The Devil’s Arithmetic opens on the first day of Passover in contemporary America—probably some time during the 1980s, as the novel was published in 1988. Twelve-year-old Hannah Stern complains to her mother about attending the Seder dinner at her grandparents’ home; Hannah finds her grandparents’ constant emphasis on remembering the past, particularly the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews during World War II, embarrassing and irritating. Hannah’s mother reminds her that both of her grandparents lost family to the Nazis, but Hannah remains reluctant.
Arriving at her grandparents’ apartment, Hannah greets her favorite aunt, Aunt Eva. Eva lives with her brother, Eva’s grandfather, and helped raise Hannah’s father. Hannah mentions that she was named after a dead friend of Eva’s.
Later that evening, as part of the Passover ritual, Hannah is told to open the door for the prophet Elijah and welcome him in. However, when Hannah opens the apartment door, instead of finding the hall she expects, she sees a green field beneath a night sky. She turns around and finds the scene behind her has changed as well. Her family is gone, and the room has changed to an old-fashioned kitchen. A woman in old-fashioned clothes addresses Hannah as “Chaya” in a strangely accented voice. Hannah eventually realizes the woman is speaking Yiddish, but strangely, Hannah can understand her perfectly. Hannah also mentions that “Chaya” is her Hebrew name—the one she shares with her Aunt Eva’s friend.
Although she is confused and frightened, Hannah concludes that this strange turn of events is either a dream or some kind of elaborate game, and she decides to play along. A man enters from outside, calling himself Hannah’s uncle Shmuel, and Hannah learns that the woman, Gitl, is his sister. She also discovers that Shmuel is planning to marry a woman from a nearby village, Fayge, the next day. The three eat dinner together; then Hannah goes to the room she apparently shares with Gitl and goes to sleep.
In the morning, Hannah wakes up and finds herself still in the house with Gitl and Shmuel. She insists that her real name is Hannah and she lives in New York, but her new companions do not take her seriously. Gitl reveals that Chaya arrived just two days earlier from Lublin, where she was ill with the same sickness that killed her parents. Gitl, Shmuel and Hannah soon leave for Shmuel’s wedding.
When the wedding procession—including Hannah—arrives at Fayge’s village, Viosk, they see three black cars trailed by twelve army trucks in front of the synagogue. A man in a black uniform with medals steps out of one of the vehicles, prompting Hannah to ask what year it is. She learns that it is 1942—and realizes the men are Nazis. The Nazi commander explains that all Jews are being resettled for the duration of the war, and the residents of Viosk have already been taken. Chaya begins to mention concentration camps and gas chambers, but the adults dismiss her as having an overactive imagination.
The members of the wedding party, knowing their relatives have already left and accepting that they have no choice, willingly enter the army trucks. They are taken to a train...
(The entire section is 1317 words.)
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Chapter 1 Summary
Hannah Stern, who is almost thirteen, has been celebrating Easter with her friend Rosemary. She is very unhappy when her mother comes to pick her up so she can go with the family to Grandpa Will and Grandma Belle's house to observe Seder on the first night of Passover. Hannah knows that she and her little brother, Aaron, will be the only children in attendance, and she does not want to go. Her mother reminds her that the Jewish holiday, which is about remembering, is very important to her Grandpa Will and Grandma Belle, who lost many family members to the Nazis during World War II. They will be expecting the whole family to be there, so Hannah has no choice but to go.
Grandpa Will and Grandma Belle live in the Bronx, which is not particularly far from the Sterns’ home in New Rochelle. Aaron will be asked to read the “Four Questions” as part of the traditional ceremony. During the car ride, he complains because he is afraid he will not be able to remember them. Hannah reminds Aaron that he will not have to remember the questions; he will just have to read them. Aaron is still worried that he will not be able to read them correctly. Hannah assures Aaron that he is a good reader and will not make any mistakes, but if he does she will be right there to help him. Hannah then pounces on her little brother, tickling him to make him laugh. Their father reprimands the children for making a ruckus, and Hannah and Aaron move into opposite corners of the back seat, “staring out their windows with expressions of injured innocence.”
Later, Aaron begs Hannah to tell him a story. Hannah is a great storyteller. Inspired by a movie she had seen on television the night before, she begins “a gruesome tale about the walking dead.” Aaron is fascinated by her words, and before long the family arrives at the apartment complex where the grandparents live.
Hannah and Aaron race into the building after their father parks the car, and Aaron gets to press the elevator button because he is the youngest. When the Sterns reach the apartment on the ninth floor, Hannah is greeted first by her Aunt Rose, who tells her she is “a beautiful young lady.” Hannah goes into the bathroom to regard her brown hair and braces in the mirror, and she wonders how anyone could think she is beautiful. Hannah reflects that Aunt Rose has a tendency to exaggerate; Aunt Eva is her favorite. Hannah was even named after “some friend of Aunt Eva’s...some dead friend.”
Chapter 2 Summary
When Hannah returns to the living room, she finds the family gathered around Grandpa Will, who is watching old footage about Nazi concentration camp victims on television. As grisly images march across the screen, Grandpa shrieks furiously in both English and Yiddish, gesturing violently with his left arm, on which a five-digit number is tattooed.
When Hannah was younger, these numbers had fascinated her. Right after Aaron had been born, when “all the relatives had been making fools of themselves over him,” Hannah wanted to please Grandpa Will like the new baby did. She wrote a string of numbers on her own left arm with a ballpoint pen. To her surprise, Grandpa did not react at all as she had hoped. Instead of being happy, his face turned “gray and horrible” and he screamed at her in Yiddish, “Malach ha-mavis,” which means “Angel of Death.” The family tried to explain to Hannah why Grandpa Will reacted as he did, but Hannah could not forget the incident and never completely forgave him. Hannah never asked what the Yiddish words Grandpa had shouted so vehemently meant, but “in her dreams she seemed to know.”
This time, when the television is turned off and calm is restored, Hannah asks her mother why Grandpa Will acts so strangely. She does not understand why he cannot just forget what is past, and she is embarrassed by his behavior. Hannah compares Grandpa Will to her maternal grandfather, Grandpa Dan, who does not act like him at all. Mama reminds Hannah that, unlike Grandpa Will, Grandpa Dan did not experience the concentration camps; his family emigrated to America before World War II, and he was born in the United States.
By family tradition, Aunt Eva lights the candles when it is time to begin the Passover celebration. She does not have a house or family of her own, having never married. She has chosen to live with her brother, Will, and his wife. When Hannah had been younger, something about Aunt Eva had held an aura of specialness and magic for her, but now, sadly, she only talks to Aunt Eva about ordinary things. Still, when Aunt Eva lights the holiday candles, she takes on an ethereal beauty, and “the flickering flame [makes] her look almost young.” Every year, at this moment, Hannah feels an inexplicable bond with her favorite aunt, “as if the magic [is] still, somehow, alive.” Just before she begins reciting the traditional Hebrew prayers for the family, Aunt Eva always whispers to Hannah, “A yahrzeit for all the beloved dead, a grace for all the beloved living.” Hannah knows the words by heart and whispers them along with Aunt Eva. Aaron tries to do the same but recites out of rhythm. Hannah is annoyed and pinches him; her father reprimands her.
Chapter 3 Summary
The Seder dinner seems endless as Grandpa Will drones on and on through “endless explanations from the Haggadah.” Hannah begins to daydream, looking out the window at the full moon and thinking that tomorrow they will go to Grandpa Dan’s for the next Seder, where there will at least be other children her age in attendance. At Grandpa Dan’s house, the children will be allowed to sit at a separate table away from the grown-ups, and “sweet, gentle, silly Grandpa Dan” will tell stories in between the traditional readings that will be interesting and funny.
Next to Hannah, Aaron sits restlessly, waiting to ask the Second Question. His hands shake and a page of the Haggadah flips over; Hannah reaches over and fixes it for him, and Aaron smiles at her thankfully. At the appointed time, he chants the Second Question perfectly because he knows it by heart, but when he reads the English translation, he stumbles on a word, and Hannah gently corrects him. When Aaron reads, “Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs especially?” Hannah wonders, with a bit of anger, why indeed she must eat “disgusting” horseradish while her friend Rosemary gets to eat jelly beans instead. To her embarrassment, she finds herself crying out, “It isn’t fair!” Aunt Eva saves her by whispering, “Of course it isn’t fair...what has fair to do with it?” Aunt Eva then begins singing the song “Dayenu,” which Hannah knows means “it would have been enough.”
When it is time to share the wine, Grandpa Will insists that this year, since Hannah is almost thirteen, she should be allowed to have real wine along with the grown-ups. When Mama protests, Grandpa Will argues:
When my sister Eva was thirteen, what she would have given for a little glass of watered wine.
No one can withstand “the promise of guilt.” Hannah discovers that she likes the sweet taste of the wine, although she...
(The entire section is 684 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
Hannah turns away from the unexpected scene beyond the door, but to her horror, her family and the elegant Seder meal in the room behind her is gone. Instead, Hannah finds herself in an unfamiliar cottage furnished with a large, simple, polished table and an old black stove against the far wall. Strings of onions hang from the ceiling; the room smells of fresh-baked bread.
Disoriented, Hannah thinks for a moment that the wine is giving her daydreams, but her reverie is interrupted by the voice of a woman who demands, “Well?...Is he coming?” Thinking vaguely that she is being asked about the prophet Elijah, Hannah turns to see a woman she does not know, dressed in a dark skirt and apron and with a kerchief on her...
(The entire section is 633 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Hannah awakens early and feels her way through the unfamiliar darkness to the front door of the cottage. She opens it and sees the first signs of dawn beyond the rim of the field. She is overcome by a terrible longing for her family; it begins to seem like they exist only in a dream. Shmuel, who cannot sleep because of anticipation for his wedding day, joins Hannah, whom he calls Chaya, at the door. Hannah tries to tell Shmuel that she is not Chaya from Lublin but Hannah from New Rochelle in America—but Shmuel does not understand. Hannah accepts that to pursue her explanation is hopeless, so she decides that she has no choice but to go along with what is happening. She follows Shmuel to the barn, where they tend to the horses in...
(The entire section is 640 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
After they clean the kitchen, Gitl tells Hannah it is time to get dressed for the wedding. She proudly brings out a blue sailor-suit outfit with white piping and a blue sash that she had worn to Shmuel’s Bar Mitzvah, and which Hannah thinks is hideous. Gitl reminds Hannah that her own clothes, along with her bedding, have been burned in Lublin because the doctors said they carried disease. She promises to make Hannah some new clothes before winter comes. Gitl tells Hannah that the sailor dress is “nicer than anything any of the girls in our shtetl or Fayge’s have,” but Hannah, who thinks it is the ugliest thing she has ever seen, petulantly calls it a shmatte, or rag. Gitl scolds her but immediately apologizes for...
(The entire section is 664 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
Hannah has always been a good storyteller, and she mesmerizes her new friends by recounting the tales behind all the movies and books she can think of. As they walk through the woods with the wedding party, Rachel, Esther, Shifre, and Yente jostle each other to be next to Hannah as she tells them about Yentl, Conan the Barbarian, Fiddler on the Roof, and Little Women. In New Rochelle, Hannah had never been very popular, but here, as Chaya, she is suddenly “the most popular girl on the block.” Enjoying her newfound status, she is not about to spoil things by trying to convince her friends that she is someone else.
Hannah is recounting the story of Hansel and Gretel when...
(The entire section is 457 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
Now that the people from the villages of both the bride and groom have joined together, the forest is filled with noisy, happy voices. Hannah hangs back, trying to recall her home in New Rochelle, but her memories seem to be fading. Gitl comes over and takes Hannah by the arm, leading her to a wagon on which sit two people, a dour, older man who is clearly a Rabbi and a young lady dressed all in white, “the most beautiful woman Hannah [has] ever seen.” The woman, Shmuel’s bride-to-be, Fayge, is wearing gold rings on her fingers and long, dangling earrings; her jet black, curly hair is topped by an elegantly beaded headdress. Hannah is at first intimidated by Fayge’s regal bearing and “fierce, piercing look,” but the...
(The entire section is 536 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
As the people wait to be let into the synagogue, the Rabbi, Shmuel, and another man speak with the Nazi leader. When the exchange is over, the Rabbi tells the villagers that the Nazis are insisting that everyone accompany them in the trucks. Shmuel explains that the Jews are being resettled as part of a government policy. Several of the men begin to argue, and when their tone becomes belligerent, Shmuel grimly reminds them to be careful because the Nazis are all armed. Fayge plaintively asks, “What about our wedding?” Shmuel reassures her that they will be married, at least in God’s sight.
Hannah suddenly interjects, predicting that the Nazis will put them all into concentration camps and kill them in gas ovens....
(The entire section is 648 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
The trucks carrying the villagers finally arrive at a train station. Armed guards stand in front of the station house; two wooden boxcars squat nearby. The trucks roll to a stop, and the passengers are ordered to get out. When they hesitate, the soldiers raise their guns. Shmuel is the first to leap down off the truck, and the other men quickly follow his example, reaching up to help the women and children disembark.
Fayge’s beautiful wedding dress is torn on an exposed nail, and she begins to cry uncontrollably. The people notice piles of baskets and bags abandoned along the tracks, and many of these are recognized as having belonged to family members. As their sense of foreboding grows, the Jews are told by the...
(The entire section is 673 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
The boxcars travel ceaselessly for four days and four nights, except for two brief stops along the way. The first stop is at Troniat, where the doors of the boxcar carrying Hannah and her family are thrown open and the people are allowed to get out. A number of individuals have died on the journey, and the soldiers throw their bodies onto a siding. A bucket of trough water is passed around, and the prisoners struggle to get at least a mouthful of the filthy liquid. Feeble poundings can be heard coming from the second boxcar, but the soldiers pay them no heed. At the second stop, the process is reversed; the boxcar carrying Hannah and her family remains closed but those in the second boxcar are allowed to have a drink and a brief...
(The entire section is 693 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
The women wait, naked and cold, for the barber to finish with everyone. Hannah wonders idly what she looks like now but decides not to think about it. She instinctively senses that here “thinking [is] dangerous...in this place she [should] not think, only do.” After a long while, the woman in the blue dress returns and hurries them into the next room, where there are several long tables piled high with ragged clothes. Hannah notices that the woman has only three fingers on her right hand, and she takes the hand of one of the children, Yitzchak’s daughter, Tzipporah.
The prisoners are ordered to quickly choose something to wear from the piles of soiled clothing. Hannah picks up a gray dress with a “ragged rip...
(The entire section is 629 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
In the morning, Hannah awakens to the sound of a "bellowing horn." She sits up, hits her head on the shelf above her, and suddenly remembers “the trip in the cattle car... the tattoo, the shorn hair.” Looking around, Hannah sees the other women emerging sleepily from their bunks in the stark barracks.
The door to the building opens and a guard shouts at the prisoners that if they want to eat, they must get in line quickly. Hannah stands and sees Gitl bending over one of the lowest shelves. Something in Gitl’s demeanor draws Hannah over to her; curled on the shelf before them lies little Tzipporah, with her finger still in her mouth, dead. When Hannah, not fully realizing that the child is gone, reaches in to touch...
(The entire section is 530 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
That evening, Hannah, Esther, and Shifre meet with Rivka, who assures them that they have little to fear in the night and that in their terrifying new environment, if they are alive “now, this minute, it is enough.” Rivka has been in the camp for a year, and her only surviving family member is her brother Wolfe, who, forced to do work that is horrid beyond belief, is a “Sonderdommando, one of the walking dead.”
Rivka says that a “brutal arithmetic” prevails within the camp. The Angel of Death is all-powerful, but he can be eluded if an individual follows certain rules. Rivka shows the girls the number tattooed on her arm, J18202. She says:
J because I am... a...
(The entire section is 677 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
The Commandant arrives the next morning after roll call, and the women immediately begin making “a penetrating clucking noise” with their tongues. Hannah watches in amazement as children come scrambling from all directions, shedding their clothes and diving into the midden. Catching sight of a forgotten baby cradled in a washtub, Hannah instinctively runs to grab the child and flees with it into the garbage pile. When the all-clear signal finally comes, the child’s mother scolds Hannah for not taking her child’s clothes off before submerging her in the midden, but Rivka reminds her that Hannah has saved the baby’s life. Chastened, the mother goes to organize some water so both Hannah and the baby can be cleaned up....
(The entire section is 658 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
After a while, even the dreaded Choosings become routine. Hannah learns that by following certain rules, such as not standing too near the Greeks and not drawing attention to herself by annoying the blokova or working too slowly, she improves her chances of not being Chosen significantly. A part of Hannah is revolted by the “insanity of the rules,” but another part of her is thankful because they help her to stay alive and to understand her bizarre universe. Gitl calls the whole system “the Devil’s Arithmetic.”
During a conversation with Shifre about their favorite foods, Hannah realizes that she remembers very little now about her life before coming to the camp. She starts to weep, and Rivka, who is passing...
(The entire section is 666 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
One night, Gitl creeps onto Hannah’s sleeping shelf and whispers to her that there is an escape plan being developed and that she, Shmuel, and Yitzchak are involved. Gitl is sharing this information with Hannah because she is their “only flesh and blood...[and] link to the past.” If something should happen to them, it will be up to Hannah to remember and to keep alive the legacy of their courage and their fate. Hannah promises that she will do this and asks about the plan. Gitl will give her no details, telling Hannah only that when the time comes, she will know.
Hannah asks if Yitzchak is participating in the dangerous scheme because of what has happened to Reuven, and Gitl says he is; now that his children are...
(The entire section is 479 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
The sky is a brilliant blue and the birds are singing merrily, which creates a chillingly incongruous backdrop to roll call the next morning. The Commandant is in attendance, and six men in chains are lined up before him. One of them is Shmuel and another is the violinist in the klezmer band; all the men have been beaten badly, but Hannah notes immediately that Yitzchak is not among them.
The Commandant announces to the assembly that the six men have tried to escape, and he emphasizes the foolishness of their undertaking: the camp is located in a desolate area, and they would have had nowhere to go. The Commandant laments that he has been too lenient on the prisoners. He has been told repeatedly that he should have...
(The entire section is 690 words.)
Chapter 19 and Epilogue Summary
When the darkness of the cave of death resolves itself, Hannah finds herself staring at an apartment door across an empty hallway. Shifre and Esther are gone, and when Hannah turns to look behind her, she is startled to see her family waiting expectantly at a table set decorously and piled high with food. The old man at the head of the table asks Hannah, “Is he coming?” Hannah looks back at the empty hallway and whispers, “There’s no one there.”
Another of the men at the table calls Hannah to come back in, and she goes to sit by her Aunt Eva, in the chair reserved for the prophet Elijah. All the grown-ups raise their glasses in a toast to life, “L’chaim,” and when Hannah turns to Aunt Eva, she...
(The entire section is 524 words.)