The Devil's Arithmetic Themes

  • Memory is the central theme of The Devil's Arithmetic. As a twelve-year-old girl living in modern day New York City, Hannah doesn't understand her family's need to remember the past and the Holocaust. Only by experiencing the Holocaust firsthand does Hannah come to understand her grandparents' suffering and the importance of memory.
  • Hannah learns about life and death through her personal experiences of the Holocaust. She not only witnesses the death of hundreds of Jews in the Nazi concentration camps; she also knows that these deaths are going to happen ahead of time. This puts her in the uncomfortable position of knowing what's about to happen but being powerless to stop it. Her experiences teach her about the horrors and injustices of death.
  • Hannah changes in the course of the novel. In the beginning, she identifies as a modern girl, a New Yorker who feels no need to remember the past. After traveling through time, however, she becomes a wiser, braver, and more empathetic character. By the end of the novel, she has learned to remember the past and accept her Jewish heritage.


The central theme of The Devil’s Arithmetic is the importance and power of memory. At the opening of the novel, Hannah is bored and frustrated by her relatives’ constant need to remember the past; she cannot understand why her grandparent’s memories are so important to them.Then Hannah is transported to a Jewish village during World War II, where she, along with other Jews, is forced into a concentration camp.Ironically, as soon as Hannah arrives at the camp, she loses her own memory: when her head is shaved, she finds that she can no longer remember her own past in New York or the history of the Nazis. Only when Hannah is stripped of her own power to remember and forced to experience the horrifying events of the Holocaust firsthand, does she begin to understand the true power of memory.

Soon after she loses her memory, Hannah has a number tattooed on her arm by another prisoner in the camps. The tattooist tells her his own daughter—who has died in the camps—shared Hannah’s Hebrew name, Chaya. The man tells Hannah she must remember, for memories keep his daughter and all those who have died alive. Without memory, he warns, life does not exist. However, Hannah cannot truly understand his message until she experiences the horrors of the camp herself.

In the camp, Hannah befriends Rivka, who has already lost many relatives. Yet instead of letting her loss defeat her, Rivka becomes more determined to live and remember—as she says, through the memories of the living, “all those gone before are alive inside us.” When Hannah tells Rivka about her own loss of memory, Rivka says this because remembering can be so painful. However, she assures Hannah that her memory will return, as soon as she is ready for it.

Only after Hannah has learned to become a stronger, braver person—by witnessing the horrors in the camps, finding the strength to keep living, and helping others even when she has so little herself—does her memory begin to return. This time, when Hannah remembers her life in America, she...

(The entire section is 832 words.)