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Introductory Lecture and Objectives
As Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic opens, twelve-year-old Hannah Stern of New Rochelle, New York, is on her way to her family’s traditional Seder, a religious observance with rituals, including a ceremonial dinner, which takes place on the first or the first and second nights of the Jewish holiday of Passover. Hannah tells her mother that she is “tired of remembering” and complains, “All Jewish holidays are about remembering.” Hannah does not see the point of it. At dinner, Hannah finds herself transported back in time and space from her family’s Seder in New York to a small village in Poland during World War II. There she finds herself “resettled” by the Nazis to one of their many concentration camps, the very one that her own relatives were forced to endure during the war. During her time in the camp, Hannah gains a visceral understanding of the importance of remembering the past, honoring those who died in the Holocaust, and carrying the message of the Holocaust into the future to ensure that history does not repeat itself. At the end of the novel, after having undergone a great personal transformation, Hannah travels back through time to her family’s Seder.
Although it is a fictional account of the Holocaust, parts of The Devil’s Arithmetic may be disturbing to students; it contains some vivid descriptions of life in the camps, and several children die. However, it is considered one of the best introductions to the Holocaust for young readers, as the novel contains many themes that children should find accessible and well worth consideration. The importance of keeping memories alive is the novel’s central theme, but the story also touches on a wide array of other issues: the nature of heroism, forms of defiance, the power of story, the Nazis’ varied attempts at dehumanization and the Jews’ equally varied and heroic efforts to fight it, generosity and kindness, and how our heritage is part of our identity.
The Devil’s Arithmetic was first published in 1988. Since that time, it has won multiple awards, including the Jewish Book Council Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Association of Jewish Libraries Award, among many others. Fittingly, the power of story is one of the motifs in the novel, just as the novel itself sends a powerful message. As the author explains in the final pages,
Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory. A storyteller can attempt to tell the human tale, can make a galaxy out of the chaos, can point to the fact that some people survived even as most people died. And can remind us that the swallows still sing around the smokestacks.
Ultimately, The Devil’s Arithmetic is a powerful example of how stories can deepen our understanding of history, and in altering our perception, can remind us that there is always hope, even in the darkest of times.
Note: Understanding the historical context of The Devil’s Arithmetic is essential to students’ understanding and appreciating the book. The policies of Nazi Germany in World War II that resulted in the Holocaust should be reviewed before students read the novel.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain the importance of remembering and honoring the past.
2. Describe Hannah’s personal transformation.
3. Identify several different types of defiance described in the novel and state the author’s message about fighting back.
4. Explain the different types of heroism described in the story.
5. Describe the roles of ritual, faith, history, and personal heritage.
6. Identify the dehumanizing tactics of the Nazis and describe how the Jews resisted them.
7. Describe the role and power of historical fiction and how fiction can be more powerful than statistics.