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The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

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What are the themes in The Devil's Arithmetic?

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This is a powerful little novel about the horrors of the Holocaust in 1942 Poland, and there are many possible themes to discuss, but two that I think are especially important and which ultimately tie to one another, are the ideas of survival and memory.

The novel opens with a modern-day Hannah at the family Seder dinner. She is bored and disinterested in the event and takes the prayers and the rituals in a rather blase manner. She feels she has heard all the stories too many times and they clearly don't have much of an impact on her anymore. She is annoyed by her family and just wants the night to end. It is at this point that the sci-fi time-travel piece of the story hits us. Hannah is "transported" back to Poland in 1942. She is a young Jewish girl name Chaya (which is Hannah's Jewish name) and she is almost immediately immersed in the tragic story of the transport trains throughout Poland that rounded up whole villages of Jews and took them to the concentration camps for forced labor and eventual execution. Hannah has all of the memories from her education on the Holocaust and knows exactly what is happening, but she is rather helpless to stop any of it from happening. She is terrified because she is so out of place from her "normal" life as a teenager in the United States.

But she quickly learns about the importance of survival. She learns the tricks of the camp and how to avoid being "chosen" for the ovens each day. She learns how to make alliances and deep friendships with the others so that together they can do what they need to in order to survive. She learns how to hide the children, get a little more to eat, stay out of trouble, etc. She learns these skills from her aunt, Gitl and other women in the camp, such as Rivka.

At the end of the novel, she realizes that she has lived her life of the future in America and has many memories, so dying wouldn't be as much of a loss for her as for others, so she switches places with Rivka as Rivka was being taken to the ovens. We learn at the very end of the novel that Rivka survived the camps and moved to the United States -- she is Hannah's Aunt Eva. Hannah's Jewish name is a tribute to the young woman, Chaya, who died in Rivka's place so that at least one of them would survive another day. 

The ultimate message of the novel is that the world should never forget what the Nazi's did during the Holocaust. The survivors will eventually die along with their memories, but the stories and the memories of the horror of the Holocaust should always be honored and respected so that nothing like that will even happen again. 

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Portray a theme or important message of the novel The Devil's Arithmetic.

In addition to the theme of remembering one's heritage and the atrocities that humans have committed in the past, another poignant theme of The Devil's Arithmetic is recognizing the heroism of the millions of Jews who were tortured and killed in concentration camps. After Hannah witnesses the Nazi Commandant taking a motherless boy, Reuven, to the the gas chamber, she is so angry with the inhumanity of the situation that she wants to fight back. Her friend Rivka, however, calmly asks her how she can fight back without weapons. She then tells her that it takes more courage to not fight back and that the real heroes are the people who endure the suffering and help other victims as much as they can while they're alive. This idea aligns with the religious moral of "turning the other cheek" and loving thy neighbor.

Furthermore, Rivka explains that one way to stay strong in times of suffering is to remember that while the Nazis can control them and hurt them physically, they can never touch who they truly are:

There will be times when he will surround you with walls of darkness. But remember always that your soul is secure to you, for your soul is entire, and that he cannot enter your soul, for your soul is part of God (143).

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Portray a theme or important message of the novel The Devil's Arithmetic.

In the novel The Devil's Arithmetic, one of the most important themes is that of the importance of remembering.  When Hannah Stern has to go with her mother to the Seder dinner at her grandparent's house, she protests because her friend celebrates the Christian Easter holiday with candy.  Hannah doesn't understand why she can't stay there rather than go to the Seder dinner and listen to the constant talk of the past - her grandparent's experiences as Jews under the Nazi regime, particularly that of her grandfather.  She doesn't understand why he can't just get over it and move on.

When she experiences first-hand the Jewish tribulations, though, as Chaya, she sees how atrocious the acts committed by the Nazis truly were, and during her time there learns that those left have to remember what happened both to honor the resiliance of the living and the dead and to prevent something like that from ever happening again.

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What thematic statement does Yolen explore in The Devil's Arithmetic?

A thematic statement, of course, is one simple sentence about what the author is trying to convey about his or her particular subject.  This statement will often contain some kind of generalization about human nature or life in general. The thematic statement that Yolen explored in The Devil’s Arithmetic is as follows:  memory is both powerful and important.  This thematic statement is especially important in regards to the extermination of the Jews that the Nazis attempted during World War II.  This attempted extermination is appropriately called the Holocaust.  At the beginning of the story, Hannah is annoyed by her relatives’ desire to focus on memory (both in regards to remembering Jewish traditions and remembering the horrors of the Holocaust).  It is only through Hannah’s personal experience with the Holocaust that she learns how important and powerful memory is.  In this regard, The Devil's Arithmetic is truly a coming-of-age story.  In fact, as Hannah makes a decision to sacrifice her own life, she tells Rivka:

Run for your life, Rivka ... for your future.  Run ... and remember.

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