"1942. It is several days before Passover," the badchan said.
"Before Passover?" Hannah drew in a deep breath. And then, all of a sudden, she knew. She knew beyond any doubt where she was. She was not Hannah Stern of New Rochelle, at least not anymore, though she still had Hannah's memories. Those memories, at least, might serve as a warning.
"The men down there," she cried out desperately, "they're not wedding guests. They're Nazis. Nazis! Do you understand? They kill people. They killed -- kill -- will kill Jews. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Six million of them! Don't ask me how I know, I just do. We have to turn the wagons around. We have to run!" (from The Devil's Arithmetic, pages 63-64)
The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen is the most unique Holocaust novel I've ever read. Published in 1988, the book focuses on 12-year-old Hannah Stern, a Jewish girl who lives a relatively normal life in New Rochelle, New York -- a girl who is tired of hearing the same stories at every Passover meal, tired of watching her grandfather raise his tattooed arm and shout at television documentaries about the Holocaust. But during this particular Passover, Hannah will learn a very important lesson, one for which should could pay the ultimate price.
When Hannah opens the door as part of the Passover ritual to symbolically welcome the prophet Elijah, she opens the door to the past. In fact, she travels back in time to a Polish village in 1942, where she is a young girl named Chaya living with her aunt and uncle. On the way to her uncle's wedding, Chaya and a group of villagers are rounded up by the Nazis and told that they will be relocated. Hannah realizes that she has been somehow transported to the past, and she remembers all that she'd been told about the Holocaust. Despite her attempts to warn everyone, which just causes them to either look at her like she's crazy or panic or both, Hannah/Chaya and the others are taken to a concentration camp and put to work.
The Devil's Arithmetic is a beautifully written, heartbreaking novel for middle grade readers that emphasizes the importance of remembering. It is obvious that Yolen performed extensive research to write about the inner workings of a concentration camp, and the book is packed with so many interesting details and compelling characters that despite the heavy content, it was difficult to put down. Told from the point of view of Hannah, readers see the horrors of the camps from the eyes of a child and more importantly, the eyes of a child who knows the outcome of World War II and the fate of millions of Jews and lacks the power to change the course of history.
Hannah's story makes you wonder whether it would be worse to walk into one of the camps not knowing what horrors await you or fully knowing the reason why the smoke stacks are constantly spewing out ash. Yolen raises these issues without being overly graphic, though many of the images could be shocking to some young readers, especially those not familiar with the Holocaust. Nevertheless, I think The Devil's Arithmetic is an important book for children and adults alike, reminding us that we should not forget those who perished at the hands of evil nor those who survived against all odds.
Disclosure: I purchased my copy of The Devil's Arithmetic.
© 2010, Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce content without permission.