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.