The central theme of The Devil’s Arithmetic is the importance and power of memory. At the opening of the novel, Hannah is bored and frustrated by her relatives’ constant need to remember the past; she cannot understand why her grandparent’s memories are so important to them.Then Hannah is transported to a Jewish village during World War II, where she, along with other Jews, is forced into a concentration camp.Ironically, as soon as Hannah arrives at the camp, she loses her own memory: when her head is shaved, she finds that she can no longer remember her own past in New York or the history of the Nazis. Only when Hannah is stripped of her own power to remember and forced to experience the horrifying events of the Holocaust firsthand, does she begin to understand the true power of memory.
Soon after she loses her memory, Hannah has a number tattooed on her arm by another prisoner in the camps. The tattooist tells her his own daughter—who has died in the camps—shared Hannah’s Hebrew name, Chaya. The man tells Hannah she must remember, for memories keep his daughter and all those who have died alive. Without memory, he warns, life does not exist. However, Hannah cannot truly understand his message until she experiences the horrors of the camp herself.
In the camp, Hannah befriends Rivka, who has already lost many relatives. Yet instead of letting her loss defeat her, Rivka becomes more determined to live and remember—as she says, through the memories of the living, “all those gone before are alive inside us.” When Hannah tells Rivka about her own loss of memory, Rivka says this because remembering can be so painful. However, she assures Hannah that her memory will return, as soon as she is ready for it.
Only after Hannah has learned to become a stronger, braver person—by witnessing the horrors in the camps, finding the strength to keep living, and helping others even when she has so little herself—does her memory begin to return. This time, when Hannah remembers her life in America, she...
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