The Devil’s Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen was a book recommended to me recently by a friend. The title both put me off and intrigued me. I’m not a huge fan of math nor of the Devil, to be quite frank. When I was struggling with geometry in high school, I would have assumed both were from Hell. But after learning Yolen’s novel was a fictional, time travel piece about the Holocaust, I decided to give it a go.
After all, I want to visit Auschwitz one day. The Devil’s Arithmetic was a way to do this from my living room couch.
The novel is a short work, under 200 pages, intended I believe for older youth. Thirteen year old Hannah (our female protagonist) is in the middle of her Jewish family’s Seder meal. Hannah feels glum and annoyed to be dragged to yet another family event, especially one involving her heritage she appears disconnected from. A family member allows Hannah the honor of inviting the prophet Elijah inside at the end of the meal by opening the front door. When Hannah opens the door, she finds herself transported to 1940’s Poland.
Hannah’s relations greet her by her Jewish name “Chaya” (meaning life) and patiently explain she’s recovering from a fever and the recent death of her parents. One of her cousins is getting married the next day and Hannah is to join in the celebrations. Hannah attends, learning about traditional Jewish life and customs. She makes friends quickly with the other village girls and shares modern stories including The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. The wedding is disrupted when German soldiers arrive to relocate the Jews away from their village. After Hannah learns the year (1942), she realizes what’s really happening. Hannah warns her family about the mass killings, the concentration camps as quickly as she can while the soldiers bark orders. But the villagers are helpless and can only comply. Hannah’s warnings (often repeated in the story arc) are often linked to her past fever and recovering health by her relatives.
Hannah and some of her family members arrive at Auschwitz soon after the wedding through the train cattle cars. They are tattooed with numbers, tutored in the way of surviving by a fellow prisoner and they begin the Devil’s Arithmetic. This Arithmetic was adding +1 day to your life. Each day of survival was one more day of living and that was enough for each day. If you strung these along, living just for one more day, you were surviving. And that was all you could do.
You walk with Hannah around the camp, watch her eat watery potato soup and a piece of bread for her meager meals. She tries to build resilience while watching death occur all around herself. The ending (which I won’t tell) leaves you with a hollow feeling in your stomach. Ms. Yolen ends her tale very succinctly, yet honorably and realistically. And there is a twist.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and recommend it next to other Holocaust books like The Diary of Anne Frank and Number the Stars. Some of the story line also reminds me of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.* However, I do feel I would have connected with the text better had I read it when I was Hannah’s age (13). It was very interesting to see a glimpse of the Jewish culture lost before the war through the wedding ceremony, the clothing and the rituals. I realized (yet again) that those murdered were many times ordinary people leading very ordinary lives.
Have you read The Devil’s Arithmetic? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
Thank you for reading. May we always remember.
*I haven’t read The Boy In the Striped Pajamas yet, but I have seen the movie. As such, I don’t know the differences between the two and am noting that here.