Denmark in 1943 wasn't the happiest place in the world. Like most other parts of Europe during World War II, the country was under German occupation. This means that Denmark, a smaller and more peaceful country, had fallen to the control of a larger and more aggressive political group, the Nazis. Sound crappy? It was.
At first, the Nazis didn't make too many changes in Denmark, but by the time the book's action gets underway, the Nazis are affecting daily life in Denmark more and more. They decide how late people can stay out, whether or not they can use artificial light, what kind of food they can eat, and even if they can keep their jobs. If you want to learn more about the whole historical hoopla, check out the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum site's description of the Danish Resistance. It's a great place to start, and it can lead you to some other awesome resources.
This historical reality seeps into all the cracks of Number the Stars. When the book begins, the Nazis are already ingrained in the story's setting. Young kids like Kirsti can't even remember a time when the soldiers weren't there: "For Kirsti, the soldiers were simply part of the landscape, something that had always been there, on every corner, as unimportant as lampposts, throughout her remembered life" (1.40). That's just life in Denmark in 1943.
But as the story goes on, the soldiers become a little more, well, intrusive: "two German soldiers appeared. Annemarie tensed. Not here, on the train, too? They were everywhere" (6.39). Jewish families like Ellen's are not safe—not out on the streets, not in school, not even in their own home. Heck, the soldiers even come into Henrik's house during (what looks like) a funeral. If you're not safe in your own home, how can you be safe anywhere? That's the point: you can't. Ellen's family has to travel out of the country to a neutral territory just to find refuge.
But wait a minute. If this story is so rooted in history, why don't we get the nitty-gritty details? Weren't Jewish people in 1940s Europe dying gruesome deaths in concentration camps? Lowry has actually gotten a lot of flak for that. What do you think? Should she have delved deeper into the tougher, more brutal topics?