Ellen is Annemarie's best friend.
That seems like a pretty obvious statement, right? But it's packed with meaning. When someone asks you, "Who is Ellen?" you would probably answer just that way: "she's Annemarie's best friend, of course." But think about it. There are a billion ways to answer that question. She's a Jewish young girl. She's a Dane. She's a student. But when we think of Ellen, we don't think of these things first. First and foremost, she's Annemarie's friend, and that limits what we can really know about her.
What We Miss
We see Ellen mostly through Annemarie's eyes. And because some of the most important things that happen to Ellen happen when she's apart from Annemarie, we don't get a ton of insight into her character. Think about it: once Ellen leaves to go to Henrik's boat, Annemarie doesn't see her again. We don't see Ellen take the journey across the sea to Sweden or hear what it was like for her to be smuggled out of Denmark. We don't know what happens to her, really, or how she feels. And by the end of the book, Ellen still hasn't come back.
So why is she such a big deal character? Well, it's through Ellen's presence that Annemarie's character really shines. She is able to show her maturity, loyalty, and bravery. And most importantly, she is able to show her vulnerability:
Annemarie felt a surge of sadness; the bond of their friendship had not broken, but it was as if Ellen had moved now into a different world, the world of her own family and whatever lay ahead for them. (10.4)
Losing her friend reminds us how young and innocent Annemarie really is. It's easy to forget that amidst all the bravery and day-saving, this is just a girl who wants to save her best friend so everything can go back to normal.
What We Get
To be fair, Ellen does have some distinguishing characteristics. She's more than just friend-to-Annemarie, right? Right. For one thing, Ellen loves to act, which makes her a great partner in make-believe.
She was a talented performer; she often played the leading roles in school dramatics. Games of the imagination were always fun when Ellen played. (4.3)
She even has dreams of taking her performing skills to the next level: "'My father wants me to be a teacher. He wants everyone to be a teacher, like him. But maybe I could convince him that I should go to acting school'" (5.5). This is a girl with a passion, that's for sure.
We also know that Ellen is majorly kind, and she puts that kindness to good use. Remember when little Kirsti comes home in tears because she's embarrassed by her shoes? Ellen is quick to think of a solution: "'[T]onight, if your mama doesn't mind, I'll take the shoes home and ask my father to make them black for you, with his ink'" (4.19).
Jewish During the Holocaust
We can't overlook the fact that Ellen is Jewish during the Holocaust. Think about it: this is a ten-year-old girl who is face to face with the possibility of death. And she's scared out of her wits. Who wouldn't be?
"That's the worst thing in the world," Ellen whispered [to Annemarie]. "To be dead so young. I wouldn't want the Germans to take my family away—to make us live someplace else. But still, it wouldn't be as bad as being dead." (5.19)
Number the Stars is a story about living through the Holocaust. It may not lay out the nitty-gritty, gruesome images that many Holocaust books send our way, but it's no less scary. Seeing Ellen—a young, innocent girl—so actively fearing death just because of her religion is a slap in the face. This was an awful time in our world's history, and hearing stories like Ellen's help us remember: never again.