Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Devil's Arithmetic - Jane Yolen

I do not believe anyone could read Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic and not weep. I certainly couldn't make it through the book without crying...

The Devil's Arithmetic is about a 12 (almost 13) year old girl named Hannah Stern, who has become tired of being obliged to remember about the Holocaust and Passover. Then her family goes to her Grandma Belle and Grandpa Will's house for Passover, and she finds herself wishing she were somewhere else. When she's asked to open the door for the Prophet Elijah to enter, she finds herself transported to Poland in 1942 from New York. She is called Chaya(which is her Hebrew name) by a woman who says she is her Aunt Gitl and a man who says he is her Uncle Shmuel. It is the eve of Shmuel's wedding to Fayge, the rabbi's daughter, and Chaya is going to the wedding although she's only recently recovered from the serious illness which killed her parents. Gitl, Shmuel and Chaya travel to the local synagogue for the wedding with all the wedding gifts and guests in tow, but when they reach the synagogue there are big black trucks parked outside. At this point, Chaya discovers what year it is, and realises to whom the trucks belong. She tries to warn everyone about the Nazis, but they think she is crazy and do not believe her. Soldiers get out of the trucks and tell the Jews that they are being resettled and that all the other guests have gone on ahead. Everyone is forced into the trucks and locked in for days whilst they travel to the Death Camp.

Once inside the Death Camp Gitl explains "The Devil's Arithmetic": each day she remained alive, she remained alive. One plus one plus one. Chaya gets to know some of the others at the camp, including ten year old Rivka, who explains the camp rules to the children, and in particular how to protect the youngest children, since no one under the age of 14 is supposed to be at the Camp, but if the children hide in the midden pile before the Commandant arrives, he'll pretend not to know they're there. Then one day Chaya, Rivka and two friends are caught by a new guard talking instead of working and he decides that since there is room for three more to be processed. He selects three, leaving Chaya free, but she snatches Rivka's kerchief off her head and tells her to go and hide in the midden pile and to live and remember. Then she walks into "Lilith's Cave", where the ovens are, and as she goes through the door she finds herself back in New York again, where no time has passed. She then talks quietly to her favourite aunt, Eva, about what has happened.

This is a beautifully written, moving and awe-inspiring account of the Holocaust. Jane Yolen handles the timeslip into the past very deftly and it's fascinating to see Hannah becoming Chaya and forgetting her own present in remembering Chaya's past.


Lee said...

I haven't read the novel, so this may be a misplaced question, but how can Chaya warn everyone in Poland about the Nazis when she's forgotten 'her own present,' i.e. Hannah's?

Michele said...

Because when Hannah initially arrives, she still remembers her life as Hannah, it's only as the novel progresses that she "becomes" Chaya and forgets her life as Hannah - except in small flashes.

Lee said...

I see. Sounds good, will add it to TBR list. Thanks!

Camille said...

"I do not believe anyone could read Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic and not weep."

Perfectly said. I think this is Yolen's finest book. It is so moving and well told that any words to define it further fail me.

Michele said...

I confess I kept putting off starting it, simply because I guessed it would make me weep and sometimes one has to be in the right mood to read such a book. But I'm glad that I've read it - and will look out for other books by Jane - but I don't think the library has a large stock, alas !

Lee, do read it, I don't think you'd regret it...

jennifer said...

I really need some help with an assignment from this book. Go back and read page 143 where Fayge tells the story about how young Israel led a small band of children against a werewolf whose heart was Satan's. What is the meaning of this story. What exactly is she talking about? What symbolism is included in this story. Thanks for your help.

jennifer said...

I have another assignment about the characters in The Devil's Arithmetic. I need to know traits, whether they are "round or flat" traits and whether they are "static or dynamic characters. These are the characters:
The book is intriguing, but my knowledge is limited. Thanks