I love sharing books with my kids. I have recommended many books to Natalie that I loved as a kid, and now she has started to reciprocate. The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen is a book she read and then said, “Mom, you have to read this book!” So I did.
Hannah is a twelve-year-old modern Jewish girl. She has been raised with a hodge-podge of tradition, and her family is not very observant. They do, however, spend Passover with her mother’s family. Her grandfather goes a little crazy during the Passover meal, flashing the number tattooed on his arm that indicates he is a survivor of the Holocaust. Hannah, being a slightly selfish tween, can’t understand what all the fuss is about.
Then Hannah opens the door to her grandparents’ apartment during the part of the Passover dinner when the door is opened to allow the prophet Elijah to enter. And instead of seeing the hallway of an apartment building, she sees a field. When she turns back to the apartment, she is in a small home with a strange woman who keeps calling her Chaya. She tries to settle into what seems to be her new life, when she realizes what year it is. It’s 1942, and she’s living with Jews. And when they are rounded up and taken to a concentration camp, Hannah is taken with them – and she soon realizes what her grandparents have been trying to teach her.
The Devil’s Arithmetic is an extremely well written and moving novel of the holocaust. The things that Hannah experience are unspeakable, and so this is not a book for young children. It is a YA novel. I would say it would be all right for kids 12 and up, unless they are especially sensitive.
After I read the book, the kids and I sat down to watch the film version of The Devil’s Arithmetic, which stars Kirsten Dunst. The film was made by Showtime, and Academy Award-winner Dustin Hoffman gives a very moving introduction to the film.
There are a few changes to the film, but I don’t think they detract from the overall story of the book. In the movie, Hannah is a teenager, not a tween. The film opens with a scene in a tattoo parlor, where Hannah watches her friends get tattoos and contemplates which one she should get. She has to rush off for Passover dinner, and doesn’t have time to get one. This becomes a poignant moment later in the film, when Hannah is tattooed in the concentration camp. These scenes were not in the book, but did add to the impact of the film, in my opinion.
In the book, Hannah is transported to the home of a woman and her brother, on the morning of the brother’s wedding. The woman is Hannah’s cousin and calls her “Chaya.” In the film, the cousin is a teenage girl the same age as Hannah, and Hannah’s name doesn’t change. This doesn’t hurt the story, as her teenaged cousin, Rivka, is played by Brittany Murphy, who is heartbreaking and brilliant in this role. The only other major change is that they add a love interest to Hannah’s story. This didn’t detract from the storyline, but was unnecessary.
The movie is not easy to watch, and my boys almost didn’t finish it. In hindsight, I probably would have only watched it with Natalie, my oldest. The scenes in the concentration camp are not gratuitous, but they are realistic, and that in itself is horrifying. I would save the film for kids ages 12 and up – with the suggestion that if your 12-year-old is especially empathetic, wait a while longer.
Carrie Kitzmiller is a homeschooling mom of four and a freelance writer in her “spare” time. When she’s not correcting grammar and math papers, reading aloud, scaling mountains of laundry, keeping her house clean (enough), or writing, you can find her with her nose in a book.
Remember Jennifer is posting about her eye-opening trip to the Dominican Republic with Compassion over at 5 Minutes for Mom.