The ability of evil


“The Devil’s Arithmetic”, is a historical fiction novel written by Jane Yolen. The Devil’s Arithmetic entails a story about a young Jewish girl, Hannah Stern, who lives in Rochelle, New York, assuming around 1980, who is magically taken back in time to experience the Holocaust. Throughout the story, many of the other Jewish captives are chosen to be taken to the gas chamber by the camp’s commandant. Over time Hannah begins to lose the remembrance of her past life in New York and then starts to basque in the new, terrifying life of the camp that is flooding all of her senses. Her initial suspicion that everything that is happening to her is just a dream slowly evades and she truly becomes the person whose life she watches behind the eyes of, Chaya Abramowitz. Although, even that is taken away from her as she is referred to the number that is tattooed on her wrist for prisoner identification. Hannah and her family are helped by a fellow young girl at the camp, Rivka, whose family had been killed over the course of a year: all of them were killed except for the girl’s brother, Wolfe. Rivka teaches the others much, helpful knowledge in order to survive the camp. Although some decide to not listen to her advice, Hannah decides to invite it wholeheartedly and it pays off. On occasion, Hannah recalls things that she learned in school about the horrible mistreatment of Jews in Germany at the time and the genocide of the over six million of them, but they don’t believe her and just think that she is mentally disturbed and that there is nothing anyone can do, anyway.

The novel tells the disturbing, horrible treatment by the Nazis of their captives. They are beaten, starved, rarely allowed to clean themselves, even made to work prolonged and extensive hours, sleep on boards without bedding, and are made to wear ragged clothing worn by the others who had been sent to the ovens before them. Rivka and Hannah’s aunt, Gitl, regularly show that good humor creates hope, which has the ability to sustain life. 

In the concentration camp, the commandment comes regularly to the barracks to do what the prisoners call “the Choosing”, which consists of selecting who will go that day to the ovens. Every day that someone isn’t chosen to go to the ovens means one more day of survival in the camps, Hannah’s aunt calls this survival the Devil’s Arithmetic. As the story progresses, Rivka is chosen to be sent to the ovens and at the last second Hannah decides to switch places with her and is sent to the ovens. As Hannah steps through the doors of the oven, she returns home to New Rochelle, where she then realizes that Rivka is actually her aunt Eva, who had grown up and changed her name to Eva. Eva’s brother, who is Hannah’s Grandpa Will, also changed his name from Wolfe. Eva tells Hannah that Gitl and her friend Yitzchak also survived the camps. Yitzchak became a politician in Israel and Gitl started an organization in Israel for camp victims that later became an adoption agency, which she names after her niece who died in the camps, Chaya, which means “life”. 

The novel has a lot of endearing strengths that put the reader in perspective of the mistreatment that had been put on the Jewish people of the time. They also keep the readers eager to read more and learn more about the situation. The author used an immense amount of word choice that truly “put the readers in the story” and perspective. Yolen made the character’s very loveable and down to earth, especially Rivka and Gitl, they managed to keep the spirits of the other characters alive and well. Topics like this must be discussed to inform people all over the world about the situations that have happened, how they have affected so many, and they hate that if left alone could grow and hurt so many people. Yolen did a great job of using the novel to inform her readers of this. The story did an amazing job of informing and discussing the time period, the things that took place, and how it affected so many people; even many years later. 

The novel has very few weaknesses. Yolen was born very close to the end of WW1, yet she still saw a lot of the mistreatment of Jewish people and the recovery that had to be set on the world to try to fix everything that had happened. It might be hard for some readers to be able to digest the sensitive topics that were discussed over the course of the novel. The novel doesn’t hold back on the tear-jerking information about what happened.

As a whole, The Devil’s Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen, is a very important novel. Yolen put a huge part of herself and her culture into the story as she spoke about the horrible things that had happened over that time period and her characters. She gave a huge amount of perspective of someone who had to deal with so much, being pushed into a completely different perspective of a young girl and her family. It is a very intense subject and Yolen was able to show that with her writing. She, very strongly, showed how a person full of hate and power could transfer that hate and take away the power of the people if given the chance.