Building on Number the Stars

In a recent article by Corey L. Harbaugh on the professional development of US teachers in the field of Holocaust education, the author notes that according to data collected for his research, “82.9% of students are introduced to, or experience [Holocaust] content during the years considered to be middle school in the United States… ” (Harbaugh, 2015, p. 381). Moreover, students in US schools are “much more likely to encounter Holocaust content in an English class than in a history class” (Ibid, p. 380).

Harbaugh’s findings appear to correlate with the long-standing popularity of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, a children’s historical fiction book focusing on the rescue of the majority of the Danish-Jewish community in the fall of 1943. Because this book is typically read in middle school, US educators who are trained in using Echoes and Reflections in their classrooms can capitalize on its popularity when students reach high school, and build upon what their students remember about the Holocaust from reading Number the Stars.

Number the Stars is a story about the friendship of two ten-year-old girls, Annemarie Johansen and Ellen Rosen, who are living in Copenhagen, occupied by German forces during the Second World War. Rosen’s family, together with other Jewish families in Denmark, are warned that they will be deported. The Johansen’s, including their friends and family members, decide to hide Ellen and her parents as well as to actively participate in the operation to send Danish Jews to safety in Sweden.

Although this Newberry Award winning book was published over twenty-five years ago, it remains a widely read book by elementary school students across the United States. According to Publisher’s Weekly, Lowry’s book was the 82nd best-selling book of all time in the United States with sales above two million as of 2001 (the book was first published in 1989). The book continues to be purchased even after multiple editions, though this story can now be read gratis online. Moreover, students who wish to hear this book aloud (chapter by chapter) will also easily find it on YouTube.

According to Scholastic, the reading level of Number the Stars is geared for grades 4-6, yet clearly younger and older students are reading the book as well. According to Harbaugh, almost fifty percent of respondents in his study indicated that, “They asked students to produce a personal paper as an end-of-unit assessment strategy” (Harbaugh, 2015, p. 387). In addition to writing book reports, some students (who are clearly in elementary schools) reading Number the Stars are also creating “book trailers” or short films that are later uploaded on School Tube (URLs) and other sites.

What does this all mean for our growing network who have been trained to use Echoes and Reflections in their respective classrooms?  Although some organizations and institutions discourage the introduction of the Holocaust in elementary schools, de facto Holocaust-related books like Number the Stars are being widely taught in English language arts. It would not be surprising therefore that teachers using the Teacher’s Resource Guide in eighth grade or in high school would encounter students who recall reading Number the Stars at an earlier age.

In light of this reality, educators in the US may choose to build upon what their students remember from Lowry’s story, such as assigning the student handout in Lesson 7, “Rescue in Denmark.” This handout may provide additional historical context for students to deepen their knowledge about this topic, connecting it with their previous encounter when reading Number the Stars in younger grades. Witness testimonies, such as that of Leslie Banos highlighted in Lesson 7: Rescue and Non-Jewish Resistance will also buttress the students’ understanding, enabling them to gain a wider context of the Holocaust. In addition, the testimony of Leslie Banos will encourage eighth graders and up to think about dilemmas that real people faced during the Holocaust period as well as the choices that witnesses made during that difficult time.

All in all, Number the Stars has become an entry point for elementary school age children to begin learning more about the Holocaust through the friendship of two young Danish girls. It is hoped that the Echoes and Reflections Teacher’s Resource Guide will help US educators create a spiral educational process so that their junior and high school students will add layers of knowledge based on their encounters via English language arts curricula in US elementary schools.

Richelle Budd Caplan has served as the Director of the European Department of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem since 2009, and has been working at Yad Vashem since 1993.