The Devil's Arithmetic

The Devil's Arithmetic Themes

History/ The Past

Hannah initially demonstrates an apathy toward her own heritage. She has no interest in going to the Passover Seder dinner and sees it as something to be endured rather than to be celebrated. Prior to the dinner she spends time at her friend Rosemary's house, where she eats a meal ahead of time. Rosemary is not Jewish and Yolen implies that Hannah actively avoids anyone of a similar background to her own.

The Passover Seder is a ritual designed to commemorate the past and those who have come before. Hannah has little interest in its origins or relevance in the present. It is not until she is torn from her own family and transported to a dark period in history that Hannah comes to appreciate her heritage. She is alive because of decisions and sacrifices that were made by others well before her own birth. If these sacrifices had not been made, she might never have existed.

This concept, that the present is a living product of the events of the past, echoes throughout the novel. Consider how casually Commandant Breuer decided who lived and who died in the camp. Without any real consideration, entire bloodlines and family trees were destroyed. As a result the families of survivors have a greater appreciation of their own lives, knowing that their ancestors were able to survive a horrific ordeal and should not be forgotten.


Hannah's relationship toward her family shifts from one of detachment to one of great appreciation. While experiencing the short life of Chaya Abramowicz, Hannah grows close to Gitl and the other girls in the camp. Though they are not members of her immediate family, Hannah comes to see them as vital extensions of herself. Their lives intertwine with hers (and Chaya's) and help make up the fabric of her own existence. Hannah comes to see how she must play a role in their lives and take more of an active role in her own family.

Hannah's sense of "family" also extends to those around her in the camp who are not her blood relations. In this sense, this theme ties in with the theme of humanity. Hannah sees her friends like Shifre, Rachel, and Esther as extended family, part of the greater human family now struggling to survive in the face of evil. She acts to save Leye's baby as well, not because she has to, but because she feels it is the right thing to do.


To survive their ordeal in the camp the prisoners sacrifice much. Many of them, including Hannah, give their lives in the hope of saving others. Rivka repeatedly risks her own life to help Hannah and Gitl become accustomed to life in the camp. She teaches them as much as she can to help their chances. Hannah, in turn, willingly sacrifices herself to save Rivka's life.

Hannah risks execution when she speaks to Commandant Breuer about Reuven. Hannah's protective instincts take over and we can see some similarities between Reuven and Hannah's brother, Aaron. Unable to save him, Hannah is overcome with guilt and anger, wishing she was able to sacrifice more to save him or, failing that, join him in death.

Hannah also risks her life to save Leye's baby when the Commandant visits the camp. She takes the unattended child to the garbage dump and hides in the filth with him, soiling his clothes but saving his life.

In all these instances her selflessness and lack of concern for her own well-being echo Grandpa Will's words about sacrifice during the Seder dinner. Hannah pours out her entire glass of wine instead of the customary sip's worth for the prophet. Grandpa Will comments that Hannah's sacrifice is greatest because it was not asked for. Though Hannah knows she was simply getting rid of the wine she did not want, his words carry meaning in reference to the other instances in which Hannah acts only out of goodness and concern for others.


The preservation of one's humanity becomes paramount in the face of the inhumanity of the Holocaust. Hannah, Gitl, Rivka, and the other prisoners try to preserve their own humanity by caring for one another and doing all they can to ensure their mutual survival.

This theme can be tied to the theme of sacrifice that also runs through the novel. Hannah's time in the camp as Chaya teaches her the importance of all human life, particularly that of generations yet to come. She makes the ultimate sacrifice to save another human being, her friend Rivka. This act is in and of itself an act of defiance. Instead of becoming selfish and only looking to save herself, she acts to save another. Hannah also takes the initiative to save Leye's baby earlier in the novel. These acts are defiant because they demonstrate that the prisoners in the camp still value each other, and that they see their position as supremely unjust and are striving against it. To be truly defeated by the Nazis would mean to only act to save themselves and to even cooperate with the Nazis in the hope that this would ensure their individual survival. By acting in the interest of the group when they can, the prisoners demonstrate that they have retained what makes them human even if the Nazis have not.


Reb Boruch tells the villagers to place their faith in God. They are in God's hands now, he says, and they must have faith that whatever happens is part of a larger plan. As they are transported to the camp and begin to experience the horrors of their situation, this faith comes to be tested and questioned. Reb Boruch himself is chosen for execution.

Faith reemerges as a theme during Fayge's story about Ba'al Shem Tov. She says that the boy, Israel, is told by his father that the enemy will always be with him, but that the enemy cannot enter his soul because his soul is secure and a part of God. While the story can be interpreted as a clear allegory to the nation of Israel, consider also that the enemy here is the Nazi regime and its machinations. Fayge's story reminds the prisoners to have faith that God will protect their souls from their enemy and that the enemy can never enter and destroy their souls, no matter what. This is also a reminder for the prisoners to retain their own identities as a means of retaining their faith. They must remain true to themselves.

In Fayge's story, Israel enters the heart of a werewolf, a heart that is Satan's. The heart is filled with pain and Israel buries it in the ground. Hannah sighs and thinks to herself that they are in the belly of a werewolf. Such a predicament would require the utmost faith. The story also illustrates that there is an element of the divine in all beings, even Satan. The heart that Israel removes is full of pain. Israel sympathizes with the werewolf though it seeks to harm him. In this sense, the enemy is not able to enter Israel because Israel does not succumb to hatred. Fayge's story instructs the prisoners to see some humanity even in their captors and to not become bitter and angry, for if they do, they will have strayed away from God.


Hope becomes the greatest ally to those imprisoned in the concentration camps. Without the belief that they may survive there is nothing to help them retain their sanity or will to live. Hope becomes their sole weapon against the Nazi plan to exterminate them.

Rivka's rules, which she shares with the other girls, are designed to help their chances of survival. This provides the Jews with some semblance of order and authority over their situation. They cannot control everything but there are things they can do, or not do, to increase their chances of survival from day to day.

Yolen demonstrates that hope can be a burden as well as a blessing. In order for the prisoners to retain a sense of positivity they must sometimes lie to themselves or others. When Hannah tries to explain what she knows of the camp, the others dismiss her stories though many of them have heard such stories from other sources. Facing such realities can be too dark to bear. One must cling to hope, however illogical it may seem, in order to endure.


The Holocaust sought not only to exterminate an entire race of people but also to erase Jewish culture and identity. At various times during the novel the prisoners turn to prayer and song in their most trying moments. For example, the prisoners sing while they are cramped inside the boxcar and also recite prayers for the dead upon learning of someone's passing. While these rituals paid tribute to those individuals who had been murdered, they also allowed those who remained to remember their cultural identity. This identity was never more threatened than it was in this period of history and so its importance was only heightened.

The themes of identity, family, and history are intertwined. Hannah is shocked to realize she is having a harder and harder time remembering her past, even the experiences she's had in 1942 before arriving in the camp. Remembering the ordeal is painful, but forgetting it would be wrong, too. Still more tragic would be forgetting where one came from. Yolen's novel demonstrates that each of us is a product of the decisions and struggles of generations that came before. Hannah learns this lesson firsthand and comes away with a much greater appreciation of her family as well as her own cultural identity.