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.)