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The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

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In The Devil's Arithmetic, how does Hannah change from beginning to end?

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In The Devil's Arithmetic, Hannah changes by experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust and concentration camps first-hand. She therefore comes to understand why certain rituals are so important to her family.

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In the course of this great novel, Hannah gains first-hand knowledge of the horrors that her family went through during the Holocaust and comes to appreciate the importance of the rituals in which her family participates.

At the beginning of the novel, Hannah complains bitterly to her mother about having to attend the Seder dinner at her grandparents' home. She finds her grandparents' focus on the past to be a source of great irritation, and even when her mother reminds her that her grandparents lost loved ones during the war, none of it feels real or relevant to Hannah.

During the course of the family dinner, Hannah is magically transported back to 1942—the middle of World War II. Hannah, along with members of her family, are taken captive by the Nazis and transported to a concentration camp. Here, Hannah experiences first-hand much of what her grandparents have been talking about. She is required to work at the camp; she suffers the agony of a close friend being sent to the gas chambers; and she loses family members.

Just as she herself is condemned and doing her final walk to the gas chamber, she finds herself back in the present, with a new and thorough appreciation of her family's history.

In a nutshell, Hannah goes from being a self-absorbed child to being a young adult with an understanding of the importance of her family's past.

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Hannah turns from a girl into a woman. This happens because, over the course of the book, she gains first-hand experience of what life was like for her ancestors during the Holocaust. Initially, Hannah doesn't fully understand the significance of the ancient religious traditions which her family insists on maintaining. For her, the past is something distant and strange: a series of events whose relevance is a source of mystery.

But after experiencing the past for herself, Hannah finally comprehends what her grandparents went through and why it's important to keep the memory of that dark chapter in human history alive through ritualized acts of remembrance. No longer a child, Hannah is now mature enough to play her full part in keeping the old traditions going so that the next generation of Jews will never forget the horrors of that terrible time.

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Hannah is a young Jewish American girl growing up in New York. At twelve years old, Hannah doesn’t fully appreciate her Jewish culture and heritage and believes that all her family does is get together and remember. As the novel opens, Hannah is being forced to go to her Aunt Eva’s for Seder dinner during Passover. It just so happens that Passover and Easter correspond this year, and Hannah is annoyed that she has to spend the time with her family and not her friends. Upon arrival at Aunt Eva’s, it becomes even more clear that Hannah is annoyed and unappreciative of her culture. She begins to list off all the same traditions the family does every year and even seems unfazed by the images of Holocaust victims on TV and the tattoo of numbers on a relative’s arm.

During dinner, Hannah somehow magically gets transported back to a Jewish village in 1941. Hannah becomes known as Chaya and must endure life in a concentration camp. While at the camp, she befriends a young girl named Rivka. It is Rivka’s life that Hannah saves by swapping places with her and going to the gas chambers for her. As Hannah dies in 1941, she wakes back up in present time and is surrounded by all her family. It is at that point that she discovers that her Aunt Eva was Rivka and was saved by a friend, Chaya, in the camps. That is how Hannah got her name. Now Hannah has a greater appreciation for her Jewish culture and heritage.

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The Devil’s Arithmetic is a coming-of-age story (otherwise known as a bildungsroman) in that the character of Hannah changes as she comes of age. 

Hannah begins the novel as an immature young girl who is, at best, annoyed by her Jewish faith.  The reader notices this immaturity immediately when the family has vowed to spend the Seder meal at Passover in the Bronx, and Hannah does nothing but complain.  During the actual meal, Hannah’s annoyance continues until she is asked to open the door for Elijah.  This is where her Holocaust experience begins.

At the end of the novel, Hannah has changed into a mature young adult who has a newfound respect for her Jewish faith in that she survived the horrors of the Holocaust and sacrificed her life for others. Hannah watches as many characters show compassion for others by sharing their food rations and clothes in the concentration camp.  Further, Hannah sees many people literally dying in the gas chambers because of their great faith.  At one point, she is slapped by an elder for showing disrespect.  Hannah eventually agrees that the slap was necessary.  The climax of the novel is the height of Hannah’s change.  She sacrifices her own life for her friend named Rivka.  She tells Rivka only to “run” and to “remember.”  When Hannah returns safely to her own time, she has a new respect for her religion.

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How does Hannah change in The Devil's Arithmetic?

Hannah’s travel in time and space to Poland in the 1940s is the vehicle for her learning about her family’s history, including numerous losses and hardships. Before she became Chaya and was immersed in ancestral village life, Hannah knew little and understood less about her relatives’ past in Eastern Europe. The American teenager also took for granted the privileges of her middle-class life, regarded religious observations as a burdensome obligation, and whined about interruptions to her social life with friends. Faith in general and Judaism specifically had little significance for her.

While she is living in the past, her family’s suffering becomes real to her. She not only meets her relatives and their friends, but participates in their daily lives in a rural community. The horrors of the time become all too real when the Nazis arrive and transport the family to a concentration camp. Beyond sharing this terrifying ordeal, Hannah (as Chaya) gains the chance to help others when she changes places with her friend Rivka, thereby saving her life.

Hannah’s newfound empathy will stay with her upon her return to modern life. The formerly abstract concepts involved in faith are now grounded in her personal experience, and she understands why Jewish beliefs and observances matter so much in modern times. As it turns out, Rivka was the former name of her Aunt Eva, and Hannah also learns the source of her Hebrew name.

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Describe in detail how Hannah's character changes from the beginning to the end of The Devil's Arithmetic?

There is a definite connection between the beginning and the end of the book. In the beginning of the book, Hannah is a normal teenager going off to a family holiday called Passover.  She doesn't want to go.

"I don't want to go to the Seder.  Aaron and I will be the only kids there and everyone will say how much we've grown even though they just saw us last month." (pg 4)

Her mother explains to her that Passover is about remembering.  Hannah complains,

"All Jewish holidays are about remembering, Mama.  I'm tired of remembering." (pg 4)

She is exhibiting the typical teenager reaction to family holidays in that they are boring.  When her mother explains that Grandpa Will lost everyone in the war except Aunt Eva, and that his whole family was wiped out, Hannah rolls her eyes.   She says sarcastically,

"I remember, I remember."  (pg 4)

However, AFTER her experience in the Jewish concentration camps, Hannah sits at the table during the Seder with more respect.  She notices her Aunt's number, the one the Nazis tatooed on her arm, and she tells her aunt what each number means.  Her aunt tells her that when she was in the camp, she was known as Rivka. Rivka was the person Hannah had traded places with when it was time to go to the gas chamber.   Hannah responds with,

"I remember.  Oh, I remember."  (pg 164)

The author ties the beginning and the end together with the same words.  However, the meaning of those words has changed drastically. At the beginning they are sarcastic; at the end they are respectful.

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