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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.
    • 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. (The Blokova also isn't a guard; she's another prisoner.)
    • Hannah's little brother Aaron is also adapted out.
  • 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.
  • Aloof Dark-Haired Girl: Gitl can come across as this when Hannah first arrives in the shtetl, especially to Yitzchak the butcher, who has a thing for her. Some of the young girls in the village seem to both admire and fear her, calling her "Gitl the Bear."
  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: At the start of the book, Hannah feels this way about her Grandpa Will, a traumatized Holocaust survivor and former Sonderkommando.
    Hannah: Mama, why does he bother with it? It’s all in the past. There aren’t any concentration camps now. Why bring it up? It’s embarrassing. I don’t want any of my friends to meet him. What if he shouts at them or does something else crazy?
  • Artistic License – History: While the book is horrifyingly accurate overall, it is especially unlikely that Grandpa Will would have survived the Holocaust if he was a Sonderkommando in 1942, as these prisoners were routinely murdered every few months in an effort to conceal the extent of the Nazis' crimes. However, it's somewhat a case of Reality Is Unrealistic, as Will's story is based on Jane Yolen's own father who did survive.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Done every so often, particularly by Fayge's father Rabbi Boruch.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Hannah hears a story about how Rivka's Aunt Sarah, with an Incurable Cough of Death, committed suicide rather than allow the Nazis to send her to be gassed.
    Sarah: I will do the choosing, not them. God will understand.
    • The badchan also has this attitude as he voluntarily goes to the gas chambers.
  • 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 Gitl survived the camp and went on to found a charity in Chaya's name.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Hannah and her mother's argument about her Grandpa Will at the beginning of the story. On one hand, her mother is correct to point out that Grandpa Will isn't a bad person, but rather a person who's lived through hell and is deeply traumatized as a result; on the other hand, it's also understandable why a child would be leery of an adult who seemingly erupts into screaming rages without warning on a regular basis, regardless of the traumatic backstory that underlies his behavior.
  • 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.
    • In the book, Rivka teaches Hannah/Chaya and some of the other girls a trick to memorize their tattoo numbers, using her own as an example. At the very end, after Hannah returns to the present, she sees Eva's tattoo and realizes it's the same number that Rivka had shown her when giving the example, meaning Eva is Rivka. (In the movie, she had already figured this out before her Heroic Sacrifice.)
  • Children Are Innocent:
    • Before she knew about the Holocaust, Hannah drew a series of numbers on her arm to show her grandfather Will because she wanted to be like him, having no idea what the numbers actually meant, and was completely blindsided when he got upset and yelled at her. Although she has since learned about the Holocaust and now understands where she went wrong, the fact that he blew up at her over an innocent mistake still contributes to her feeling uneasy and like she has to walk on eggshells around him.
    • 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.
  • Cool Big Sis: Hannah is undeniably this to her little brother Aaron.
    Hannah: Look, it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake, Ron-ron, but if you do, I’ll be right there next to you. I’ll whisper it into your ear just like they do in plays when someone forgets a line.
    Aaron: Like Mrs. Grahame had to do when you forgot . . .
    Hannah: Just like that.
    Aaron: Promise?
    Hannah: Promise.
  • 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. Both the book and the movie end with Hannah sacrificing herself and going to the gas chambers in Rivka's place, but in the novel, Hannah doesn't actually experience her Holocaust-era self's death; she only steps through the door of the gas chamber before she finds herself back in the present. In the film, she actually experiences the whole thing, complete with a shot of Chana's body, before waking up in her family's apartment.
  • Death of a Child:
    • In the book, with the death of an unnamed baby during the cattle car transport, and in the movie with a newborn baby being discovered in the concentration camp.
    • 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.
    • Avoided 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 that Leye and her baby, "a solemn three-year-old," survived to be liberated.
    • 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/Chaya is about twelve. Hannah becomes a straight example, as do her close-in-age friends from the shtetl (Rachel, Yente, Esther, and Shifre), while Rivka becomes an aversion thanks to Hannah's Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Death of Personality: Rivka tells Hannah and Shifre early on that this happens to prisoners sometimes, and advises them to let such people go, even as Esther shows signs of becoming one such "musselman." This also happens to Fayge, although she seems to recover somewhat in the days before her Together in Death moment with Shmuel:
  • The Determinator: While there were certainly many real-life Determinators who could not survive the Holocaust Gitl quietly vows to survive the ordeal upon arrival at the concentration camp,and she is one of only two people from her village who does.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Hannah/Chaya invokes this at the end of the novel, when she and Shifre and Esther are sent to the gas chambers. She holds their hands and comforts them with a story about her life in the future as Hannah where there are powerful, influential Jewish people, thriving Jewish communities and no shame in being Jewish.
  • 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.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Commandant Breuer presents a veneer of kindness towards his prisoners, but they all know that behind the scenes, he's explicitly allowing them to be tortured and murdered just for existing.
  • 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 Chana by saying she's a strong worker, so shooting her would be wasteful. Chana 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.
    • In the opening chapter of the book, Hannah's mother mentions that Hannah's grandfather Will and his sister Eva were the only two survivors out of a family of eight. When Hannah-as-Chaya meets Rivka, Rivka tells her that there were eight people in her family, but only she and one brother are left.
  • 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 late. 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's memories of her life as Hannah have started to become fuzzy. Before long, she can barely remember her old life at all, and eventually pretty much forgets that Hannah ever 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.
  • I'll Pretend I Didn't See That: What actually goes on in the book with the children hiding in the midden during inspections. Rivka explicitly states that the guards know full well about the midden being used as a hiding place, but they take the stance that if they don't see the children out in the open with their own eyes, they aren't there, and meanwhile they've made it known they never inspect the midden because it's "too dirty". A later scene even has some of the older kids encouraging a child to run to the midden after Commandant Breuer has clearly already seen him, seemingly having reason to believe that Breuer will "forget" about the boy once he's out of sight. (Unfortunately, in that case it turns out to be moot; the child in question is so overwrought by all he's been through that he freezes up instead of running, and is consequently taken away to be killed.)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Gitl initially comes off as brusque and harsh (so much so that other villagers call her "Gitl The Bear" for her prickly nature), even slapping Hannah at one point for basically no reason, but under it all she's actually very compassionate and caring, taking a Mama Bear role towards Hannah/Chaya as well as looking out for the other children in the camps. In the epilogue, it's revealed that by the time the camp was liberated, she was dangerously underweight even by concentration camp standards because she routinely shared her already meager rations with the children, and that she went on to found a charitable organization in her niece's name after the war
  • Killed Offscreen: As this is a children's book about the Holocaust, this happens to a number of characters. In particular, one of the village girls who befriends Hannah, Yente, is mentioned to be alive upon arrival at the concentration camp, but the next morning is stated to have died, probably of dehydration/exhaustion.
  • 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".
  • Nobody Poops: Averted in the book when Jewish prisoners have no choice but to urinate and defecate on themselves while locked in a standing-room-only boxcar for four days during their deportation.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: 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.
  • Pet the Dog: The camp commander allows the Jews to surrender their valuables without struggle after the Rabbi protests.
    • Brutally twisted by the camp commander during his interaction with little Reuven. He speaks kindly towards the little boy and even helps him with his skinned knee... and then promptly sends him to the gas chambers.
  • 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.
  • Take Me Instead: In the movie, another woman attempts to offer herself in place of the mother and baby when they're about to be taken away. Unfortunately, this only results in her being taken away along with the other two, rather than in place of them.
  • 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.
    • Commendant Breuer mocks this concept when he takes little Reuven away to be gassed, saying he intends to reunite the boy with his mother, who he had just been informed had died in childbirth years earlier.
  • 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: One possible explanation for Hannah's Identity 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: In the film, the dress Hannah/Chana wears to Passover is blue, and she then wears it to Leah and Shmuel's wedding. In the book, Gitl gives her a blue dress to wear to the wedding (her modern clothing isn't described).
  • Tsundere: Gitl is called "Gitl the Bear" by her fellow villagers, and it's easy to see why. However, throughout the novel her softer side comes out whenever she tries to comfort her fellow prisoners, which is often.
  • War Is Hell: Hannah learns this by experiencing the horrors of the concentration camp.
  • Weirdness Censor: In the book, Hannah's initial insistence upon arriving in 1942 that she is not Chana but Hannah is dismissed by the other characters as delirium associated with a recent illness.
    Hannah: I'm not from Lublin. I'm from New Rochelle. And I'm not Chaya, I'm Hannah. And Chaya is my Hebrew name, not Chana, because of a friend of Aunt Eva's. And...
    Shmuel: Lublin is a big place, I am sure. And surely I am not familiar with every avenue and street, having been there only twice in my life.
    Hannah: New Rochelle is not in Lublin, wherever that is. Its a city all its own.
    Shmuel: Since when is a street a city?
    Hannah: New Rochelle is, too, a city. It's in New York.
    Shmuel: Nu?
    Hannah: In America!
    Shmuel: And Krakow is in Siberia. I get it. A joke to help me forget about my marriage fears. Lublin in America and Krakow in Siberia. Though dear Gitl would say it most certainly is that far to both of them.
  • 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