illustration of main character Hannah opening a door which leads to a barbed wire fence

The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

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What survival rules does Rivka follow in The Devil's Arithmetic?

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These are the rules Rivka shares to help the others stay alive at the camp one day at a time.

  1. It is of utmost importance that each prisoner remember his or her own number, and to learn to read the numbers of others as if they were names. There are good numbers and bad numbers. For example, if someone has a G in her number, he or she is Greek. It is important not to stand nearby such a person. They do not speak Yiddish, and so do not understand German; because of this, they get in trouble  and are quickly eliminated, and anyone near them is likely to suffer the same consequence as well. Also, if a prisoner has a number lower than one's own, that prisoner has been at the camp longer, and is a survivor. As such, these survivors may be able to provide help to the newcomers.
  2. It is important to learn to let people, even loved ones, go, if they no longer have the will to survive. It is also important to learn when to fight and when not to.
  3. The prisoners must never go near the large wooden fence across the compound. There is a door in the fence, which is the door to a place dubbed "Lilith's Cave." To go through the door is to die.
  4. When the commandant comes, it is the duty of every prisoner to help the children in the camp hide in the midden. Children are not supposed to be in the camp, but if they are hidden in the midden, which the Germans scrupulously avoid, nothing is said about them. As long as the commandant does not actually see the children, he lets them remain.

Hannah argues with Rivka that the rules are "craziness," but Rivka says that nonetheless, they must still be followed if one wishes to live. Nothing about the camp makes sense; it is the "devil's arithmetic," and it is a skill that must be learned in order to survive (Chapter 14).

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