Steve Sunderland Letters

Dr. Steve Sunderland (Professor of Social Work, University of Cincinnati, sundersc@email.uc.edu) wrote the following to Jane after reading Devil’s Arithmetic:

Dear Ms. Yolen:

I have just finished your superb and disturbing book, “The Devil’s Arithmetic.” For many years, as a professor of social work and an activist concerned about bringing information and meaning about the Holocaust to school children of all ages, I have had to struggle with the powerful and brutal messages being sent to children. I have concentrated my work on sharing information about the diary of Anne Frank. Very often I have felt that the story of Anne and her family was important, indeed critical in the formation of a real understanding of a child victim, but the story cuts off when the Green Police arrive. Now,thanks to historians, film-makers, the Anne Frank Foundation, and Miep Guis, the story of Anne’s experience in Bergan-Belsen can be filled in.

I have been thankful, to some extent, that no book surfaced by Anne and that Otto Frank did not write of his experiences in going to the camps. The horror for children was enough with just her diary or with the addition of the play. I have often wondered what our education about the Holocaust was doing to children’s belief in adults, in their faith that adults really do care about children and would try and prevent such atrocities. I have heard Eli Weisel tell the story of several hundred children who “decided,” his word, to stop eating and die after liberation in a protest of hopelessness. Was the story of this teenager, Anne Frank, also adding a significant burden to children, a weight that may tip the child against believing that such events can and do happen and can and do get prevented, some of the time?

Your wonderful and harrowing book has raised these questions for me again. I very much like what you have accomplished in crossing the line between fiction and history. I am sure that there are Holocaust survivors that found your book unacceptable due to the fictional basis of the story. I was plunged into a different kind of experience of understanding and misery. I have heard of how children have aged as a result of their Holocaust experiences and I know from my own work with children who have had a murder in the family that trauma of this extent can trigger unexpected growth and maturity. Indeed, the child loses her/his childhood. Chaya is forever changed as is the reader. (Jonathan Kozel and Robert Coles have also shown these changes in children of the ghetto in their inspirational writings.)

Your book is a giant step toward understanding how frightening and limited the victim’s choices were and how “heroic” they were. I can only wince at Primo Levi’s insight that the “best” people in the camps died because they gave up their bread, or a pair of shoes, or their lives. (“The Drowned and the Saved.”) Your Gitl suggests another kind of hero, a determined and ferocious mother who would not let her “children” die, if she could prevent it. How wonderful it was to read of her determination and her sensitivity. I think that this is a breakthrough in understanding because the characters are so complex because of the “choiceless choices they have and how they “survive.” Larry Langer has rightly criticized much of the fictional approaches to the Holocaust as both wrong and too affirmative. I think he might feel somewhat differently about these characters and their experiences.

I admire your courage to go to this place of the Holocaust and to tell a story of vital importance and for an audience that will surely need help in understanding and accepting the “facts” of your presentation. What comes through to me, at so many levels, is a celebration of the moral courage and physical courage of the characters in situations that defy understanding and reason. School children and college youth and adults have very few intellectual works that clarify this world. Your work changes this situation and for the better.

AFTER JANE ASKED FOR PERMISSION TO INCLUDE THE LETTER ABOVE IN HER WEB SITE, STEVE ANSWERED YES AND ADDED THE FOLLOWING:

I, too, continue to be very interested in how teachers “teach” your characters. When I first started “teaching” Anne I began to see that other teachers did not want to introduce she had died. (At the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam there is a book that visitors can write in. Many people, and not just children, write to her as if she is still alive!) Other teachers downplayed the heroism of those in the camps, believing that they could never really answer why 6 million went to their death like “sheep.” Better to leave this out, if it could be sidestepped. Other teachers had a rigid outline that excluded any discussion of the emotions that were called up by the consideration of Anne’s death. Her diary, her energy and her words were what was important and not how she died or when she died. Even my dear friend, Cor Suijk, one of the heros of Dutch resistance and a leader in the Anne Frank Foundation, chose to walk away form the deep and unforgettable emotions that many of the deaths of Dutch colleagues bring to him.

These reactions are understandable. We, as loving teachers, do not know how to cross this line into the horrifying realities of genocide, especially when it involves direct planning and execution of children. We are out of our element; we have not studied how this works; we cannot test for right answers; and, perhaps most frighteningly, there is no good explanation for the Holocaust. I like Saul Friedlander’s struggle with these questions in his “When Memory Comes” and some of his professional writings as a historian.

One year a group of Cincinnati teachers and ministers joined me on a trip to Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Mauthausen, Austria (where Anne’s friend, Peter, died in the death camp). We had a week in The Netherlands to come up with a curriculum for the Cincinnati and Dutch schools. We fought together over the curriculum; we cried when we visited the attic and I wept deeply when I had the joy of meeting and eating tons of chocolate with Miep and her husband,Jan. We came up with a lot of questions but no curriculum. But we were forever changed by the whole experience. (Of course Chaya reminds me of Anne. I asked Miep, through a mouthful of delicious chocolate, what was special about Anne. She replied that Anne never lost her hope, always was bright, always asking about the news about the allies, always, in short, going back and forth through her “door” to times past and future when the war, the irritation of the attic and her mother, would be finally over. Miep was a kind of Gitle: fiercely protecting her “families” under impossible conditions, really conditions that only a poet could touch. Miep kept 14 hidden families alive during the worst winter of the war (1945) when food and heating was virtually non-existent due to Nazi policies to strip the country and not allow any growing of foods. Tulips were the main course! Shalom Miep and Gitl.))

Your book would have been a most helpful addition to our discussions. Chaya’s transformation is a witness to what every reader must be feeling: “Are we really going to the Holocaust this way? Oh no! Are we going to find our attachment to Chaya being broken by her death and by the deaths of her family? Oh no!” And so you lead us to the red ground of Europe and our common hearts in a step by step progression into the horror. I was tempted to put the book down many times; indeed I did put your book down many times as I could not read through my tears. Yet I was looking for the section on “heros” that you mentioned in a wonderful talk on C-SPAN in which you used the alphabet to discuss the writing process.

The continued reading was worth it. I want to think about many of the survivors and those that did not as heros, just as I think there are so many in the civil right movement that were nothing but heros. I was not one of them but I did participate with many: Dr. Samuel Proctor was certainly one of the most impressive. And I know that each movement for justice has involved people moving from the ordinary practise of their lives to something absolutely extraordinary, some action that lifts the sign that says “No Jews Allowed” and replaces it with “All Welcome Here.” These people, old, young, infirm, and unsure of a lot nonetheless persist, a la Gitle, to make a significant, if unseen by history and historians, difference. And, in your case, the poet brings out the deeper meanings of these actions. Of course teachers know that your poetry is dangerous and loving. And this is precisely what takes the reader so deeply into the experience…and searching for the door back to the Seder, back to the stories with happy endings, back to beliefs and hopes that can put the impossible into words, words, words. So many grieving children and adults want to go through this kind of door that will return us to a time when death did not enter or cause the havoc that racism can bring to the individual life. Yet, your story is a different kind of Seder tale: We are all the first born Egyptians, all recipients of plagues that have no justification, and all realizing that death is a door we will all go through, hopefully with tenderness and meaning and not lost and lonely and covered with excrement.

So please continue the dialogue, encourage teachers to help me with your work, and continue to be a source of children and adults using story to find meaning. Your work, and Anne’s, continue to lift my pessimism and make me believe “that despite everything … people are good…”