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Reviewed by Cana Rensberger for TeensReadToo.com
THE DEVIL'S ARITHMETIC by Jane Yolen is required reading at my school, as it is in many middle/junior high schools across the country. I've been meaning to read it for several years but never did, until my son read it this year as an eighth grader. He insisted I read it. How could I resist that?
Hannah is celebrating Passover Seder with her family. It's the same thing every year. Grandpa will get all worked up over old photos on TV, shaking his fist, screaming about the numbers on his arm, and Aunt Eva will calm him down as she always does, laying a hand on his arm, leading the same old Jewish prayers as Hannah mumbles along. But this year will be different. Hannah's brother, Aaron, will get to hide the afikoman, Hannah will get to taste real wine, and then she'll get to open the door to symbolically welcome in the prophet Elijah.
But when she opened that door, she had no idea just how different this year's celebration would be.
Instead of seeing the hallway in front of her as she expected, she sees a man coming her way, crossing a field. Confused, she turns back to her family and instead sees a strange woman, dressed even more strangely, kneading dough on a wooden table. Hannah's confusion grows as she hears herself referred to as Chaya, and discovers that these two people believe themselves to be her Aunt Gitl and Uncle Shmuel. More unbelievably, they talk about her parents' deaths, and that she herself had nearly died, sick for weeks.
Feeling like she's in a dream she can't wake up from, she finds herself pulled into wedding festivities, which includes walking to a nearby village for the celebration. There, her dream turns into a nightmare. Hannah is slowly disappearing as Chaya is loaded onto trucks with the other villagers. Then, later, they are prodded like cattle aboard boxed railroad cars with no ventilation, and they travel, standing, for four days and nights without food or bathrooms. What follows is days, weeks, maybe months, in a Jewish concentration camp.
Jane Yolen's telling of the Holocaust is chilling. She gathered information from survivors, those heroes who remember so that the atrocities of the past will never happen again. Ms. Yolen writes in her final pages to the reader, "That heroism - to resist being dehumanized, to simply outlive one's tormentors, to practice the quiet, everyday caring for one's equally tormented neighbors. To witness. To remember. These were the only victories of the camps."
This book is incredibly powerful. The way Ms. Yolen weaves the past and present together forces the reader to make personal connections. She makes the reader think and ask questions. How could society have allowed such a thing to happen? And, more importantly, how can we assure that it will never happen again? I truly hope THE DEVIL'S ARITHMETIC will remain required reading in schools. Each new generation must bear the weight of those lost souls upon their heart. They must believe that such devastating events can, and did, happen. Only in believing and remembering can we move forward to a better society.
Thank you, Ms. Yolen, for this riveting and thought-provoking book.
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You can imagine the description of contents on the back of this book tells all and you already know what will happen etc. but let me tell you, I have read a lot of books about the Second World War and the Holocaust. Hard facts, peoples destiny during those times.
This book is fiction told by a author with Jewish descent, thinking it is time to let go and no longer remember at any holiday or occasion what happend in the past.
She writes what most people of the second generation past the second World War feel, think and live. Most people are sick of hearing of it, sick of being blamed for what their ancestors did, sick of paying and sick of still wearing the invisible sign of being a German. I know that because I am German and had a lot of discussions with people from other countries.
So it is quite fantastic and emotional that a jewish author picks up this high sensible topic to write a book why people are sick of remembering and why it is important not to forget.
There is this little girl Hannah, who is bored and rebellious with all this jewish rituals every year. She opens a door and is transported into the past. Not any past, it is the past of her own ancestors and a journey that ends in a concentration camp and the gas chamber.
It remembered me that when no one´s left to remember mankind, there won´t be someone who´s going to protect us against the same happening again and to tell us what can happen all over the world when there´s one person with the ability to influence a whole nation and more.