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The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen
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Why didn't they do choosing at night in The Devil's Arithmetic?

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Hannah has been in the concentration camp for three days. The word though the grapevine is that Commandant Breuer is about to arrive for what's called a choosing. Hannah doesn't know what this means, so she asks Rivka. Rivka hisses for Hannah to be quiet before drawing a finger across...

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Hannah has been in the concentration camp for three days. The word though the grapevine is that Commandant Breuer is about to arrive for what's called a choosing. Hannah doesn't know what this means, so she asks Rivka. Rivka hisses for Hannah to be quiet before drawing a finger across her neck in a cutting gesture, the very same gesture used by peasants in the fields when the Jewish prisoners passed them by on the train. Rivka doesn't elaborate further, but Hannah knows from her gesture that it can't mean anything good.

And she's right. A choosing involves selecting those prisoners who are to be sent to the gas chambers to be killed. The rest will be kept alive and made to work like slaves. As Rivka makes clear, choosings only take place during the day as the gas used in the death chambers doesn't run at night. This means that, for the time being, Rivka and the others are safe.

Though Rivka's mother, father, sisters, and brother have all perished at the camp, she is still thankful to be alive. In the nightmare world of the concentration camp, there is what she calls a terrible arithmetic at work, a devil's arithmetic, no less, which ultimately determines who does and doesn't live. For now, Rivka is one of the lucky ones, but the devil's arithmetic could just as easily mean that she will be sent to the gas chambers the very next day.

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