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Literature / The Devil's Arithmetic

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"You are a name, not a number. Never forget that name, whatever they tell you here. You will always be Chaya—life—to me."

The Devil's Arithmetic is a 1988 Historical Fiction novel by Jane Yolen about a teenaged Jewish girl named Hannah, who is transported through time to a 1942 German concentration camp in occupied Poland. Hannah goes from being disrespectful of Jewish beliefs to realizing the importance of remembering after seeing the horrors of the time.

It was adapted into a Made-for-TV Movie starring Kirsten Dunst and Brittany Murphy in 1999. The movie was produced by Dustin Hoffman, who gives an introduction on the subject matter.


Tropes used by the novel:

  • Adaptation Name Change: In the novel when Hannah goes into the past, she assumes the identity of Chaya. In the movie her name is still Hannah.
  • Adapted Out:
    • Rivka's brother Wolfe in the film. He is replaced with her mother Mina, who doubles as a Composite Character of Hannah's aunt and uncle.
    • Several minor characters as well, such as Rachel, Esther, and Shifre, who Hannah meets at the wedding, and the female camp guard. A female guard is heard very briefly during the scene where Hannah and the other women must change into camp clothes, but it's not the same one as in the book.
    • Hannah's little brother Aaron is also adapted out, and with him, one of the original major plot points: when the camp is inspected, young children must disappear or be killed, so they hide in the garbage heap or midden. This gives Hannah a brief flashback of her little brother hiding Passover afikomen in the bathroom laundry hamper.
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  • Adult Fear: Your daughter ending up alone in a strange place where you can't protect her from the horrors that await her. There's also the woman who has to hide her pregnancy and later her baby from the guards.
  • Age Lift: In the novel Hannah is around eleven or twelve. In the movie she is old enough to drive and get a tattoo (Kirsten Dunst was seventeen when the film was made).
  • All Jews Are Ashkenazi: Subtly averted when Hannah is told by Rivka to not stand near the Greek Jews, because they don't speak Yiddish and so therefore can't understand commands in German. This is because most Greek Jews were either Romaniotes (living in Greece since Roman times) or Sephardic (emigrating there from Spain or North Africa), rather than Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi Jews.
  • As the Good Book Says...
  • Bittersweet Ending: Hannah/Chaya manages to save Rivka by taking her place to go to the gas chambers. This gives Rivka a chance to run.
  • Cassandra Truth:
    • Once Hannah finds out what year it is, she realises that the guards interrupting the wedding are Nazis, and what is in store for everyone. But there's nothing she can do about it.
    • She also realises from something her grandfather said about a botched escape attempt - that the Jews won't be able to escape. The escape indeed is betrayed and the men die in the attempt.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Subverted with Hannah knowing the outcome about the escape attempt. The men don't listen to her and end up getting hanged.
  • Children Are Innocent: Hannah before she knew about the Holocaust drew a series of numbers on her arm to show her grandfather Wolf, so that she could be like him. This was done as good intentions. This caused Wolf to yell at her, and the adults have a hard time explaining to Hannah what she did wrong. As a result she waits for the ink to wash off and doesn't talk to her grandfather. This is absent in the film, changed to the opening scene where Hannah is trying to work out what tattoo she should get. After she gets one in the camp, she comments on how stupid she was to intentionally want to get one.
  • Deadpan Snarker: In the film Hannah and Leah have a brief chat that goes like this.
    Hannah: It was a beautiful wedding.
    Leah: It would have been nicer if we'd had the wedding cake.
  • Composite Character: In the film, Rivka becomes Hannah's cousin and replaces the relatives she meets when she first journeys to the past.
  • Death by Adaptation: A borderline example. In both Hannah sacrifices herself and goes to the gas chambers in Rivka's place. In the novel it is only implied as Hannah realizes as she walks into the gas chambers that she is walking back through the apartment door in the future. The film however actually shows it happening, complete with a shot of Hannah's body.
  • Fan Disservice: Twice. First when the women are ordered to strip to their underwear when they enter the camp. Secondly when they are about to be gassed.
  • Food Porn: In-universe, in the book and movie. The book shows Hannah and her friend Shifre discussing favorite foods while working in the camp. Hannah has a brief flash of memory and attempts to describe pizza, but gets upset because she can't. In the movie, Hannah actually does describe pizza to the entire women's barrack. They don't know what it is, but Hannah's expression and tone reveal she is experiencing true food-based nostalgia.
  • Foreshadowing: In the film Rivka prevents a guard from shooting Hannah by saying she's a strong worker, so shooting her would be wasteful. Hannah later fakes being sick to take Rivka's place in the gas chamber.
  • Get a Hold of Yourself, Man!: Gitl does this several times to Chaya.
  • Girlish Pigtails: Rivka braids Hannah's hair when she is transported to the past.
  • Grandfather Clause
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Chaya who Hannah has been reincarnated as saves Rivka this way.
  • Identity Amnesia: While Hannah's hair is being cut off, she realizes she can't remember her old life at all, and eventually just believes Hannah never existed. As the book draws to a close, Hannah's camp memories begin fading, and her old life comes into sharper focus.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Some of it in-universe. The guards start rounding up people to be gassed if they hear them coughing - guessing that they're sick and therefore won't be much use soon. Hannah invokes this to save Rivka's life.
  • Infant Immortality:
    • Averted completely. The Rabbi's young children are killed early on and 11-year-old Sarah is gassed at the end, to say nothing of the literal baby born at the camp who is carried off with her mother to presumably be killed.
    • Played fairly straight with one child in the book. Hannah carries Leye's baby into the midden during a camp inspection, saving her from the gas. The book's epilogue tells us Leye and her baby, "a solemn three-year-old," had survived.
  • Ironic Echo: Rivka instructs Hannah on how to pray by speaking "so quietly only God can hear me". Aunt Eva and Hannah have this conversation when Hannah returns to the future.
    Eva: I would suggest that you ask God. Do you know how to do that?
    Hannah: So quietly only God can hear me.
  • Irony: Rivka is inspired to rename herself Eva after hearing Hannah's stories about her aunt. Then it turns out she will become Hannah's aunt in the future.
  • Little "No": Hannah while her hair is being cut off at the camp.
  • Meaningful Echo:
    • Not explicitly stated but left in with a bit of Fridge Brilliance. When Hannah is speaking to her Aunt Eva she remarks "the way you speak, I will never get over it". Rivka says the same thing in the past once which makes sense since they're the same person.
    • Also about the photo "someday I will make you a copy".
  • Meaningful Name: As the quotes says above, Chaya means 'life.' Ironically, she gives her life so her future relative can live.
  • Meaningful Rename: Rivka tells Hannah that she will rename herself Eva when she leaves the camp. Hannah realises that Rivka will become her Aunt Eva in the future.
  • Pet the Dog: The camp commander allows the Jews to surrender their valuables without struggle after the Rabbi protests.
  • Pragmatic Hero: Hannah and her friends are at first horrified by Rivka's pragmatic view of life in the concentration camp, but they soon change their mind
  • Shot at Dawn: The men who tried to escape get hanged in front of everyone at dawn.
  • Slipknot Ponytail: Hannah has her hair up in pigtail loops when she arrives in the past. While she is being transported in the cattle cart, her hair has come down into two normal pigtails.
  • Stable Time Loop: In both the book and the movie, although the movie makes it more explicit.
  • Together in Death
  • Translation Convention: In the book, Hannah realizes she is neither speaking nor hearing English but instead that she now understands Yiddish as if it were English. In the movie the dialogue that would presumably be in either Yiddish or German is rendered in English, as are prayers which presumably would be primarily spoken in Hebrew (although there are some prayers that are left untranslated, most notably the rabbi screaming out the Mourner's Kaddish with a distinct Ashkenazi accent).
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia
  • Traumatic Haircut: Truth in Television as all the Jews have their hair shorn when they enter the camp. In the book Hannah remarks she has trouble telling the other women apart afterwards.
  • True Blue Femininity: The dress Hannah wears to Passover is blue. She then wears it to Leah and Shmuel's wedding.
  • War Is Hell: Hannah learns this by experiencing the horrors of the concentration camp.
  • World War II: This one is set just before the war breaks out.
  • You Are Number 6: As expected, the Jews each get numbers tattooed on their arms. This parallels Hannah's desire to get a tattoo at the beginning of the film.

Alternative Title(s): The Devils Arithmetic


Example of: