As Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic opens, twelve-year-old Hannah Stern of New Rochelle, New York, is on her way to her family’s traditional Seder, a religious observance with rituals, including a ceremonial dinner, which takes place on the first or the first and second nights of the Jewish holiday of Passover. Hannah tells her mother that she is “tired of remembering” and complains, “All Jewish holidays are about remembering.” Hannah does not see the point of it. At dinner, Hannah finds herself transported back in time and space from her family’s Seder in New York to a small village in Poland during World War II. There she finds herself “resettled” by the Nazis to one of their many concentration camps, the very one that her own relatives were forced to endure during the war. During her time in the camp, Hannah gains a visceral understanding of the importance of remembering the past, honoring those who died in the Holocaust, and carrying the message of the Holocaust into the future to ensure that history does not repeat itself. At the end of the novel, after having undergone a great personal transformation, Hannah travels back through time to her family’s Seder.
Although it is a fictional account of the Holocaust, parts of The Devil’s Arithmetic may be disturbing to students; it contains some vivid descriptions of life in the camps, and several children die. However, it is considered one of the best introductions to the Holocaust for young readers, as the novel contains many themes that children should find accessible and well worth consideration. The importance of keeping memories alive is the novel’s central theme, but the story also touches on a wide array of other issues: the nature of heroism, forms of defiance, the power of story, the Nazis’ varied attempts at dehumanization and the Jews’ equally varied and heroic efforts to fight it, generosity and kindness, and how our heritage is part of our identity.
The Devil’s Arithmetic was first published in 1988. Since that time, it has won multiple awards, including the Jewish Book Council Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Association of Jewish Libraries Award, among many others. Fittingly, the power of story is one of the motifs in the novel, just as the novel itself sends a powerful message. As the author explains in the final pages,
Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory. A storyteller can attempt to tell the human tale, can make a galaxy out of the chaos, can point to the fact that some people survived even as most people died. And can remind us that the swallows still sing around the smokestacks.
Ultimately, The Devil’s Arithmetic is a powerful example of how stories can deepen our understanding of history, and in altering our perception, can remind us that there is always hope, even in the darkest of times.
Note: Understanding the historical context of The Devil’s Arithmetic is essential to students’ understanding and appreciating the book. The policies of Nazi Germany in World War II that resulted in the Holocaust should be reviewed before students read the novel.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain the importance of remembering and honoring the past.
2. Describe Hannah’s personal transformation.
3. Identify several different types of defiance described in the novel and state the author’s message about fighting back.
4. Explain the different types of heroism described in the story.
5. Describe the roles of ritual, faith, history, and personal heritage.
6. Identify the dehumanizing tactics of the Nazis and describe how the Jews resisted them.
7. Describe the role and power of historical fiction and how fiction can be more powerful than statistics.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Chapter Guide
• The Chapter Guide is organized for a chapter-by-chapter study of the novel. Chapter Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Chapter Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each chapter and to acquaint them generally with the chapter’s content.
• Before Chapter Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Chapter Guide vocabulary lists include words from the novel that vary in difficulty.
1. The vocabulary lists for each chapter are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them.
2. Working from the lesson plan’s chapter vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each chapter that are most appropriate for them.
The discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry.
2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small study groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion.
Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the novel; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences.
2. The teacher may select specific multiple-choice questions and one or more essay questions to assess an individual student’s understanding of the novel.
3. The essay portion of the test appears on a separate page so that it may be omitted altogether in testing.
Before students read through the book, explain that themes are universal ideas developed in literature. Point out that these themes will be developed in the novel; discuss them with students as they read and/or after they finish reading.
- The nature of heroism
- Order/reason/rules vs. chaos
- The power of story
- Knowing/not knowing
- Loss of childhood innocence
- Personal heritage
Talk with your students about how a motif is a recurring pattern or a repeated action, element, or idea in a book. As they read, have them look for the following motifs:
A symbol is a concrete object or place that has significance in a literary work because it communicates an idea. Have students discuss how the author develops the following symbols and what ideas the symbols could suggest. Have them look for other symbols on their own.
- Swallows (song birds)
- The game of hide-and-seek
1. What traits does Hannah acquire and begin to exemplify over the course of the novel?
2. How does Rivka manage to survive in the camp?
3. Consider different forms of heroism that appear in the novel. Who behaves heroically, and how do they do so?
4. Consider the role and power of language and its ability to distort reality.
5. Describe Gitl’s personality. What traits help her survive?
6. What is the danger of forgetting?
7. Compare and contrast the various characters’ reactions to the camp. Consider Gitl and Fayge in particular.
8. Why does Fayge throw herself at Shmuel’s feet when it is certain that she will die as a result of her actions?
9. There are multiple references to the importance of order and rules and of finding predictability within the insanity of the camp. What role does order play? How is it a comfort?
10. How has daily life changed for Jews between 1942 and the 1980s? What surprises Hannah at first when she finds herself in Poland? What surprises her friends about the life Hannah describes?
11. Why do you think the Jews did not fight the Nazis? What did the Nazis do to prevent them from doing so?
12. What are the various ways the Jews in the book defy the Nazis?
13. At one point, Hannah calls all the prisoners “monsters.” Rivka replies, “We are all heroes here.” What does each one mean? With whom do you agree?
14. How do the Jews triumph over the Nazis in the end?
15. Why is fiction more powerful than statistics?
dreading: feeling extreme reluctance or fear toward something that might happen in the future
flushed: to have rosy or red cheeks
gruesome: grisly, horrific
Seder: a Jewish service including a ceremonial dinner held on the first or the first and second evenings of Passover in commemoration of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt
unleavened: (in reference to bread) made without yeast or any agent that causes it to rise
1. What is the cause of the disagreement between Hannah and her mother?
Hannah doesn’t want to attend her family’s Passover dinner; she seems to have intentionally forgotten what Passover is. Her mother, however, feels that it is an important occasion: “You have to remember how much family means to them,” she says, referring to Hannah’s grandparents.
2. What is Hannah’s attitude toward the Passover dinner?
Hannah is bored and unenthusiastic and states that she is “tired of remembering.” She and her brother will be the only kids at the dinner, the grownups will tell jokes that she doesn’t understand, and it’s not as much fun as her friend Rosemary’s celebration of Easter.
3. Why does her mother insist that Hannah attend? What is so important about this occasion?
Hannah’s mother reminds Hannah that it is important to her grandparents to bring the entire family together. Because they lost so many members of their family during World War II, remembering the past is an important and necessary ritual.
4. What happens when Hannah arrives at the party? How can she be characterized at this point in the story?
Aunt Rose kisses her and tells her how much she’s grown, just as Hannah expected that she would. Hannah doesn’t like her aunt very much and doesn’t believe her compliments. Hannah is “dreading” the entire evening and exhibits a great deal of selfishness and impatience.
5. Who is Aaron? How does Hannah generally feel about him? Please provide an example of how she treats him.
Aaron is Hannah’s younger brother. She is simultaneously annoyed by him and protective of him. She considers herself to be a great deal more grown up than he is. When Aaron is nervous about asking the Four Questions, Hannah is sympathetic and willing to help him.
distorted: twisted out of an original or natural shape
guttural: from the gut or stomach area
murmured: whispered, muttered quietly
saga: a chronicle, history, or narrative
uncomprehendingly: without understanding
yahrzeit: the anniversary of someone’s death observed annually among Jews by the recital of Kaddish (Jewish prayer of mourning) and the lighting of a memorial candle or lamp
1. Why is Grandpa Will upset at what he sees on television?
Grandpa Will sees historic footage of the Nazis on the screen. He is reminded once again of his own...
(The entire section is 426 words.)
afikoman: Hebrew a piece of matzah (flat bread) that is traditionally hidden during the Passover Seder
cloying: overly sweet
droned: talked in a persistently dull or monotonous tone
exodus: a mass departure
fraud: a fake
Haggadah: the book of readings for the Seder service
mortified: very embarrassed
plagues: often deadly diseases that spread quickly through a large number of people
reluctantly: with hesitation; unenthusiastically
restlessly: impatiently; with continuous movement or twitching
withstand: to endure; to resist
yarmulke: a small round cap that...
(The entire section is 479 words.)
shtetl: a small Jewish town or settlement in Eastern Europe
solemn: serious, sober
1. Where does Hannah find herself? How does she decide to act? What is her new name?
Hannah finds herself in an unknown room, where a stranger is asking her a question. It seems that she has entered another time and place. Hannah is baffled by the situation, but she decides to play along: “Whether it was a dream or an elaborate game, she’d show them all she was a good sport.” She is called “Chaya” by her aunt.
2. Why does Gitl protest that she would never marry Avrom Morowitz, who moved to America? What do her...
(The entire section is 399 words.)
companionable: friendly, comfortable
expansively: widely, broadly
fast: to not eat for a certain amount of time (often associated with religious customs)
schnorrers: Yiddish beggars; people who wheedle others into supplying what they want
slovens: people who are always negligent of neatness or cleanliness, especially in personal appearance
tentatively: hesitantly, cautiously
1. How does Hannah feel as she recalls the Seder? How has she changed?
When Hannah was attending the Seder with her family in New York, she...
(The entire section is 417 words.)
bodice: the upper part of a woman’s dress
ferrety: like a ferret (an animal similar looking to a weasel)
goy: Yiddish a gentile; a person of a non-Jewish nation or non-Jewish faith
rendar: the head man of the village
shifty: evasive; suspicious
shul: Yiddish synagogue
1. Hannah recalls that her Aunt Eva had once said: “We are our own photos.” What is the meaning of Aunt Eva’s remark?
There are no photos of those who died in the camps. Those victims exist only in people’s minds. The survivors are responsible for keeping...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
compression: the reduction or shrinking in size or quantity
klezmer: Yiddish a band of Jewish musicians who traditionally play Eastern European music
mesmerized: enthralled, fascinated
vigor: strength, energy
1. What does Hannah discover about herself in this new place? Why is it unusual?
Hannah discovers that she is suddenly popular. All the girls want to walk next to her. At home, however, she had been snubbed by the so-called “popular” girls.
2. What interrupts Hannah’s story? How does the group react? What does their reaction tell us about their...
(The entire section is 299 words.)
undecipherable: unreadable; not easily figured out
1. What is Hannah’s impression of Fayge? How does Fayge treat Hannah?
Hannah thinks Fayge is one of the most beautiful women she has ever seen. Although Fayge looks fierce and intimidating, she is kind to Hannah, asking Hannah to ride with her in the wagon because Hannah is still recovering from her illness.
2. Why does Hannah start to cry when she remembers her home in America? Why is this ironic?
Hannah realizes that her memories of her home and family are starting to fade. Early in the book, Hannah is frustrated and “tired of remembering.”...
(The entire section is 349 words.)
adamantly: steadfastly; stubbornly
crematoria (plural of crematorium): large furnaces used by the Nazis to incinerate prisoners
decreed: announced; officially ordered or decided
desecrate: to damage; to violate
plaintive: mournful; melancholic
1. What do the men want the wedding party to do? How do they explain their request?
They want the wedding party to climb into the trucks to be taken for resettlement in an area closer to the cities. They justify their actions by saying resettlement is a new government policy.
(The entire section is 409 words.)
alienates: pushes away; makes unfriendly, especially in a relationship in which an attachment formerly existed
impudent: disrespectful, rude
periphery: a border, an outside edge
protruding: sticking out
shikse: Yiddish a non-Jewish girl or woman; a Jewish girl or woman who does not observe Jewish precepts
tremulous: shaky, wavering
1. Where do the trucks bring the wedding party?
The trucks bring the wedding party to a train station, where two train boxcars await them.
2. What does Fayge see on the train tracks? Why is this so...
(The entire section is 454 words.)
discernible: visible, noticeable
runnels: small streams
uninflected: not varying in tone or pitch (often referring to someone’s voice)
vehemence: forcefulness, intensity
vulnerable: fragile, weak
1. Why do the people in one boxcar not try to open the other boxcar to give the people inside fresh air? Why does Gitl call them “monsters”?
The people imprisoned in each boxcar realize they are powerless. They are no longer able to stand up for what is right and good, as they know they will come to harm if they do. Gitl realizes they are beginning to be stripped of their humanity as they begin to behave...
(The entire section is 478 words.)
affirmation: a confirmation, a statement that something is true
dissipating: scattering, dispersing
ingrate: someone who is ungrateful and unappreciative
ominous: threatening, menacing
rote: routine or unthinking repetition
unearthly: unnatural, mysterious
1. Hannah realizes that “thinking was dangerous.” Why is it dangerous for her to think?
Hannah realizes that analyzing her situation would only endanger her. If she really thinks about the insanity of what she is being forced to endure, she will feel compelled to rebel against it. She knows that it is dangerous to do anything other than...
(The entire section is 428 words.)
elusive: hard to remember, understand, or define
fervor: intense feeling, passion
preamble: an introduction
raucous: noisy; very loud and boisterous
unwarranted: undeserved, uncalled for
1. Why is it significant that Hannah can hardly remember her former life?
In the beginning of the book, Hannah says she is tired of remembering. It seems pointless and boring to her. Now, however, as her memory fails her, she realizes how important her past is in regard to who she is. The camp is taking away her identity, which is crucial to survival.
2. What causes Gitl to become so...
(The entire section is 278 words.)
sanctuary: a refuge, a place of safety
uneasy: uncomfortable, nervous
1. Why does Rivka feel that it is “enough” to be alive at that moment?
She has seen her parents and siblings die, and she knows it is futile for her to hope for anything in the future. She is grateful that she has survived as long as she has and that she is alive at that moment.
2. Name two of Rivka’s personality traits. Give examples to support your answer.
Rivka is extremely practical; she will do anything she needs to do in order to survive. She is also kind and thoughtful and generous with her knowledge of how to...
(The entire section is 285 words.)
longingly: in a yearning manner; with strong desire for something unfulfilled
sonorous: having a sound that is deep, loud, and pleasant
1. How does the baby’s mother, Leye, thank Hannah for saving her child?
She offers to bring Hannah some water so that she can wash herself after hiding with the baby in the trash dump.
2. Why is the children’s hiding in the trash dump “some kind of awful game”? What does it parallel earlier in the story in New Rochelle? In what way is it very different?
Everyone seems to know that the children hide there, including the commandant from whom the...
(The entire section is 582 words.)
eroded: gradually wore away
mused: pondered, considered
novelty: something new or unusual
riveted: to be physically attached or close to something; engrossed, fascinated
1. What is the “devil’s arithmetic”?
It is the cruel math of the camp: One plus one plus one. “Each day [Hannah] remained alive, she remained alive.” Prisoners couldn’t focus on the future; they could only focus on getting through one day at a time.
2. How does Hannah feel about the “rules”?
Hannah has mixed feelings about the rules. On one hand, she is “revolted” by their insane cruelty...
(The entire section is 382 words.)
portents: omens or signs that foreshadow a coming event
1. Why does Gitl tell Hannah that there is a plan, even though she doesn’t tell her what it is?
If something were to happen to Gitl during their escape, Gitl wants to be sure that Hannah understands she is responsible for remembering: “You are our only flesh and blood. Our only link to the past. . . . Promise me, Chaya, you will remember.”
2. How do Gitl and Hannah escape the barracks?
The barracks door is not locked because Gitl has bribed the guard.
3. Why does Fayge not accompany them?
(The entire section is 244 words.)
superimposed: placed over
1. What does Fayge mean when she says to Shmuel, “The sky is our canopy”?
Fayge wants to marry Shmuel right then and there, even though she knows they will both be shot. Although they don’t have the formal canopy that is traditional in a Jewish ceremony, the sky itself will serve as their canopy, and in the eyes of God, they will be married.
2. What does Hannah notice about the blokova? What does it imply?
The blokova’s hand is bandaged, suggesting that she has lost a third finger, in all likelihood because her boots were discovered...
(The entire section is 772 words.)
amalgam: a combination
indelible: something that cannot be removed, washed away, or erased
satanic: characterized by extreme cruelty or viciousness
1. Where does Hannah find herself as the chapter opens?
Hannah is back in her old life, standing at the door of her grandparents’ apartment at the family Seder.
2. What is the significance of the number on Eva’s arm?
Hannah realizes that Aunt Eva’s number is the same as Rivka’s, that Eva is in fact Rivka.
3. The novel opens with Hannah’s remark, “I’m tired of...
(The entire section is 599 words.)
Where and in what time period does Hannah live?
A. Los Angeles in 2010
B. The Bronx in the 1960s
C. New Rochelle, New York, in the 1980s
D. Poland during World War II
E. Germany just before World War II
2. How does Hannah feel about attending the family Seder?
3. What is Hannah allowed to do at the Seder dinner that she was previously considered too young to do?
A. She is asked to recite the four...
(The entire section is 1110 words.)
1. How does Hannah change over the course of the story? Include evidence from the novel to support your discussion.
As the story begins, Hannah seems to be immature and self-centered. She has a very negative attitude about family occasions and about her heritage. Hannah’s negative attitude is quite clear in the opening line of the book; she says to her mother, “I’m tired of remembering.” Hannah and her family are on the way to her grandparents’ home to observe the first night of Passover, though Hannah seems to have intentionally forgotten the occasion. Hannah is able to think about the evening ahead only in terms of whether or not she will have fun. She complains that she and her brother will be the only...
(The entire section is 2746 words.)