The Devil's Arithmetic Characters
The main characters in The Devil’s Arithmetic include Hannah, Rivka, and Gitl.
- Hannah is a twelve-year-old girl transported back in time to a Jewish village in 1942. Hannah assumes the role of her deceased aunt Chaya, whom she was named after.
- Rivka is Chaya’s friend, who survives the Holocaust thanks to Chaya’s sacrifice and grows up to become Hannah’s aunt Eva.
- Gitl is Chaya’s aunt, who starts a rescue mission for girls in Israel after surviving the Holocaust.
Twelve-year-old Hannah Stern, the protagonist of The Devil’s Arithmetic, undergoes a remarkable journey and transformation through the course of the novel. At the beginning of the story, Hannah seems somewhat close-minded and intolerant; she truly cannot understand why the Holocaust continues to be of such importance to her grandparents, so many years later. Although we do not learn much about Hannah’s life in New York, we get the sense that she has never experienced true loss, poverty, and suffering at the level of her ancestors; therefore, she is unable to empathize with them.
When Hannah is first transported back in time to a Jewish village, she remains stubborn and difficult. She insists to her relatives that she is really from New York and mentions modern things, although she knows no one will understand her; when she first sees the Nazis, she begins to talk about concentration camps and gas chambers, without thinking about how this might affect the other frightened villagers.
However, after a horrendous four-day journey in an airless, overcrowded boxcar, Hannah has already begun to change. Arriving at the camp, Hannah resolves to be brave and keep the knowledge of the gas chambers to herself. She refuses to take away the other prisoners’ hope, which, as she says, “is all they have.” For the first time, Hannah shows both understanding and compassion for other people; she is no longer completely focused on herself and her own needs.
As Hannah becomes accustomed to life in the camps—hard work, hunger, and constant loss—she refuses to feel sorry for herself, as the old Hannah would have done. Rather, she follows her friend Rivka’s example and tries to help others. For example, she gives some of her bread to younger children, even though she’s hungry herself. In addition, with Rivka and her aunt Gitl, Hannah develops the kind of close, caring, selfless relationships that can only exist in conditions of extreme adversity.
Finally, Hannah makes the ultimate sacrifice by choosing to go to the gas chamber in Rivka’s place. Hannah does not know that she will return to her life in New York; she willingly chooses death to give her friend the chance to live. Clearly, Hannah is no longer the selfish, intolerant girl she was at the opening of the novel.
Rivka, a girl about Hannah’s age, is the first person to approach Hannah and Gitl in the camp. Rivka helps the others survive, not only through her knowledge and advice about how to stay alive in the camps, but also through the strong example she provides. For Rivka is a true survivor: even though she has lost nearly her entire family, she is determined not only to live, but to help others live as well. Rivka is always busy with what she calls “organizing”—finding small ways to make life in the camp more bearable, such as procuring extra food and clothing. Rivka also insists to Hannah that all prisoners in the camp are “heroes,” simply by the act of existing.
Once Hannah returns to the present day, she discovers that Rivka is her Aunt Eva. Eva explains that when she arrived in America, she chose, like many survivors of the Holocaust, to change her name. She says she changed her name “to forget,” to avoid the pain of remembering; however, in the end, she realized that forgetting “was impossible.”
In the final pages of the story, Aunt Eva tells Hannah—for the first time—the full story of what happened to her in the camp. In addition, Hannah finally understands why Aunt Eva gave her the Hebrew name Chaya. Aunt Eva has...
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chosen to honor her dead friend, the girl who sacrificed herself so Eva could live; as a result, Eva has fulfilled the mission she began in the camp—the mission of surviving and remembering, and thus giving those who died the chance to live on.
Hannah’s aunt Gitl serves as a surrogate mother figure for Hannah, as well as a symbol of hope throughout the novel. Just after they arrive at the camp, Hannah lets out an audible stomach rumble, and Gitl laughs. Hannah asks how she can laugh at such a time, and Gitl responds that without laughter, there is no hope—and without hope, there is no life.
Throughout her stay in the camp, Gitl retains her strong grip on hope; like Rivka, she “organizes” and takes care of others, including Hannah. When Gitl sees Hannah giving her bread away, Gitl tells her that she must eat her own food and take care of herself first. However, Hannah later notices Gitl giving her own bread to the younger children.
Later in the novel, Gitl becomes part of an escape plot, which again illustrates her will to fight and survive. Although the plot fails, Gitl does survive, and as Hannah laters learns, she goes on to move to Israel and found a rescue organization for survivors—an organization she names after her niece Chaya. Even after the war, Gitl continues to care for others and to offer hope; in addition, like Aunt Eva, she keeps Chaya’s memory alive even after her death.