Arts & Culture

Why ‘The Devil’s Arithmetic’ Remains the Scariest Young Adult Novel Ever Written

I was quite small, perhaps eight, when it occurred to me how deeply I disliked the other children. I mean, it wasn’t as if I had wanted them dead or anything; it just didn’t seem as though we had much … Read More

By / April 17, 2008

I was quite small, perhaps eight, when it occurred to me how deeply I disliked the other children. I mean, it wasn’t as if I had wanted them dead or anything; it just didn’t seem as though we had much to say to one another. I’m sure that murdering fireflies and smearing the glowing intestines in a lurid streak across the grass with one’s shoe has its own rewards, but none that compare to an evening spent indoors, memorizing the recitative to an obscure Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and congratulating oneself on one’s own superiority.

Peering out my bedroom window with bemused disdain at the local gang of young ruffians, vulgar Philistines who had probably never heard of Derek Jacobi, as they pelted one another with water balloons or gleefully terrorized some delicate future interior decorator, I invented games of my own. Solitary, secretive games, tailored especially to my peculiar fixations. For example:

WHAT TO PACK WHEN FLEEING FROM THE NAZIS

Food, of course: Ziploc bags of Cheerios and Skittles, apple juice boxes, and cans of Diet Coke from the pantry. Family photographs – I’d want images of my annihilated relatives to occupy a place of honor at Yad Vashem. A few suitably depressing items of clothing and, finally, books. The books were the most important. Even the an activity as challenging as fleeing the Gestapo was bound to include some downtime, and the titles I packed were chock-full of helpful hints, sure to help me out of any jam or rat-infested crawlspace under an abandoned Warsaw building where I and three others lay hidden, eating rotten potato peels and creeping in the dead of the night to relieve ourselves in the frozen sewers.

I speak, of course, of the genre known as Young Adult Holocaust literature, a body of work specifically designed to remind Jewish children that no matter how safe they might feel, there will always be those who wish to destroy them. As on perspicacious young reader observed in his “Kid’s Review” (in the name of research, I browsed a few such tomes on Amazon recently): “Would you want to be a jew when you are getting ready to be killed by the germans I wouldn’t.”

There was Touch Wood: A Girlhood in Occupied France by Renée Roth-Hano, outlining how to pass as a convent-educated Catholic. I learned the appropriate times to cross oneself (out of fear, reverence, or superstition), invoke a saint (for a lost object, a difficult problem, or when beset by a pack of thieves), and that Frenchmen who refer to Jews as “wily Israelites” are less virulently anti-Semitic than those who prefer the more traditional “filthy Christ-killers.” The Island on Bird Street by Uri Orlev taught me how to burrow under the ghetto wall, how to keep and shoot a gun, and that the only person you can really trust is your pet mouse. And in Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, I discovered the importance of being Danish.

Such tales of woe were plentiful, yet unlike their real-life counterparts, these brave, benighted children, these Henryks and Hannahs and Boleks and Shmuliks, rarely wound up in Auschwitz. They might lose all their earthly possessions, be assaulted by classmates and teachers shouting racial epithets, even have parents or younger siblings murdered before them (all events deemed appropriate for young readers and beneficial to the formation of their Jewish identities), but clearly the experience of a death camp, even fictionalized, was just too scary. There as, however, one notable exception: The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen.

  It was like a dare, that book. To have read it – not just to have checked it out from the library and stared at the cover, paralyzed with fear for three or four days, but to actually have read it – was a kind of status symbol. It marked you as a force to be reckoned with, a deranged loose cannon, the kind of kid who would stick her hand in a tank of piranhas or say “Bloody Mary” three times in the mirror at midnight with a death wish in her eyes. The others would whisper about you in car pool before they picked you up on the first day of school, like you were Dennis Hopper. Don’t mess with her. She’s crazy. Loco. Read The Devil’s Arithmetic cover to cover and ain’t been the same since.

While the film adaptation starring Kirsten Dunst has somewhat deflated its epic creepiness, The Devil’s Arithmetic is probably the most frightening book ever written for children. It’s certainly the most frightening book I’ve ever read. The chilling premise is that Hannah Stern, a modern thirteen-year-old girl, prefers the company of Gentile friends to studying for her Bat Mitzvah and is weary of visiting her elderly grandfather, a semi-catatonic concentration camp survivor who spend his days parked in from of the Hitler – I mean, the History – Channel, weeping uncontrollably. “I’m tired of remembering!” she exclaims.

Well, as every Jewish child who has had his Hebrew school class visited by an itinerant representative of the Anti-Defamation League knows, he who does not remember history is condemned to repeat it. I think it’s printed on the mini-Frisbees they hand out after they’ve finished terrifying you.

For Hannah, with her casual disregard for the suffering of her elders (and at thirteen, she should really know better), this concept will take a particularly vivid form. Upon opening the door for Elijah at her grandparents’ Passover seder (to which she has come grudgingly – bad girl! Bad JEWISH GIRL!), she feels a strange breeze across her face and is mysteriously whisked away to…the magical land of Birkenau!

The fish-out-of-water/new-kid-in-school scenario is very common to children’s literature, playing on a child’s fear of strangeness, loneliness, of not belonging. Most of these stories, however, do not feature Josef Mengele as a supporting character. But eventually Hannah, with a little help from her fellow inmates, masters the camp rules for survival – basic bowl-and-potato etiquette, exploiting the lesbian tendencies of the female guards, and of course, “never stand next to someone with a G in her number. G means Greek, and the Greeks don’t last long” – only to discover that such rules are merely a superstitious construct devised by the prisoners to delude themselves that they can somehow subvert, or at least delay, the inevitable, and lo, the ungrateful little JAP gets sent to the gas chamber. Ha! That’ll learn her!

But lucky for Hannah, instead of paralyzing her central nervous system as she claws futilely at the walls with her fingernails until finally suffocating to death in agony, the gas transports her safely back to her own time like three clicks of a pair of ruby slippers, sadder, wiser, and presumably more willing to call her grandparents once in a while. Maybe even come over, spend a little time, would it kill her? No, it wouldn’t. Typhoid, sadistic medical experiments, the hungry Rottweilers when you get off the cattle car, that’s what kills you. Bubbe and Zayde only want to see you once in a while, is that such a crime?

The message was hardly lost on me. And as I practiced taking apart the showerhead to check for Zyklon B pellets before I turned it on, I noted to myself that if anyone was going to open the door for Elijah at the seder, it was going to be my sister. She was almost five years younger than me and hadn’t even started kindergarten yet; she had a lot less to live for.

This is what we were raised on. These were the stories that filled our heads – I’m speaking Rothian “we” now, the “we” that means every Jewish person of my generation anywhere in America. Our parents’ generation, the baby boomers, had focused on happy Jewish things like the state of Israel and Sandy Koufax. They seldom spoke Holocaust at home or at religious school. It was too recent, too vivid, too painful a reminder of the world’s cruel indifference. But we could take this burden, this legacy of unspeakable pain. Enough time had passed. We wouldn’t be crushed under the weight.

Excerpted from Rachel Shukert's book of essays, Have You No Shame? due out April 29 from Villard.