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The novel opens with Hannah complaining to her mother about attending the Seder dinner at her grandparents' home during Passover. As most teenagers tend to do, Hannah finds her grandparents annoying, particularly because they seem to dwell so much on the past. They lost family to the Nazis during World War II, which Hannah's mother reminds her of yet again, but Hannah is still sullen. Later in the evening, Hannah is asked to open the door for the prophet Elijah, part of the Seder ritual; when she opens it, she finds herself transformed into a kitchen that seems to be from different time and place. She meets a gentleman who claims to be her uncle Schmuel, and Gitl, his sister; they both refer to her as Chaya, which Hannah realizes is her Hebrew name back in New York.
The next day, Schmuel, Gitl and Hannah set out for the village of Viosk, where Schmuel is to be married. When they arrive at the synagogue, they are met by Nazis, who inform them that they are to be "resettled" until the war is over. The wedding party is herded into two boxcars after being stripped of their belongings; they are then crowded, suffocating and dehydrated for four days before they arrive at the concentration camp on the fifth day. Here, they are disembarked, separated into groups of men and women, shorn of all their hair, and tattooed with individual prisoner numbers. It is worth noting that several people had already died on the horrific trip by boxcar. What had begun as a joyful day in the village has now morphed into the beginning of what will be a horrible nightmare for Hannah/Chaya and change forever her perceptions of her family and Passover.
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