On March 26 and 27, some 1,500 Rhode Island students were bused to the Showcase Cinemas Warwick Mall to see “The Devil’s Arithmetic” as part of their studies of the Holocaust.
“The Devil’s Arithmetic” tells the story of Hannah Stern, a Jewish American 12-year-old who is not interested in the culture, faith and customs of her relatives. She is bored by her family’s stories about the past, is not looking forward to the Passover seder, and is tired of her religion.
In the film, Hannah begins to reevaluate her heritage when she has a supernatural experience, while opening the door for the prophet Elijah, that transports her to a Nazi death camp in 1941. There, she assumed the life of young Chaya and befriends a fellow captive, a girl named Rivkah. As Rivkah and Chaya struggle to survive in the face of daily atrocities, they form an unbreakable bond
Ultimately, “The Devil’s Arithmetic” is about remembering. As days pass in the concentration camp, Hannah’s own memory of her past, and the prisoners’ future, fades until she is completely Chaya. Chaya/Hannah’s final sacrifice, and the return of memory, is her victory over the horror.
This brave and powerful film’s simplicity is its strength; no comment is needed because the facts speak for themselves.
“The Devil’s Arithmetic” was presented by the Holocaust Through the Arts program, one of the many ways that the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center, in Providence, partners with Rhode Island schools to educate about the Holocaust and genocides.
Many schools participate in HTA every year, but this year was the first time for the Deering Middle School, in West Warwick. According to Kathy Belton, the head of the Social Studies Department and the teacher who arranged the school’s participation, “The Social Studies teachers do a unit with the 8th grade on the Holocaust every year, culminating with an annual trip to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. ‘The Devil’s Arithmetic’ is one of the books we are reading this year, so this fits very nicely into their curriculum.”
Joe Lancelotta teaches the historical aspects of World War II at the school while language arts teachers cover the Holocaust using literature.
“The students worked in groups, similar to small book clubs, reading different works of historical fiction about World War II, of which ‘The Devil’s Arithmetic’ was one. They then created projects to illustrate what they were learning,” Lancelotta said.
Tracy Enos, a language arts teacher at Deering, added, “Not all the groups read this book, which presented an opportunity for the students to become teachers. The day before the HTA program, the students gathered in the cafeteria to present their projects and answer questions from each other about all the books they had read.”
In addition to Holocaust Through the Arts, the Holocaust education center also regularly sends Holocaust survivors to speak at schools and sponsors an annual art and writing contest that invites students to creatively express themselves on a Holocaust-based theme.
LEV POPLOW is a communications consultant writing on behalf of the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center, in Providence. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.