The Devil's Arithmetic Characters
by Jane Yolen

The Devil's Arithmetic book cover
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The Devil's Arithmetic Characters

The main characters in The Devil's Arithmetic are Hannah Stern, Gitl, Shmuel, Fayge, and Rivka.

  • Hannah Stern is a twelve-year-old girl transported back in time to a Jewish village in 1941. Hannah assumes the role of her deceased aunt Chaya, whom she was named after.
  • Gitl is Chaya's aunt, who starts a rescue mission for girls in Isreal after surviving the Holocaust.
  • Shmuel is Gitl's brother, who marries Fayge the day after Hannah arrives.
  • Fayge is Shmuel's wife, who lives in the village of Viosk.
  • Rivka is Chaya's friend, who survives the Holocaust thanks to Chaya's sacrifice and grows up to become Hannah's Aunt Eva.

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Characters

Hannah/Chaya
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 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/Aunt Eva
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.

(The entire section is 871 words.)