Meaghan's Reviews > The Devil's Arithmetic

The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen
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I wish I could say I liked this book. I thought I would. I know it's critically acclaimed and a well-known story. But it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

The book is meant to educate young people about the Holocaust, but it had a lot of historical inaccuracies. The idyllic shtetl world at the beginning of Chaya's story would have been long gone by 1942 -- by that time, all the Jews left alive in Poland were in ghettos, in concentration camps or in hiding. Lublin, the place Chaya supposedly came from, was ghettoized and in early 1942, most of its Jewish population was deported to Belzec and killed.

The dialogue was overly didactic (a common flaw in historical novels, especially those for children) and too much was told rather than shown. Further, the camp confused me. Yolen says in the end that she created an amalgam fictional camp out of various aspects of real camps, but she used the trademark Auschwitz sign: "Arbeit Macht Frei." I was confused throughout the book: This is Auschwitz? But where are the selections, the band, Mengele? Did she do any research at all, I wondered. Yolen should have revealed her use of a made-up camp at the beginning, and she shouldn't have used the Auschwitz sign.

If you want to look for some better books on the Holocaust for children, try any of Uri Orlev's, or Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed, or Livia Bitton-Jackson's memoir I Have Lived a Thousand Years, or...well, quite a few books are better than this one.
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Comments (showing 1-33 of 33) (33 new)

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Lisa Vegan Oh, I loved this book but I must have been spaced out because you are so correct about the historical inaccuracies. I just put Milkweed on my to-read list. I think I already have the other one on there, and I've read other books on this subject as well.


Meaghan Lisa wrote: "Oh, I loved this book but I must have been spaced out because you are so correct about the historical inaccuracies. I just put Milkweed on my to-read list. I think I already have the other one on t..."

Janusz Korczak, one of my heroes, is a minor character in Milkweed. No book about the Warsaw Ghetto can forget to mention his final march with the children of his orphanage.


Lisa Vegan I love Janusz Korczak too! I'll have to try to get to Milkweed!


Wendy I am quite sure that Jane Yolen did a huge amount of research for this book. While I would be curious to hear her response to your point about what Poland was like for Jews in 1942 (I had thought this was odd even when I read this in sixth grade), I disagree with your point about the made-up camp. Child readers are not going to be dissecting the details of the camp to identify which one it was, so they wouldn't have your feeling of confusion; I don't see any reason for her to say at the beginning, rather than the end, that it was a made-up camp. And "Arbeit Macht Frei" was at the entrance to several concentration camps.

I have yet to read a better middle-grade novel on the subject.


Meaghan 1942 was the year of the Wannsee Conference, when the Nazis got together (in January) and decided the best way to take care of the Jewish question was to kill them all. Before then, they were a bit ambivalent about it because they recognized the value of Jewish slave labor. By 1942, life for Jews in Poland was hell itself. Eastern Poland went relatively unscathed until 1941, when Hitler broke his agreement with Stalin and invaded that part of the country, after which the Jews there suffered the same fate as those in the west. You can learn more about it at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/j... and other links.

Jane Yolen might have done better to set the story in 1939, right before the war, and have the Nazis invade and rip the shtetls apart.

I was unaware that the Arbeit Macht Frei sign was at other camps as well, but I looked it up and I see you're right. It's still very strongly associated with Auschwitz though.


Lisa Vegan Well, I did love it. I thought of it not being used only to teach abut the holocaust but also to teach about empathizing with someone, someone of a different generation who one might not identify with. Also, it is a novel and not a non-fiction accounting, and it had a very poetic feeling to it: it felt sort of like a fable to me. So, it worked for me.

And yes, I did know that other camps had that sign.

Sometimes I go nuts with historical fiction not knowing what is truth and not knowing what was based on reality, but for some reason I wasn't bothered while reading this one.

The 1942 + setting though I didn't notice but Meaghan, I can really understand your noticing and not liking it. Perhaps the story would have worked better if no specific dates were given?


Meaghan The 1942 + setting though I didn't notice but Meaghan, I can really understand your noticing and not liking it. Perhaps the story would have worked better if no specific dates were given?

Possibly. I'm thinking the author knew perfectly well that things were bad by 1942, but wrote about the prewar shtetl life to get the children to see what was lost. But I think there are ways to show that without having to be so inaccurate.


message 8: by Tim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tim O. SHE WAS IN AUCHAWITZ NOT A MADE UP CAMP!!!!!!!!!!!! PLUS SHE MOVED AWAY FROM LUBLIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! TRY READING AGAIN


Meaghan She WAS in a made-up camp. It says so in the end. And the protagonist moved away from Lublin at the end of 1942 -- almost a year after, in real life, all of Jewish Lublin had been gassed.


message 10: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan It was a made up camp. A composite of many camps. There were many of them. Even after all my Holicaust reading, I occasionally find out about one I'd never heard of. It doesn't happen often anymore, but I'm sure I'm still unaware of at least one or a few.


message 11: by Tim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tim O. no i think im right


Meaghan It's a free country. Go ahead, don't check the book, and look stupid if you want to.


message 13: by Lars (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lars Guthrie Thanks for pointing out the weakness of Yolen's research, which I didn't recognize. I've got 'Milkweed' on a to-read list about the Holocaust, and I just added 'I Have Lived a Thousand Years.' I'll thank you for that, too.


message 14: by Tim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tim O. Dont talk to me like that!!!!!!!!!!


Meaghan Lars wrote: "Thanks for pointing out the weakness of Yolen's research, which I didn't recognize. I've got 'Milkweed' on a to-read list about the Holocaust, and I just added 'I Have Lived a Thousand Years.' I'..."

I have read a lot of Holocaust books, fiction and nonfiction. I'm always looking for more and a wider variety. If you want to find Holocaust books to read you could check out my shelves. Recently I read a book about how Muslims in Albania and what is now Kosovo saved Jewish Albanians/Kosovars as well as refugees in those areas from the Nazis.


message 16: by Lars (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lars Guthrie Meaghan wrote: "I have read a lot of Holocaust books, fiction and nonfiction."

I have noticed that, Meaghan, and always read your reviews because of your expertise in this, and other, areas. Have you read Geraldine Brooks's 'People of the Book?' I'd be interested in your take. Not a Holocaust book per se, but does feature 'Righteous Muslims.' Keep writing; you've got appreciative readers.


message 17: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan I really enjoyed People of the Book. I used to read many more Holocaust books than I have in recent years. I thought I was relatively well read until I saw Meaghan's shelves. There are many new books coming out too, which is good; soon all the survivors will be gone.


message 18: by Meaghan (last edited Feb 14, 2011 08:53AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Meaghan I have not read People of the Book. I keep thinking I've read a lot of Holocaust books until I see the thousands listed in Worldcat, etc. So I keep chipping away at the lists.

Every time I hear about a Holocaust survivor dying I get into a bit of a blue funk for a day or so. It seems like the number of Holocaust deniers is growing, and soon there will be no one left who can say, "I saw it with my own eyes, I was there."


message 19: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Meaghan, There is at least a lot of video and still footage, written records, and the Shoah project, etc. The deniers (soon) will not have lived then either. And yet, we as a human species keep doing this. When I saw the movie The Killing Fields (on a Thanksgiving evening!) I was horribly stunned, and there's more & more & more.


message 20: by Lars (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lars Guthrie Meaghan wrote: "...I keep chipping away at the lists."

I know what you mean. You can never read all you think you should!


Cynthia I agree; the historical inaccuracies were quite annoying. However, I was able to remind myself that it is fiction (even if it was Historical Fiction), and look past them. The story itself had a powerful message, so I took away the good parts of it, and simply ignored the illogical.


Gillian Beginski Are you kidding me! This was one of the best books i have ever read, jane is not a historical fiction writer and the storyline is amazing! I am addicted to holocaust books and I thought the concentration camp explanation was spot on and fyi the book is more emtional than historical. I can tell you didnt put ur self into the book the way you should have it cant be completely correct because it was a dream/vision!!!


Meaghan It was supposed to be a TRUE dream/vision of events that actually occurred. And she really screwed up the historical facts there. You don't need to be a historical fiction writer to research properly.


message 24: by Emily (new)

Emily Someone may have already pointed this out and I realize this review is old but I thought i'd add my two cents: other camps at the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign. Dachau, for instance. So it wasn't just Auschwitz.


Amanda Tim wrote: "SHE WAS IN AUCHAWITZ NOT A MADE UP CAMP!!!!!!!!!!!! PLUS SHE MOVED AWAY FROM LUBLIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! TRY READING AGAIN"
At the end of the book, Yolen states that she made up the camp that Hannah/Chaya was in by mixing attributes of several camps.


Maddie Desfosses When she was taken from her village in Poland, she was not in Lublin.


Meaghan She came to that village FROM Lublin. Remember, people were like "Oh, the girl from the city."


message 28: by Kyra (new)

Kyra btw "Arbeit Macht Frei" means: Work Makes You Free.... something along those lines :) and thanks for the info!!! :)


message 29: by Ethan (new)

Ethan Tong This book is also innopro pro


message 30: by Lauren (new) - added it

Lauren I Have Lived A Thousand Years is a great one. And they have the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at more than one camp shop she probably put it in because it was part of the lie the Germans told the Jews that one day they might be free.


Meaghan I've seen various interpretations of the meaning of that sign.


message 32: by Sara (new) - rated it 3 stars

Sara Raju I agree with the inaccuracies. In 1942 Poland would have been a nightmare for the Jews. There definitely would not have been a community of Jews who had heard NOTHING about the Nazis and what was happening to the others in the camps.


Green Elephant Girl ™ Thank you so much for that link to 'Milkweed'- it's the best book I've read in months!


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