoli. She loved Tivoli Gardens, in the heart of Copenhagen; her parents had taken her there, often, when she was a little girl. She remembered the music and the brightly colored lights, the carousel and ice cream and especially the magnificent fireworks in the evenings: the huge colored splashes and bursts of lights in the evening sky.
“I remember the fireworks best of all,” she commented to Ellen.
“Me too,” Kirsti said. “I remember the fireworks.”
“Silly,” Annemarie scoffed. “You never saw the fireworks.” Tivoli Gardens was closed now. The German occupation forces had burned part of it, perhaps as a way of punishing the fun-loving Danes for their lighthearted pleasures.
Kirsti drew herself up, her small shoulders stiff. “I did too,” she said belligerently. “It was my birthday. I woke up in the night and I could hear the booms. And there were lights in the sky. Mama said it was fireworks for my birthday!”
Then Annemarie remembered. Kirsti’s birthday was late in August. And that night, only a month before, she, too, had been awakened and frightened by the sound of explosions. Kirsti was right—the sky in the southeast had been ablaze, and Mama had comforted her by calling it a birthday celebration.
“You said that we would hide her. How can we do that? Where can she hide?”
Papa smiled. “That part is easy. It will be as your mama said: you two will sleep together in your bed, and you may giggle and talk and tell secrets to each other. And if anyone comes—”
Ellen interrupted him. “Who might come? Will it be soldiers? Like the ones on the corners?” Annemarie remembered how terrified Ellen had looked the day when the soldier had questioned them on the corner.
“I really don’t think anyone will. But it never hurts to be prepared. If anyone should come, even soldiers, you two will be sisters. You are together so much, it will be easy for you to pretend that you are sisters.”
Annemarie and Ellen got to their feet. Papa suddenly crossed the room and put his arms around them both. He kissed the top of each head: Annemarie’s blond one, which reached to his shoulder, and Ellen’s dark hair, the thick curls braided as always into pigtails.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said to them softly. “Once I had three daughters. Tonight I am proud to have three daughters again.”
“Ellen,” [Annemarie] whispered urgently, “take your necklace off!”
Ellen’s hands flew to her neck. Desperately she began trying to unhook the tiny clasp. Outside the bedroom door, the harsh voices and heavy footsteps continued.
“I can’t get it open!” Ellen said frantically. “I never take it off—I can’t even remember how to open it!”
Annemarie heard a voice just outside the door. “What is here?”
“Shhh,” her mother replied. “My daughters’ bedroom. They are sound asleep.”
“Hold still,” Annemarie commanded. “This will hurt.” She grabbed the little gold chain, yanked with all her strength, and broke it. As the door opened and light flooded into the bedroom, she crumpled it into her hand and closed her fingers tightly.
Terrified, both girls looked up at the three Nazi officers who entered the room.
Ellen touched her neck after she had put on Annemarie’s flower-sprigged nightgown, which Mama had packed.
“Where is my necklace?” she asked. “What did you do with it?”
“I hid it in a safe place,” Annemarie told her. “A very secret place where no one will ever find it. And I will keep it there for you until it is safe for you to wear it again.”
Ellen nodded. “Papa gave it to me when I was very small,” she explained.
She sat down on the edge of the old bed and ran her fingers along the handmade quilt that covered it. The flowers and birds, faded now, had been stitched onto the quilt by Annemarie’s great-grandmother many years before.
“I wish I knew where my parents are,” Ellen said in a small voice as she outlined one of the appliqued birds with her finger.
Annemarie didn’t have an answer for her. She patted Ellen’s hand and they sat together silently.
“So little Red Riding-Hood carried the basket of food and hurried along through the woods. It was a lovely morning, and birds were singing. Little Red Riding-Hood sang, too, as she walked.”
Sometimes she changed that part of the story, telling it to Kirsti. Sometimes it was raining, or even snowing, in the woods. Sometimes it was evening, with long, frightening shadows, so that Kirsti, listening, would snuggle closer and wrap her arms around Annemarie. But now, telling it to herself, she wanted sunlight and bird song.
Annemarie’s mind raced. She remembered what her mother had said. “If anyone stops you, you must pretend to be nothing more than a silly little girl.”
She stared at the soldiers. She remembered how she had stared at the others, frightened, when they had stopped her on the street.
Kirsti hadn’t been frightened. Kirsti had been—well, nothing more than a silly little girl, angered because the soldier had touched her hair that after noon. She had known nothing of danger, and the soldier had been amused by her.
Annemarie willed herself, with all her being, to behave as Kirsti would.
“Good morning,” she said carefully to the soldiers.
That night, Annemarie’s parents told her the truth about Lise’s death at the beginning of the war.
“She was part of the Resistance, too,” Papa had explained. “Part of the group that fought for our country in whatever ways they could.”
“We didn’t know,” Mama added. “She didn’t tell us. Peter told us after she died.”
“Oh, Papa!” Annemarie cried. “Mama!”
[Annemarie] turned and went to her bedroom, where the blue trunk still stood in the corner, as it had all these years. Opening it, Annemarie saw that the yellow dress had begun to fade; it was discolored at the edges where it had lain so long in folds.
Carefully she spread open the skirt of the dress and found the place where Ellen’s necklace lay hidden in the pocket. The little Star of David still gleamed gold.
“Papa?” she said, returning to the balcony, where her father was standing with the others, watching the rejoicing crowd. She opened her hand and showed him the necklace. “Can you fix this? I have kept it all this long time. It was Ellen’s.”
Her father took it from her and examined the broken clasp. “Yes,” he said. “I can fix it. When the Rosens come home, you can give it back to Ellen.”
“Until then,” Annemarie told him, “I will wear it myself.”