Devil's Arithmetic (1999)




Director:     Donna Deitch.

Cast:     Kirsten Dunst (Hannah Stern), Brittany Murphy (Rivkah), Paul Freeman (Rabbi), Mimi Rogers (Leonore Stern), Louise Fletcher (Aunt Eva), Lilo Baur (Mina), Nitzan Sharron (Ariel), Shelly Skandrani (Leah), Daniel Brocklebank (Shmuel), Kirsty McFarland (Yetta), Rachel Roddy (Esther), Ieva Jackeviciute (Miriam), Philip Rham (Commandant Krieger), Daniel Rausch (Officer Steinbach), Paulina Soloveicik (Sarah).

Made for TV movie. 

a young Jewish woman cares little about her Jewish heritage until she gets a taste of life in a concentration camp


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Hannah Stern  is a pretty young woman who cares little about her Jewish heritage.  Her parents take her to see Aunt Eva for Passover.  Hannah does not want to go.  But her parents tell her she's going.  At Aunt Eva's house, her aunt greets her telling her:  "Every time I see you you look more like her."  Hannah does not really know who Aunt Eva is referring to, but smiles anyway.  She asks her to tell her more about this unknown person, but Aunt Eva says:  "You wouldn't understand."  One of the guests at Passover talks about the devil's arithmetic.  "You add and subtract and there are no more Jews.  It's all in the arithmetic."

The attendees at Passover have a satyr.  They talk about the time the Jews were slaves of the Egyptian Pharaoh.  Hannah is given the honor of opening the door.  When Hannah gets up to open the outer door she goes back in time to World War II in Yanov, Poland.  Hannah approaches two women.  One is her cousin Rivkah and the other is Rivkah's mother Mina.  Hannah is very confused.  Rivkah does not see this as strange because Hannah had been very sick for quite a while.  Hannah asks where are her parents.  Rivkah apologizes and tells her that the fever took her parents away.  Hannah protests that she's from New Rochelle.   Rivkah just ignores her strange remarks saying that Hannah had a burning fever for two weeks. 

Hannah learns that today is the day for a wedding.  Hannah meets Ariel, the Rabbi's son.  They seem to like each other almost immediately.  Rivkah and Hannah have their picture taken together.  The bride in a carriage is followed by the wedding attendees.  Just about the time that the wedding ceremony is ending, the German soldiers arrive in force.  Hannah asks Rivkah for the calendar date.  It's October 1941.  Hannah tells Rivkah that the soldiers will kill them.  Some 6,000,000 Jews will be killed.  Rivkah just tries to calm Hannah down. 

The Germans force the wedding attendees onto trucks and they are taken to a concentration camp.  As they are leaving, Hannah and Rivkah see the village synagogue in flames.  The soldiers at the camp start pushing them around, while the guard dogs bark at them.  The men are separated from the women.  Their valuables are taken.  The women are forced to change into prisoner uniforms.  Their hair is cut very short and is often chopped up in places.  They are then tattooed with a number on their left forearm.   They then are placed on crude multi-level wooden racks in wooden barracks. 

Ariel learns that his mother and sisters were removed.  He is told that they had typhus.  A very upset Ariel finds his father to give him the bad news.  People who are taken usually do not reappear. 

Hannah is very upset, naturally.  She keeps talking about her life in New Rochelle.  Her fellow inmates, especially the children, start to listen to her speak of a better future.  Soon Rivkah is asking Hannah to tell more of her stories of the future lives of Jewish people in the United States.  She tells other tales too.  One is about the Wizard of Oz

Hannah talks to Ariel and asks him to teach her how to pray.  He says he is not sure he knows how anymore, but will help her.  He gives her a gift: the photo of her and Rivkah taken back in their village.  Later Hannah learns that Ariel and some other men are going to escape.  They are bribing a guard.  Hannah remembers that she had heard from her relatives about the failed escape attempt.  It was a trap. She tells Ariel this, but he says he's going to go even if it is a trap because he can't live like this anymore. 

Hannah says about herself, that she was such a stupid girl.  She had even wanted a tattoo.  And now she has one:  a tattooed concentration camp number. One of the women in the barracks gives birth to a baby girl. 

Ariel and three other escapees are caught trying to escape.  They are kicked and beaten by the guards.  Then all four are hanged before the assembled inmates.  The commandant talks to the inmates.  He tells them it is useless to try to escape because they are in the middle of nowhere.  He adds:  "I have been too kind."  Hannah says about Ariel:  "I can't believe he's dead."  Rivkah tries to cheer her up by telling her how important her stories have been for her fellow inmates, especially for the children. "Your stories have been keeping us alive." 

One day the commandant comes into Hannah's barracks looking for the newborn baby.  The women try to hide the baby, but the baby's cries reveal her hiding place.  The mother begs the commandant to let her have her baby.  She is even willing to go with her child.  Rivkah's mother stands up to the commandant and tells him he is being cruel and inhumane.  So the commandant has all three females taken to the gas chamber. 

One day two Nazi guards threaten to shoot Hannah in the back of the spine.  Rivkah speaks up in her defense, pleading with the guards.  One of the guards thinks it's funny:  "They will do anything to delay the inevitable."  Hannah tells Rivkah that she saved her life.  They both agree that they must remember so they can tell everyone what they have been through.  Rivkah tells Hannah that she will now call herself Eva.  And suddenly Hannah realizes that Rivkah is actually her Aunt Eva.  She tells Rivkah/Eva that she will survive the camp. 

The commandant's superior tells him that he is not happy with the slowing death rate in the camp.  He wants the commandant to get to work at the business of killing.  Eva is coughing a great deal.  Hannah tells her to stop it or she will be selected by the Germans..  But Eva cannot stop herself.  So Hannah grabs Eva's scarf off her head and places it on her own head.  When the order is given to grab the woman with the dark purplish head scarf, the guards grab Hannah.  Hanna tells the very upset Eva that they will be together again. 

The selected women are taken to the gas chamber.  They have to get undressed and are forced into the chamber.  Pills are dropped in from the roof and gas is soon rising from the floor of the chamber.  The women start coughing and gasping for air.  Soon they are all dead. 

Back to New Rochelle.  Hannah wakes up on a bed with about eight people standing over her.  She asks:  "Am I home?"  They tell her that she just drank too much wine and fainted.  Then Hannah asks for Aunt Eva.  She is now very happy to see Aunt Eva.  Hannah is gushing and going on so much that Aunt Eva asks to be alone with the young woman.  Everyone leaves.  She asks Hannah:  "What name did you call me?"  "Rivkah", says Hannah.  Aunt Eva asks:  "How did you know?"  Hannah replies:  "Hannah is dead isn't she?  She saved your life."  Aunt Eva is amazed at what Hannah seems to know.  Hannah tells her aunt that she will always remember what happened.  Eva says:  "Yes, remember always." 

At the table the family and relatives sing a children's song with Hannah singing the loudest. 


Pretty good movie.  But it seems to have been designed for a younger audience.  The movie is a bit fantastic because it puts a a young woman of the post-WW II era into a concentration camp in Poland during the WWII era.  The purpose of the movie is to tell the Jewish young not to take their heritage for granted.  Learn to respect the historical memories of those who suffered through the Holocaust.  The movie does give the viewer an idea of some of the horrors of the camps, but other movies using this theme expose more of the horrors.  It's not accidental that the character Hannah tells her fellow inmates the story of the Wizard of Oz.  Like Dorothy,  Hannah learns not to take those around her for granted.  (But, in addition, remember the lessons of the Holocaust.)

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)