The Devil’s Arithmetic was written by Jane Yolen in 1988 and winner of the National Jewish Book Award. Teaching the Holocaust to any adult is difficult and far more for young adults and children. Many authors use fiction as a way to teach and create a lasting impression. I vividly remember reading the book in elementary school. I remember being confused about the character moving from modern day to 1942, but also being scared of the story she told.
I think the plot of Yolen’s book, which involves a young and modern Jewish girl going back in time, reflects the readers journey discovering the past. Also, I think it helps the reader learn right along with the main character, Hannah.
The book begins with Hannah going to her family’s Sedar dinner, where she predicts she will be bored and annoyed. Once she gets there, she is asked to open the door and see if Elijah is there. When she turns around, she is transported back in time to 1942.
Hannah becomes Chaya and lives a fateful time when she and her Jewish family members are sent to a concentration camp. When Hannah sees what she knows are Nazis, she warns her family. They ignore her and she experiences the cattle car ride to the camp with them. Slowly, she loses her memory of the future and spends each day trying to survive. By the end of the book, she is transported back to the future where she takes time to listen to her aunts and grandfather about their personal Holocaust stories.
Yolen uses historical figures in the novel, like the Angel of Death. Throughout the book, Hannah/Chaya recognize people from her own studies. This would be a great book to introduce a Holocaust section for upper intermediate readers. The book is true to the past and many characters are killed, so readers need to be mature for the material.
The Devil’s Arithmetic is a well-done piece of fiction that uses memories and time to record an experience that shouldn’t be forgotten by any generation.