What We Pretend to Be: The Devil’s Arithmetic

“We are what we pretend to be.”—Kurt Vonnegut

Time travel is about identity, because people are products of their times: when a character is unmoored from their own time and plonked into another one, it inevitably brings up the question of who they actually are, where their identity resides.

Well, okay, maybe not inevitably. There are plenty of kids’ time-travel stories where the main character(s) visit the past like tourists, look around, learn something (“Wow, life was tough on the prairies/in the Revolutionary War/in Medieval Europe!”), and go back home, without any identity crises at all. But even in those, unless they’re invisible (that happens sometimes too), the time travelers have to account for their presence to the contemps somehow: they need find a way to blend in and pretend, sometimes to everyone, sometimes to all but a few confidantes, that they belong there. The time traveler has to, in a sense, become an undercover agent.

But when identity comes into the mix in a deeper way, it gets at a haunting human question: if we lived somewhere else, or sometime else, would we be someone else too? Would we still be ourselves? What’s that self consist of, anyway? Is it the physical stuff around us? The people we know? Our names? Or is it something deeper, more essential, harder to destroy?

Questions of identity, and of memory, are central to Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, which opens with twelve-year-old Hannah on her way from her home in New Rochelle to a Passover seder in the Bronx, whining all the way about how she’s always being told to remember her family history or Jewish history. When, at the seder, she opens the door for the prophet Elijah, she finds herself transported to a village in Poland in 1942, where a man and woman claiming to be her uncle and aunt seem to recognize her and call her Chaya. She’s accepted as Chaya by everyone around her, and soon gathers that Chaya has recently come to the village to recover from an illness she contracted at home in the big city of Lublin.

Like most time travelers, Hannah at the start of her sojourn is preoccupied with figuring out where she’s come to, and who she’s supposed to be. In her case, she’s also horrified to realize that the Jews of her new village are about to be “resettled”: in spite of her attempts to avoid learning about the past, Hannah knows about the Holocaust (her grandmother is a survivor), and she’s pretty sure what resettlement means, and is desperate to warn her new friends, neighbors, and relatives.

Throughout the book, the heroine struggles with the question of whether she is Hannah or Chaya: which version of her is the real one? And how much of it has to do with what she remembers? At the start of the book, she is very much Hannah: she recalls everything about her present-day, “real” life, thinks that her 1942 Polish life is some kind of dream, and has to fake it in her identity as Chaya. But as she’s immersed in the world of the concentration camps, which is as unfamiliar and surreal to her new village compatriots as it is to her (maybe more so, since she knows a little about it from history lessons, and they of course don’t), she becomes more Chaya and less Hannah, and memory of her original life falls away. Near the end of the book, she is completely Chaya, and it’s her old self and her old world that seem like dreams, dreams in which she is at a strange school with a group of girls all wearing “blue pants” which she doesn’t even recognize as jeans.

The topic of remembering, and telling stories, comes up over and over in the book. At the start of her journey to the past, Hannah/Chaya, unable to oblige her new friends with tales of her life in Lublin, impresses them by instead telling the stories of every book and movie she can think of, from Star Wars (which they find incomprehensible), to Fiddler on the Roof (which they understand completely). Towards the end of the book, she uses her vague memories of her life as Hannah to act as a visionary prophet, bringing solace to her friends by “predicting” a time in the future when there will be a Jewish state and Jewish movie stars. At the darkest point of the book, she tells the story of her ordinary Hannah-life in New Rochelle as if it were the fairy tale that she now feels it is. When Hannah returns, abruptly, to her original time and identity, she brings her memories of 1942 with her, and finally, movingly, fuses the past and the present.

In its broadest outlines, The Devil’s Arithmetic falls into the voluminous category of time-travel books for kids that are really history and/or moral lessons in disguise (kid visits another time, learns about the time period, and then is able to give a report about it in school/appreciate their own life more/understand their family history). But Yolen is doing more here than writing a cautionary tale about the Holocaust, or the importance of remembering the past: she’s raising unanswerable questions about memory, and its relationship to what makes a person who they are. Through Hannah, we find out that it doesn’t matter so much what name you’re called by or even what time or place you live in; what’s most important is how you act, when you show kindness, and what stories—past and present, real-life and fictional—you carry within you.

Els Kushner is a writer and librarian living in Vancouver. She can barely even remember what she had for breakfast.


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