In middle school, we used to go to Enrichment class once a week. We would learn something challenging, usually engineering a solution to some problem. My ideas always sucked and never worked so it became a constant frustration to go to a class my brain wasn’t wired for. Therefore, it was always a treat when we’d take a break from trying to figure out the best way to blow a ping-pong ball across a table and have the teacher read to us instead. One book she picked was The Devil’s Arithmetic. I was excited to come to class every week to see what happened next. I don’t remember much except it was about a pre-teen girl and the Holocaust, and possibly escaping from a concentration camp…it was all riveting to me because up to that point we hadn’t been taught about the Holocaust in any detail. It was an emotional introduction to the Holocaust, but one I was able to connect to because it involves a character my age. It looks like a quick read, so I’m hoping I can read this in one night!
Childhood Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Hannah Stern is an almost-13-year-old girl who lives in New Rochelle, New York, with her parents and little brother Aaron. She is dismayed she has to attend Passover Seder dinner at her Grandma Belle and Grandpa Will’s house in the Bronx for a few reasons. She has to leave her best friend Rosemary’s Easter celebration when she was having fun. The Passover dinner won’t be as delicious as Rosemary’s jellybean-fueled Easter party. She and Aaron will be the only kids at the Seder dinner, so it’ll be way more boring. She doesn’t like how her relatives always comment on how much she and her brother have grown, and then tell jokes in Yiddish all night. She’s tired of how all Jewish holidays focus on remembering the past. Finally, she’s embarrassed when her Grandpa Will has one of his outbursts: flying into a rage at the mention of the Holocaust, shouting, and brandishing the numbers tattooed on his arm when he was in a concentration camp. Hannah’s parents explain he’s still dealing with being one of only two members of his family to survive the Holocaust, but it doesn’t make it any less embarrassing for Hannah. During the ceremony, Hannah reflects on how cynical she’s feeling, and gets dizzy after a few glasses of watered-down wine. When she gives up her whole glass of wine for Elijah, her family praises her selflessness, but Hannah muses on her less noble reason for giving up her wine. She just doesn’t want any more.
When Hannah’s family gives her the honor of opening the door for Elijah, she feels like it’s an honor she doesn’t deserve for being a phony. Hannah opens the door anyway, but instead of seeing the hallway of her grandparents’ apartment, she sees a moonlit field and a man singing. When she looks behind her to ask her family what’s going on, the apartment and her family are gone. Instead, she’s looking back into a modest home in Poland. A woman named Gitl asks if the man outside, Shmuel is coming. Gitl and Shmuel refer to Hannah as Chaya, their recently orphaned niece. They take Hannah’s confusion as a side effect of Chaya’s recent illness, brushing off her assertions she’s from America as confusion. They are preparing for Shmuel’s wedding in the morning and Hannah decides to sit back and see what happens, thinking maybe it’s all a wine-induced delusion.
The next day Hannah meets a group of girls her age who are eager to meet city-girl Chaya. Hannah basks in her easy popularity in the group and tells the girls stories they’ve never heard before, such as Little Women, Fiddler on the Roof, and Star Wars. Hannah is becoming more comfortable in her role as Chaya, enjoying the friendliness of her new aunt and uncle, her uncle’s bride, and her new friends. Her enjoyment is short-lived as the wedding party makes its way into town only to see Nazi cars in the town square. The dots connect and Hannah finds out it’s 1942. She tries to warn the villagers they need to leave because the mysterious cars belong to Nazis, who will kill millions of Jews, but they chalk it up to Chaya’s illness-induced confusion.
The adults speak with the Nazis, who tell them all Jews are being resettled closer to big cities as per government policy. Hannah tries again to warn the party against going with the Nazis, but no one believes her. The Nazi colonel assures the group they will want for nothing at their new camp, and all they need to do to stay comfortable is work hard. The group has no choice but to follow along since the Nazi officers hold guns. They are unloaded at a train station where the officers take all the jewelry and special items from the Jews before stuffing them into boxcars.
On the cramped, hot, smelly train ride, the people in Hannah’s boxcar exchange stories they’ve heard about Jews being rounded up and killed in other villages. Fayge, Shmuel’s fiancée, desperately pleads for everyone to stop telling such horrid stories, clinging to the belief they’re going to be relocated and get on with their normal lives. After a four-day journey filled with death and suffering, they arrive at a concentration camp. A non-Jewish prisoner who harshly teaches the new arrivals to follow orders brings the women and girls to the showers. Hannah is relieved when her shower turns out to be a shower and not a gas chamber, and then the women have their heads shaved to “prevent lice.” The prisoners pick clothes from a pile of used clothing and get their identification tattoos. Hannah’s memories become confused and she has trouble remembering her life as Hannah, becoming more and more attached to her Chaya identity.
Hannah meets a young girl named Rivka who has been in the camp for a year. She and her brother Wolfe are the sole survivors of their family. Rivka gives Hannah survival advice, such as knowing who to trust and who to avoid. This advice becomes a life-preserver for Hannah, especially as Gitl tells her about a plot to escape the prison.
This book was as powerful now as it was when I first heard it as a pre-teen. Like most American kids, Hannah is dismissive of the past. To her, family traditions are boring and routinized, and she’s too young to fully appreciate the meaning behind tradition. She sees her grandpa’s PTSD as weird and embarrassing because she doesn’t have the context to understand his suffering. When Hannah travels through time and experiences the horror of Holocaust firsthand, she comes back to her present wiser and more respectful. It can be a challenge for kids to grasp the immensity of these dark periods in history because they weren’t alive for it. For them, it’s all pictures in a textbook and images in a documentary. I work with middle schoolers and they can be blasé about 9/11, which tends to drive me crazy until I realize most of them weren’t even born in 2001, or they were babies. The terror of the day is anecdotal for them, making it easy for them to distance themselves from the event. Once we get older, we begin to understand traumatic events more easily, usually because we’ve gone through some sort of trauma since childhood. Hannah first-hand experience of the Holocaust makes her appreciate her family, her culture, her traditions, and the memory of the past. My Enrichment teacher had that in mind when picking out this book to read to us, and it was an enlightened choice.
Adulthood Rating: 5 out of 5 stars