The Devil's Arithmetic
The Devil's Arithmetic is an historical fiction novel written by American author Jane Yolen and published in 1988. The book is about Hannah Stern, a Jewish girl who lives in New Rochelle, New York. During a Passover Seder, Hannah is transported back in time to 1942 Poland, during World War II, where she is sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp and learns the importance of knowing about the past.
The Devil's Arithmetic was nominated for the Nebula award for best novella in 1988 and won the National Jewish Book Award (in the category for children's literature) in 1989. The script for a 1999 Showtime television film with the same title, starring Kirsten Dunst and Brittany Murphy, was also nominated for a Nebula Award.
Hannah Stern is a young Jewish girl living in the present day (time of publication: 1980s). She is bored by her relative's stories about the past, is not looking forward to the Passover Seder, and is tired of her religion. When Hannah symbolically opens the door for the prophet Elijah, she is transported back in time to 1942 Poland, during World War II. At that time and place, the people believe she is Chaya Abramowicz, who is recovering from cholera, the fever that killed Chaya's parents a few months ago. The strange remarks Hannah/Chaya makes about the future and her inability to recognize her "aunt" Gitl and "uncle" Shmuel are blamed on the fever.
At her "uncle's" wedding, the Nazis come to transport the entire population of the village to a concentration camp near Donavin, and only Hannah knows all the terrors they will face: starvation, mistreatment, forced labor, and finally execution. She struggles to survive at the camp, with the help of a girl named Rivka. Uncle Shmuel and some other men try to escape; the men are caught and are hanged in front of the inmates. Gitl and Hannah return to their barracks and Yitzchak escapes. Fayge, who was going to be married to Shmuel, is killed because she runs to Shmuel when he is about to be shot.
Later, when Hannah, Rivka, Esther, and Shifre are working, a guard overhears them talking instead of working. Shifre tries to reassure the guard they have been working, but he takes them anyway and leaves Hannah by herself. As the three are about to leave, Hannah takes Rivka's place by putting on her head wrap. Since the guards don't know their faces, this goes unnoticed by the officer. The women are led to the gas chamber. Hannah is seen amongst the dead, with an eleven-year-old boy they had cared for in her arms. She is then transported back to her family's Seder. She asks for her Aunt Eva and calls her Rivka. While not convincing Eva that she was Chaya, she does reassure her Aunt that what happened in the camps will always be remembered.