Three days after Eliana Stein turned 10 years old, her fourth-grade teacher handed her and her classmates a book. Eliana studied the black and red paperback cover and traced her fingernail over the title: Number the Stars.
“As you all know,” Mrs. Beckram said after she had passed out the last copy, “we are starting our historical fiction unit today. This novel was written by a woman named Lois Lowry, and it is about a young girl named Annemarie and her friend Ellen, living in Denmark during the time of World War II and the Holocaust.”
Mrs. Beckram walked over to her computer. “If you look up at the SmartBoard in just a minute, I’ve put you all in reading groups, so once you see your name, please go to your assigned table.”
Eliana looked down at the book again. There was a girl with blonde hair on the cover who was probably around her own age, and next to the girl was a gold chain with a Jewish-star pendant. Eliana reached beneath the collar of her sweater and felt her own necklace, which was silver and glittery, but reminded her of the one on the front of the book. She grinned, hoping she could show it to her teacher later.
As Eliana stood up to go to table four, where her reading group would meet, she could feel the butterflies of anticipation flapping in her stomach. She was quite a good reader, if she did say so herself, and had learned about the Holocaust at Hebrew school, so she’d be in even better shape than she normally was in comparison to her classmates. Her smile broadened as she approached her group: Stephen, Emma G., and Dennis. She was definitely the smartest one there.
Mrs. Beckram assigned the class the first three chapters for the end of the week, but Eliana was so excited that she cracked it open the second she got home. After kicking off her shoes, throwing her backpack in the closet, and flinging herself on the couch, she allowed herself to get lost in the world of Annemarie and Ellen. She ran with them through the streets of Denmark, sat with them inside Annemarie’s house and played dolls, and watched the war with them from afar. She did this quite happily—that is, until Ellen had to stay with Annemarie when the Nazis obtained a list of all of the Jews in their town. When Eliana reached this point in the story, she began to get a funny feeling in her stomach.
Knock. Knock. Eliana could practically hear the rapping on her own door, as two Nazi officers pounded on the one of Annemarie’s apartment in the middle of the night, asking for the whereabouts of Ellen Rosen. Her heart pounded as the men came closer to the room the two girls were sharing, and it practically stopped when the clasp on Ellen’s necklace was stuck. As Annemarie ripped the chain off of her friend’s neck, just in time, Eliana felt herself clutch at her own Jewish-star necklace, and they both grasped the pendant so tightly that when they finally let go, the imprint of the Star of David was left on their palms.
She jumped and slammed the book shut, but it was just her mother, looking at her with just the slightest bit of concern in her eyes. “It’s dinnertime,” she said.
Eliana was about to say that she didn’t feel much like eating, but then she glanced at the clock, which read 5:45 p.m. She’d been reading for over two hours, and could suddenly feel a rumbling in her stomach, so she pushed herself up off of the couch and followed her mom into the dining room.
Eliana sat down in her usual spot, next to her younger brother, David, who was already shoveling spaghetti into his mouth.
“So,” her father, who was sitting across from her, smiled, “how was your day at school, Ellie? I haven’t seen you all afternoon!”
Eliana was silent for a moment, and pondered the question as she reached over the table for the Parmesan cheese. “It was…fine,” she decided, after she had sprinkled a generous amount on her pasta. Her family waited, and when she did not elaborate, they looked around at one another in surprise.
“Just fine?” Her mother asked. “That’s all?”
“Yep,” Eliana replied, staring at her spaghetti and twisting her brown curls around her index finger. Her father laughed out loud.
“That can’t be true,” he said. “You mean to tell us that Kristina Farber didn’t do anything annoying today? Or you didn’t get an A+ on a spelling test? Or you and Danielle didn’t make up a new game at recess?”
Eliana twisted her hair harder. “Nope.”
“I don’t believe that for one second. There has to be something—”
“Well, there’s not, okay!” Eliana exclaimed, letting her curls spring back off of her finger and dropping her fork on the table with a clatter. Her family looked up at her in astonishment. “Now, stop asking me about it!”
“Eliana, you do not speak to your father like that!” Her mother exclaimed, her eyes narrowing, but he put his hand on her shoulder.
“Sarah, it’s okay,” he said softly, but he was obviously as taken aback as was she. “I shouldn’t have pushed her. Let’s just eat.” The family finished their dinner in silence, except for Ben, who was making airplane sounds and waving his fork around. He made Eliana’s head hurt.
Reading started at one o’clock. On Friday at 12:50 p.m., Eliana asked to go to the Mrs. Griggs’s office. The way her stomach felt reminded her of a third-grade class trip she had taken to Colonial Times, where they watched the settlers churn butter. She could practically feel that plunger pounding on her gut.
The minute the nurse took a look at her, she called Eliana’s mother to come and pick her up.
“Have you been sick recently?” Mrs. Griggs asked, putting a thermometer under Eliana’s tongue. She shook her head. “Well, you don’t have a fever, but that doesn’t mean anything.” Mrs. Griggs ran her hands under the sink and nodded toward a small cot on the other side of the room. “You can wait there until your mom comes.”
Eliana plopped down on the cot and put her head on the worn-out pillow. She was exhausted, as she had been for the past few days, but did not want to close her eyes, for each time she did she saw a scowling German officer or the shattered windows of a shop. She sighed and settled on counting the ceiling tiles until she heard footsteps in the doorway.
“Is she alright?” Eliana heard her mother’s voice, and although they were in the same room, it seemed far away.
“She’s fine. I think she may be coming down with a virus of some sort, so just keep an eye on her.”
Eliana felt her mom’s hand close around her own, and she gently pulled her onto her feet.
“Feel better, dear,” Mrs. Griggs said as they left, and Eliana offered a weak smile in return.
She and her mother rode in complete silence on the way home. Mrs. Stein did not say a single word until they pulled into their driveway, when she smiled softly at her daughter and suggested that they get her into bed.
Once she was tucked in and her temperature was taken one more time, Mrs. Stein crossed her arms and stared Eliana square in the face. “Alright,” she said, “I know you’re not coming down with something. You’ve been acting strangely for a few days, and I want to know what’s—” her eyes flickered downward toward Eliana’s chest. “Wait,” she said, looking closer, “where’s your necklace?”
Eliana opened her mouth to answer, but to her surprise, a long, loud wail came out, and tears began to pour down her cheeks. Her mother was also a little shocked, but immediately enveloped her daughter in a hug and gently rubbed her back.
“What’s the matter, sweetheart?” She asked quietly, as Eliana sobbed in her arms. “Did you lose the necklace? It’s okay if you did, I won’t be angry with you.” Eliana looked up at her mother and tried to take deep breaths.
“No,” she said between hiccups, “I didn’t lose it.” Wiping her eyes, she stood up on her bed so that she could reach the shelf that rested on the wall above it. Eliana reached toward a stack of about 10 books, carefully pulled one out, and then sat back down on her bed with it.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas?” Her mother asked with a smile. “I didn’t even know we had this book.”
Without replying, Eliana opened the cover and turned to the middle. Resting in the crevice between two pages lay her necklace, as silver and sparkly as ever.
“I hid it,” she said, her eyes filling with tears again. “I hid it.” Her mother placed her hand on Eliana’s chin and tilted it upward so that they were looking into each other’s eyes.
Slowly, and with a quivering hand, Eliana reached down next to her bed and into her backpack. She pulled out Number the Stars and placed it in her mother’s lap.
“I’m scared,” she whispered, her lower lip trembling.
A look of understanding passed over Mrs. Stein’s face. She cupped her daughter’s face in her hands.
“You should be scared, Eliana,” she said softly, “what happened was really, really scary.” Eliana’s eyes widened. She should be scared? “But,” Mrs. Stein continued, a small smile beginning to form on her face, “no Nazis are going to come after you. Do you know why?” She shook her head. “Because reading books like this one helps people like you remember how terrifying the Holocaust was and want to stop something like it from ever happening again.” She kissed Eliana on her forehead, then took the necklace out of the book and placed it delicately around her daughter’s neck.
“But what if I can’t stop it?” She asked. “What if people still start to think about Jews the same way they used to? I’m sorry, Mom, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop being scared of that.”
Mrs. Stein took her daughter’s hand. “Almost every Jew in the whole world has that same fear,” she said, “and it’s true that some people today do have those terrible thoughts about our religion and our people. But that is why it’s so important that we never let our fears get in the way of us being who we are. If we are scared to be Jewish, we give those who dislike us the power to take who we are away from us, and Eliana,” she looked deep into her eyes, “no one has the power to do that unless you let them. Don’t let them.”
Eliana nodded and took a deep breath. Her tears had mostly dried by now, and the terrible feeling in her stomach had subsided. “I’m still a little scared,” she admitted. Her mother smiled and put her arm around her shoulder.
“I know,” she replied, “but sometimes, the things that frighten us the most can also give the greatest amount of comfort.” She took the Jewish-star pendant and placed it in Eliana’s palm.
“Tolerance and acceptance can start with you. If you can push past the fear and be proud of who you are, as well as respectful of who others choose to be, you can inspire those around you to act the same way.” Mrs. Stein smiled. “And I know you will.”
Eliana smiled back and studied the charm in her hand, and instead of slipping it under the collar of her shirt as she usually did, she placed the pendant on top.
Eliana grinned even wider. She couldn’t wait for her teacher to see it.
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