The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

The Devil's Arithmetic (Puffin Modern Classics)

Hannah is tired of the holidays. Her family talks constantly about the past and Hannah finds the Jewish celebrations and listening to her relative’s Holocaust survival stories boring. She would rather be anywhere than around the table at this year’s Passover celebration. Interestingly enough, when Hannah is asked to open the door in a ritual welcoming the prophet Elijah she is transported to Poland. The year is 1942. Hannah does not recognize anyone but they recognize her, they call her Chaya and they tell her that she has recently lost her parents and been very ill. She attempts to tell them where she is from but they laugh and blame her confusions on the trauma of her sickness and the loss of her parents. A few days later on the way to a wedding, the family is met by a group of soldiers exclaiming that Jews are to be relocated. Although Hannah was bored at each retelling she remembered the stories told by her elders and her history lessons and she knows what will happen if her family goes with the soldiers. The story follows Chaya/Hannah and her family through the horrors of a concentration camp.

The main idea of the story is the importance of remembrance and of family links. Before being transported into the past, Hannah’s family members constantly talk about the importance of remembering the past and family history. Throughout her time at the concentration camp Hannah is plagued by mild sensations that she knows someone or something, but can’t exactly remember what. The things that she knew in present day are at first sharp but over time they become cloudy. To remember the past so that the future can be brighter seemed to be one of the heroisms of the story. There was no one to save the day or orchestrate a mass uprising, but heroes were made in small acts-“organizing” fresh water or a scrap of bread for a friend, providing moral support, and spreading the will to live through encouraging stories.

Jane Yolen is a wonderful storyteller. This is the first of her books that I’ve read and although it is written for young readers, it is still enjoyable for adults. The characters in the book often offered interesting quips that at times reminded me of my family members. I’ve included some of them below:

    A kick in the face and a hand in the pocket
    The snake smiles but it shows no teeth
    Better the fox to guard the hens and the wolves to guard the sheep
    How long is eternity?
    All children are from the future. I am from the past. And the past tells us what we must do in the future. That is why adults do the teaching and children the learning.
    It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than persmission

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