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The Devil's Arithmetic Suggested Essays

by Jane Yolen

Suggested Essay Questions

  1. How does Hannah's character change over the course of the novel? Do her values change?

    Hannah begins as a grumbling young girl who is disinterested in and strives to distance herself from her family and her heritage. We see that Hannah does not want to go to the Seder dinner and that she has already eaten dinner at her friend Rosemary's house. Rosemary is not Jewish and Yolen includes this fact to illustrate Hannah's desire to somehow be someone else.

    This is met ironically with her transportation to 1942 Poland. Now she inhabits the life of Chaya Abramowicz. Upon realizing where she is and what is happening around her, Hannah suddenly wishes very much to return to the life she saw as so dull and uninteresting. She is at that moment very thankful for what she had, though she did not appreciate it before.

    Her experience as Chaya teaches her first about her family and about its history. She meets her Aunt Eva at a much younger age and comes to understand why Aunt Eva may be the way she is now, strong but sad. As Chaya, Hannah must confront difficult situations that she would never have encountered in her modern life. Life and death situations surround Chaya. Hannah learns much about what she is capable of when placed in Chaya's life. As a result she is far more accepting of her family upon her return and her relationship to her Aunt Eva is strengthened. Hannah now understands what they have endured so that her generation, she and her brother, can have a life their ancestors never could. She also sees the importance in preserving the traditions of her culture, traditions that were almost destroyed by genocide.

  2. Hannah and the other prisoners quickly learn rules that might help them stay alive in the camp, such as not affiliating with Greek Jews. Do these rules really make a difference or are the prisoners merely trying to create a sense of hope for themselves?

    It can be debated that such rules simply allow the prisoners to exhibit the illusion of control, but Rivka is a living example of how they can actually increase their odds of survival. If such rules really had no bearing it is quite possible that Rivka would have died long ago. Rather, she lives by making calculated, rational observances about her situation. She shares this information because in her situation information is the only weapon she has. There is no doubt that such information can, in turn, inspire hope, but it does not eliminate the reality of the threat around them. In this respect these rules are firmly rooted in reality. They are warnings as much as they are rules, and each of them reminds the prisoners that they will face death every day but that there are steps they can take to help themselves.

  3. Of all Rivka's rules, the most important, she explains to Hannah, is to help the little children into the midden, the garbage dump. Why is this the most important rule?

    Rivka understands, even at her young age, that the young children are the future of her people and their way of life. They are also the most vulnerable of all the prisoners. Young children are not allowed to live in the camp. If found, they will be taken away by the Commandant and executed. Rivka knows that if these children do not survive, the Nazi plan for Jewish extermination will be partially successful. It is imperative to keep them alive. For this reason an entire warning system is in place to give the children enough time to hide in the garbage dump where none of the soldiers will look for them. This small bit of subversion and rebellion is essential to maintaining their own lineage. Just as it is important to remember the past, here Yolen demonstrates the need to prepare for the future.

  4. Consider the implications of the motto "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work will make you free). How does it fit into major themes in the novel?

    The Nazis hung this sign over the entrances to a number of concentration camps. The sign ostensibly gave the illusion that if prisoners simply worked hard they would earn their freedom. As Hannah well knows, this was not the case. However the sign could be seen as giving some prisoners hope, a major theme in the novel. In this case, the hope is entirely false, a lie that hangs over the prisoners every day, reminding them of the basic injustice of their situation. No matter how hard they work, all they can hope to achieve is another day of life. The threat of death is constant. Yolen demonstrates that while the prisoners cling to hope to endure their terrible ordeal, hope can also become a source of despair.

  5. Describe Hannah's relationship with her brother, Aaron. What kind of sister is she to him? What does this say about Hannah's character?

    We do not see a great deal of interaction between Hannah and Aaron but what we do see speaks volumes. Hannah teases Aaron as an older sister might be expected to but ultimately she is there for him when he needs her. Aaron is nervous about reciting the Four Questions during the Seder dinner, but Hannah reassures him that she will help him through the ritual.

    In Hannah we meet a typical young girl on the verge of becoming a teenager. She is not interested in the past, only in the future; only in what is new, not old. She exhibits small moments of rebellion but is generally well-behaved, minding her parents and their wishes. Yolen presents Hannah at something of a crossroads. She could veer toward her more caring, positive tendencies or become increasingly disconnected from her family and cultural identity. We can see a slightly bratty nature in her but her willingness to care for Aaron instead of simply brushing him away suggests a brighter persona whom we can appreciate and root for.

  6. A euphemism is a substituted word or phrase that is less offensive than the the word or phrase it replaces. Both the Nazis and the Jewish prisoners use euphemisms throughout the novel. Why do you think this is?

    The Nazis use euphemisms such as "processed" instead of stating that a prisoner has been executed. This allows the Nazis both to hide their true intentions from the Jewish prisoners and to shield their own consciences from what they are doing. Consider that a good deal of the process that the Nazis used was meant to dehumanize their prisoners. This allowed them to see the Jewish people as less than human, thereby making the task of exterminating them easier. If the Nazis had to openly speak about what they were doing without euphemism it would be harder for them to carry out such tasks and they would likely question what they were being ordered to do.

    Similarly, the Jewish prisoners know that if they speak openly they may be killed. They are acutely aware of the Nazi desire to avoid such direct language. So it is that they cannot say words like "dead" or "killed" as it will make their captors uncomfortable. The prisoners also sometimes use euphemisms to speak about something in a clandestine manner. The word "organize" is a euphemism for "stealing", for example. By using this word the prisoners can discuss plans openly without fear that someone overhearing them will know their plans.

  7. Why do you think Yolen uses Yiddish and German words in the novel? What does this lend to the novel?

    Yolen's use of actual Yiddish and German words and phrases lends an authenticity to the novel. Yolen based the novel on historical accounts but not on a specific person or instance. Her decision to utilize the authentic language of that time allows her to give it weight without having to resort to simple translation, in which a good deal of the original context and meaning of a phrase or word can be lost. Using these words also allows Yolen to honor the novel's major theme of remembering. She thus adheres to a more accurate representation of these events while simultaneously introducing new vocabulary and allowing the reader to gain a more authentic understanding.

    Yolen's decision is important also because she chooses to include both Yiddish and German phrases. Both languages, and the specific words used in the camps, had a hand in shaping the experiences of both the prisoners and the captors. Above all else Yolen wished to present a novel that felt real so that her young readers could learn about a time they never had to inhabit.

  8. What is the main conflict in the novel? Who is the protagonist and who or what is the antagonist? How does Yolen resolve this conflict?

    The main conflict in the novel is Hannah's struggle to come to terms with her past, her family, and ultimately, herself. She is the protagonist and at times, also the antagonist. Chaya can arguably be seen as an antagonist figure as she embodies the past and a heritage that Hannah has been unwilling to acknowledge. Yolen chooses to place her protagonist in her antagonist's shoes and experience life from an entirely different perspective, enduring horrors she could never imagine.

    Yolen resolves this conflict by placing Hannah in the past. Here, Hannah learns to think outside of her own life and begins to consider her impact on others. She comes to embody the spirit of sacrifice that her Grandpa Will spoke of. She learns that she is able to sacrifice herself for her family and for generations yet to come.

  9. Discuss the importance of the prisoner's tattoos in the novel. Why did the Nazis tattoo their prisoners? What significance did these tattoos hold for the prisoners in the novel?

    For the Nazi regime the tattoos they placed on their prisoners served two main purposes. First, there was the purpose of cataloging and tracking the prisoners themselves. These tattoos allowed the Nazis to tag the prisoners and keep a count. Second, they allowed the Nazis to see each prisoner as a number instead of a person. This dehumanization made it easier for the Nazis to commit their atrocities. It also implied to the prisoners themselves that they were somehow less than human.

    Because of this intention Rivka assigns a new value to the number on her arm. She decides what each number and letter means and uses them as a sort of mnemonic device to remember where she came from and who she is. She re-appropriates the number for her own use instead of letting its meaning dictate who she is, and teaches Hannah to do the same.

    After returning to the present Hannah remembers what Rivka told her about her tattoo and explains the significance to Aunt Eva (Rivka). It is also significant that Aunt Eva and Grandpa Will still have their tattoos. They serve as reminders of what happened to them. This part of history is a part of them and they do not want to forget it or erase it from their skin. Their tattoos are a sort of remembrance of those who did not survive. It would not feel right to them to have the tattoos removed.

  10. Is Hannah's character a hero character? Or is she simply the protagonist, around whom the events of the novel take place?

    Heroes are generally more dynamic characters who can change over the course of a story through their heroic deeds and obstacles they encounter. Hannah's character appears as something of a simple protagonist early on in the novel, but Yolen hints at more heroic capabilities in her. Hannah's caring relationship to Aaron suggests that she has a more selfless persona.

    Upon becoming Chaya, Hannah has the sole distinction of knowing how the events of history will unfold. In many hero myths and stories, the hero has some special insight into a situation or a special ability. Hannah tries to warn the others but no one believes her. Once she is in the camp, however, she does not use this information to simply save herself. Nor does she give up in the face of such a frightening situation. Instead she commits several acts of heroism to save others. She intercedes to save Leye's baby when Commandant Breuer visits. She attempts to save Reuven but is unable. Hannah is angered and wracked with guilt at this failure. She neglects to eat some of her own food, trying to give it to Reuven instead. Finally, she sacrifices herself to save Rivka after having a vision of the future. Hannah is sure that the Nazis will not succeed in destroying the Jewish people. She is sure that there will be a Jewish homeland and even Jewish movie stars. She sacrifices herself for Rivka without hesitation and without being asked. When she returns to the present, she returns changed, as if from a long journey or battle, another common trope in hero mythology.

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