"We are all monsters because we are letting it happen."
In a moment of frustration Hannah utters this phrase, after Reuven is taken away by Commandant Breuer. She wishes to fight back. Rivka tells her that it is God that is letting it happen, as part of a larger plan that they cannot see at the moment. Rivka manages to calm Hannah down. Consider the conflict between Hannah's anger and Rivka's faith in this situation. Hannah has momentarily lost any hope, sure that the only thing to do now is to fight, even if they have no means to do so. Rivka's position is to endure this seemingly intolerable situation because she has faith that all of it is happening for a reason. Consider also that this quote points to the controversy surrounding how many German citizens were aware of the Holocaust. There are conflicting opinions amongst historians and scholars on this topic. Although Yolen does not pursue this for discussion in the novel, it is important to be aware of the blurred line between passive observer and participant.
"But as the scissors snip-snapped through her hair and the razor shaved the rest, she realized with a sudden awful panic that she could no longer recall anything from the past. I cannot remember, she whispered to herself."
As Hannah's hair is clipped away, she notices that the women are hard to tell apart. Along with their hair, their identities have been clipped away. Hannah finds that she cannot remember her own past as Hannah from New Rochelle. Memory and its relation to heritage, history, and family are continuing themes throughout the novel. Hannah never places great importance on them because she takes them for granted. She has never had to experience anything where she might be stripped of her identity before. As Chaya, she now sees the importance of knowing who you are and where you come from. The Nazis sought to strip the Jewish people not only of their lives and possessions but also of their entire culture and identity. Even for those who survived much could be forgotten about where they came from. As the barber cuts the hair from Hannah's head she wishes to be reunited with her family at the Seder dinner, the very dinner she dreaded attending. Chaya has never had the opportunity to take her heritage for granted. Her parents have already died and now she has to face imprisonment and the threat of death on a daily basis. Yolen demonstrates how content the lives of these families were before they were completely overturned by the events of history.
"Six million," Hannah said, "but that's not all the Jews there are. In the end, in the future, there will be Jews still. And there will be Israel, a Jewish state, where there will be a Jewish president and a Jewish senate. And in America, Jewish movie stars."
Juxtapose this quote against Hannah's promise to herself before entering the showers. Hannah is the only one of the prisoners to have knowledge of the Holocaust before it happens. She alone knows what horrors they will face. However, as Hannah is taken away to be executed she tells the other girls of what else she knows: that the Holocaust will end and that there will be a Jewish people on earth, and that they will have a home and country of their own. She embodies hope and life (recall that Chaya's name translates as "life"). She provides consolation to the other girls, who now face their own deaths, by telling them that all is not lost, the Nazis will not win, and most importantly, that they and all the others who perished during the Holocaust will not be forgotten.
"Live," he whispered. "For my Chaya. For all our Chayas. Live. And remember."
The tattoo artist tells Hannah that she is wearing his daughter's dress. His daughter was named Chaya as well but she is dead now. The theme of remembrance is imparted here as the man implores Hannah, as Chaya, to live for his lost girl and to remember. As Rivka also states in the novel, as long as the dead are not forgotten they are not truly dead. They can remain alive in all the living who do not forget what happened. Chaya, as her name suggests, comes to embody hope for all the prisoners in the camp. Gitl even names the organization she founds after her niece for the same reason. This lesson has also been imparted to much of the world. The Holocaust museums and memorials around the world stand as vigilant reminders of those events and as voices for those who were silenced.
"Without laughter there is no hope. Without hope there is no life."
Gitl's quote embodies one of the principal themes of the novel. Life itself becomes an act of faith. To persevere through the difficulties of any life, one must retain hope, not simply to wish for better days, but to make an effort to overcome obstacles. Laughter can remind one that life can be enjoyable, especially when things seem particularly hopeless. When Gitl and the other women in the camp laugh they share a moment of solidarity. This gives them a communal strength because they realize that they are all in this together and that each of them depends on all the others for support. Knowing that they are not alone gives them a feeling of belonging. This is vital in retaining their identities because it reminds each of them that they matter, despite what the Nazis might want them to believe. This, in turn, can allow them to persevere.
"It is a brutal arithmetic. But I - I am alive. You are alive. As long as we breathe, we can see and hear. As long as we remember, all those gone before are alive inside us."
Rivka expresses her thankfulness for every second that she is alive and breathing. This scene unfolds as Esther expresses her dismay at Rivka's statement that being alive in that moment is enough. Esther cannot understand this. She tells Rivka that she has lost numerous relatives already. What can she possibly be thankful for? With the threat of death constantly looming over them, Rivka's expression suggests a new appreciation for life even for the most mundane or even terrible moments. At least, Rivka reminds them, they are still alive. There are others who have not been so lucky. But, because they are alive those who are gone are not forgotten. They can live on in the memories of the living. Rivka admits that it is a harsh reality, a "brutal arithmetic", but as long as they are alive there is hope and hope is their greatest asset against the Nazi onslaught.
"Hannah nodded and took her aunt's fingers from her lips. She said, in a voice much louder than she had intended, so loud that the entire table hushed at its sound, 'I remember. Oh, I remember.'"
The novel's central theme comes full circle as Hannah announces to her Aunt Eva that she remembers everything that happened. Hannah's utterance is a promise to Aunt Eva that Hannah will always remember what happened. This is possibly the most meaningful thing she can do for Aunt Eva now. By internalizing the stories of Rivka, Gitl, Shmuel, and all the others, she can pass their legacy down to other generations, also never to be forgotten. As Rivka tells Hannah in the camp, this remembrance allows the dead to remain alive.
"Hannah wondered at this strange power she held in her mouth. It was true Aaron had always liked her stories. So did Rosemary, but as her best friend she had to. And the Brodie twins, whom she'd only started to babysit, could usually be kept quiet with a tale. But she'd never had such a large, appreciative audience before."
Hannah marvels at her own ability to hold a captive audience as she tells stories. It is likely that this bit of character development for Hannah reflects Jane Yolen's own journey as a writer and storyteller. Yolen details some of her own experiences on her website. Consider the importance of stories and storytelling as a means of recording and transmitting one's history. Hannah's stories are a source of entertainment and comfort to her listeners, but they are also a group experience. They bring people together. After she returns to present-day New Rochelle, Hannah sits and listens to her Aunt Eva as she learns of the aftermath of WWII. Aunt Eva's stories continue to transmit the knowledge of her own, as well as Hannah's, lineage.
"'And as for running - where would we run to? God is everywhere. There will always be Nazis among us. No, my child, do not tremble before mere men. It is God before whom we must tremble. Only God. We will go ahead, just as we have planned. After all, this is our shtetl, not theirs, and there is still a wedding to be made."
The theme of faith can be seen in this quote. Fittingly, Reb Boruch, a man of faith, tells the frightened villagers to continue moving toward the synagogue for Shmuel and Fayge's wedding. He tells them not to fear mortal men, only God. This echoes elements of Fayge's story about the boy Israel later in the story. In that story Israel is reminded that evil is everywhere, and that evil will always be with him. Here, Reb Boruch tells the villagers that there will always be Nazis among us, but that they are not to be feared. Israel is told that his soul is secure because it is a part of God, a message in line with Reb Boruch's. The predominant theme of faith in these two stories is one of perseverance in the face of danger or fear. In the case of Fayge's story, it is a clear analogy for the future of the Jewish people.
"I will be brave. I am the only one who knows about the ovens, but I will be brave. I will not take away their hope, which is all they have. I will not tell them that the Nazis often lied and said people were going to take showers when they took them to be killed."
Hannah makes a promise to herself not to reveal her knowledge of the Holocaust to those in the camp. She tells herself this just before the women are taken to the showers. Hannah knows that sometimes the "showers" were actually gas chambers and that prisoners were simply told they were going to the showers to avoid any resistance or panic. Hope is all these prisoners have, a theme that Yolen emphasizes repeatedly. A complex emotion, hope can be seen as giving them the will to continue or as a deluded aspiration that only tortures those who cling to it. While we see by the end of the novel that very few of the prisoners survived their terrible ordeal, to remove all hope from the hearts of the prisoners would not only give them little reason to struggle on, but would also ensure little thought for future generations. If these prisoners simply gave up, the Nazis would win. It is because they hoped for better days, not simply for themselves but for the future, that their heritage was able to be passed down even when their very existence was being threatened.
The Devil’s Arithmetic Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Devil’s Arithmetic is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.