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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 Stern, who is transported through time to a 1942 (1941 in the film adaptation) German concentration camp in occupied Poland as Chaya/Chana Abramowicz. 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.


This novel provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The movie cuts out a number of subplots and story elements from the book, most notably Hannah's Identity Amnesia of her modern life. This likely doubles as Pragmatic Adaptation, since the arc relied heavily on Hannah's thoughts and internal monologue, elements that wouldn't translate well to film.
  • Adaptation Name Change:
    • In the novel when Hannah goes into the past, the girl she becomes is named Chaya. In the film, the girl from the past is named Chana.
    • In the book, Shmuel's fiancee is named Fayge. In the movie, the name is changed to Leah. Presumably they wanted a name that wouldn't be completely alien to a primarily American audience.
  • Adapted Out:
    • Rivka's brother Wolfe in the film. He is replaced with her mother Mina, who doubles as a Composite Character of Chana's aunt and uncle.
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    • Several minor characters as well, such as Rachel, Yente, Esther, and Shifre, who Hannah meets at the wedding (although some of their role is given to Rivka), and the female overseer, the Blokova. A female guard is heard very briefly during the scene where Chana and the other women must change into camp clothes, but this is a momentary voice, where the Blokova was a significant character.
    • Hannah's little brother Aaron is also adapted out.
  • 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.
    • In the book, a widower loses both of his young children in the camp; his toddler daughter dies in her sleep (the cause is never given, but it's likely starvation or similar from the trip) on the first night, and his son is killed a few months later because he's technically too young to be in the camp.
  • 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).
    • Rivka too, who was only ten in the novel but appears to be about the same age as the aged-up Hannah in the film.
  • All Jews Are Ashkenazi: Subtly averted when Chana 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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Hannah/Chaya/Chana manages to save Rivka by taking her place to go to the gas chambers. This gives Rivka a chance to run. When Hannah returns to the present, she realizes that Rivka is her aunt, meaning that her Heroic Sacrifice was not in vain. The book also includes an epilogue which reveals that Chaya's aunt survived the camp and went on to found a charity in Chaya's name.
  • Cassandra Truth:
    • Once Hannah finds out what year it is, she realizes that the guards interrupting the wedding are Nazis, and what is in store for everyone. But what she's suggesting is so unthinkable that nobody believes it.
    • In the movie, she also remembers her grandfather making a comment about a botched escape attempt and realizes that the attempt her fellow prisoners are planning is the same event. 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 Will so that she could be like him. This was done as good intentions. This caused him 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.
    • The film opens with a scene of Hannah preparing to get a tattoo and trying to decide what design she wants. After she gets one in the camp, she comments on how stupid she was to intentionally want to get one.
  • Composite Character: In the book, Hannah/Chaya meets and befriends a group of girls (Rachel, Shifre, Esther, and Yente) in the shtetl, and then meets Rivka in the camp later. In the film, Rivka is introduced much earlier and takes the place of the other girls in the early scenes.
  • Deadpan Snarker: In the film Chana and Leah have a brief chat that goes like this.
    Chana: It was a beautiful wedding.
    Leah: It would have been nicer if we'd had the wedding cake.
  • 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 only steps through the door of the gas chamber before she finds herself back in the present. In the film, she goes through the whole thing, complete with a shot of Chana's body, before waking up in her family's apartment.
  • Fan Disservice: Twice. First when the women are ordered to strip to their underwear when they enter the camp. Secondly when they strip as they're 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 Chaya by saying she's a strong worker, so shooting her would be wasteful. Chaya later fakes being sick to take Rivka's place in the gas chamber.
    • Towards the end of the book, the protagonist begins remembering her modern life as Hannah more and more, having largely forgotten those memories in the first few days after arriving in the past. This hints that her time as Chaya is limited and she will be returning to Hannah's life soon, although it doesn't necessarily suggest the details therein.
  • Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: Gitl does this several times to Chaya.
  • Girlish Pigtails: Gitl braids Hannah's hair when she is transported to the past.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: People have to remember horrible things because they can't believe it happening to them until it's too alte. Hannah/Chaya realizes who the Nazis are and try to warn people when the soldiers come. No one believes her; by the time they realize she's right, they're trapped in death camps. When Hannah returns to the present, she commits to remember so that no one else will suffer the horrors.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Chaya/Chana/Hannah saves Rivka by taking her place for the gas chamber.
  • Identity Amnesia: In the book, by the time they reach the camp, Hannah/Chaya can barely remember her old life at all, and eventually just believes Hannah never existed, with only occasional flashes of memory that she can't place tying her to that other life. As the book draws to a close, Hannah's camp memories begin fading, and her old life comes into sharper focus. This particular element was excluded from the film; in fact, Hannah is shown telling stories of her other life throughout her time in the camp.
  • 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. In the film, Rivka is targeted because she is coughing; when Chana takes her place, she begins fake-coughing to keep up the ruse.
  • Infant Immortality:
    • Averted completely. There are many mentions of children having been killed, and both of Yitzhak's children die. In a more general sense, it's mentioned that they have to get the children into the midden (garbage dump) every time there's an inspection because they're not technically supposed to be there, and will be killed if they're seen.
    • 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.
    • In the film, a woman is discovered to be hiding her baby, and both mother and child are taken away, presumably to be killed. Also, 11-year-old Sarah is gassed at the end.
    • Also, while Hannah and Rivka are in their mid-teens in the film, in the book, they're both relatively young children themselves; Rivka is ten and Hannah is twelve. Hannah becomes an aversion, as do her close-in-age friends from the shtetl (Rachel, Yente, Esther, and Shifre), while Rivka becomes a straight example thanks to Hannah's Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Ironic Echo: Rivka instructs Chana 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: In the film, Rivka is inspired to rename herself Eva after hearing Hannah's stories about her aunt. Combining this with other details, Hannah/Chana realizes that Rivka is her Eva.
  • Little "No": Hannah/Chana 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.' She gives her life so Rivka can live.
  • Meaningful Rename:
    • In the film Rivka tells Hannah/Chana that she will rename herself Eva when she leaves the camp. Hannah/Chana realizes that Rivka will become her Aunt Eva in the future.
    • In the book, Eva/Rivka tells Hannah in the present that she and Hannah's grandfather changed their names to try and distance themselves from their past so they could move on — in this case, the meaning was not in the names they chose, but in the decision to do so at all. She admits it was futile, because "to forget was impossible".
  • 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 when they realize this is what must be done to survive.
  • Related in the Adaptation: In the book, past Hannah/Chaya and Rivka are strangers who meet in the concentration camp. In the film, they're cousins.
  • 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:
    • In the book, Fayge, who has already lost everyone else she loves, joins Shmuel in the line of fire when he is to be executed for trying to escape, preferring to die with him.
    • A platonic version occurs in the film, with the mother who is hiding her baby. When the baby is found, the mother knows that pleading for her child's life would be futile, so she instead asks the guard to let her die with her baby, a request he's only too happy to oblige.
  • 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 thinks to herself that she has trouble telling the other women apart afterwards.
  • True Blue Femininity: The dress Hannah/Chana 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.
  • 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


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