Number the Stars: When Fiction Comes Too Close

9128dhoa9dl-_sl1500_The “young adult” section, in my humble and perhaps slightly immature opinion, is one of the most underrated sections of the library. True, it perhaps isn’t the most erudite or sophisticated nook in which to hang out, but any category of literature that boasts C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s redheaded Anne of Green Gables is alright by me.

A few years ago upon completing seminary and needing a palette cleanser from piles of dense theological discourse and hours of paper writing, I found myself in the young adult section of a local bookstore for the first time since I was, well, a young(er) adult, and a particular book of Lois Lowry’s caught my eye. Number the Stars holds significance because it was my first introduction to the Holocaust, both as a horrific event and as testament to extremely poor theological thought. I met Anne Frank a bit later, but ten year-olds Annemarie Johansen and Ellen Rosen were my windows into a world with both unimaginable hatred and incredible hope.

While written on a child’s level (the age suggested is ten, which was about how old I was when I first read it), it is anything but childish. The basic narrative arc consists of two young Danish girls and their families, the Rosens and the Johansens, living in Copenhagen at the beginning of the Third Reich’s expanding grip on the country of Denmark. Jewish individuals and families have begun to disappear from the community; some have gone into hiding, some may have been lucky enough to flee to Sweden, but most were more than likely captured and transported to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in the modern-day Czech Republic.

The Rosens, under encouragement of their rabbi, go into hiding, and it is the Johansens who take them in. The Johansens demonstrate not only incredible bravery, but also fierce love. They pass Ellen Rosen off as their deceased daughter when officers arrive at their home to look for the Rosens. They hold a fake funeral to utilize a coffin to hide clothing and other necessities for the Jewish families fleeing into Sweden. They make and deliver drug-laden handkerchiefs to boat smugglers so that the Nazi soldiers’ bloodhounds cannot smell their precious human cargo at the docks.

“And they are beginning to realize that the world they live in is a place where the right thing is often hard, sometimes dangerous, and frequently unpopular.”

For the Johansens and many other Resistance workers like them, everything was on the line: their homes, their freedom, their lives. Their real-life counterparts, people like Miep Gies and Corrie Ten Boom, are rightfully praised and commended for their bravery and fierce courage; however, courage and sheer “guts” are not all that was warranted. The Resistance stood for what they believed to be right in the midst of intense fear and hatred, some of which stemmed from the Christian community as Hitler attempted to co-opt Christian practice and ideology in order to gain the trust of his adherents. Those in opposition took the more dangerous road of risk, and not everyone came back, but they did what they knew they had to do to protect members of their community.

Modern-day America is not, on the surface at least, anything like living in war-torn Denmark. The picture Lowry paints of air raids, food rations, and dangerous journeys across the darkened countryside seem far removed from the continuous buzz of activity and secure living of developed countries. However, as followers of Christ, we are called to stand in places of fear. We are called to follow the imperative in Matthew 25, to do unto others as we would do unto our Savior, even when it seems foolish, unwise, or even dangerous. We are called to be like-minded with Christ, to be able to discern around us what is not of God and what is of God, even when, as Lowry put it, it is unpopular and difficult.

Our unique call as Christians living in a culture soaked with fear and death is to live and work in a posture of hope and life. Work does not make one free; hope in the love of Christ and the love of each other breeds freedom.