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.
(The entire section is 86 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Devil's Arithmetic Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
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...
(The entire section is 443 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 468 words.)
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 admits that it makes her head buzz a little.
After the toasts, it is time for Aaron, as the youngest child, to steal the afikoman, a matzoh wrapped in an embroidered cloth. He crawls around the table and finds the bread under Grandpa Will’s chair, then runs from the room to hide it from the others. With a sigh, Mama begins to explain the symbolism of the game, which is to uncover “the hidden order of the universe,” but Aunt Eva tactfully stops her, telling her that 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 head. The woman is standing at a low table, pounding bread dough. Hannah is further disconcerted when she realizes that the woman is speaking Yiddish, a language she has never been able to understand, but which for some reason is now clearly decipherable to her. The woman asks again, “Is Shmuel coming or not?” and Hannah looks out the door to see a tall, handsome man with a thick, black beard coming toward the house. He is whistling the familiar song “Dayenu.” Hannah concludes that she must be in “a dream or an elaborate game” and decides to be a good sport and play along.
Hannah tells the woman, who is apparently her Aunt Gitl, that Shmuel is coming. Gitl tells her to set the table. Hannah discovers through Gitl’s running commentary that, in this strange world, she is Gitl and Shmuel’s niece Chaya, who has come to live with them after having survived a terrible fever that has killed her parents in the big city of Lublin. Coincidentally, Chaya is Hannah’s Hebrew name, given to her in honor of Aunt Eva’s dead friend.
When Shmuel, who is getting married the next day, comes into the house, he gives Hannah (Chaya) a big hug. Gitl scolds him, telling him that the child is still recovering from her illness, and gruffly orders him to bathe because he has just come in from the fields. In the light-hearted, teasing exchange that ensues, Hannah learns that Yitzchak the butcher, who has two young children, has asked Gitl to marry him, but Gitl, calling him “a monster,” has so far refused. Shmuel badgers her, accusing her of waiting for another man, Avrom Morovitz, who has gone to America after promising to send for her but who never writes.
Hannah looks on silently, trying to...
(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 “companionable silence.”
At breakfast, Hannah, who is used to having cereal or doughnuts or white bread for toast, is disappointed when Gitl places only a jug of milk, some coffee, and a loaf of dark bread on the table. She pours herself a glass of milk but chokes on it when she discovers that bits of cream are floating in it; it is fresh from the cow. Shmuel does not eat, claiming that he is keeping the traditional groom’s wedding fast; Gitl teases him, saying that he is not eating because he is so nervous.
There is a knock at the door, and Hannah hopes for a moment that it is her mother or father or Aunt Eva coming to get her. Instead, Gitl opens the door to a man “with shoulders as wide as the door itself, wiry red hair, and a bushy red beard.” The visitor is Yitzchak, the butcher, whom Shmuel greets heartily, inviting him in and introducing him to their newly arrived niece, Chaya. Yitzchak has brought some chickens as a gift for the wedding couple.
Gitl is gruff toward Yitzchak, who is seeking her hand in marriage. She grudgingly serves him coffee and, with annoyance, wipes up after him when he spills a little on the table. Yitzchak asks if he should leave the chickens there at the cottage or load them in the wagon with the other gifts to be taken to the ceremony. Gitl tells him they will take the chickens so that the bride’s family in Viosk “will not think [they] do not honor [their] own.” Shmuel laughs and explains to Yitzchak that he and his new bride, Fayge, will be returning that night to stay alone in the cottage while Gitl and Chaya remain in Viosk and come home in the morning to allow them some privacy. Gitl chides Shmuel, warning him not to go into detail...
(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 her harshness when she sees the hurt look on Hannah’s face.
Hannah puts on the dress, a pair of heavy cotton stockings, and shiny black shoes. Gitl then braids her hair into two tight plaits, fastening the ends at the top of her head like a crown with a pair of blue velvet ribbons she has been saving for her own wedding day. Hannah looks in the mirror and notes that though her braces are gone, the girl who stares back at her has “the same slightly crooked smile, the same brown hair, the same gray eyes as Hannah Stern of New Rochelle, New York, in America.” Hannah is now Chaya Abramowicz, in another time and place, and there is “something haunting” about her image in the mirror.
By noon, a lively crowd has gathered to accompany the groom to the wedding site. Gitl scurries around busily while Hannah shyly goes to where the men are smoking and laughing to stand by Shmuel, who is the only other person she knows. To her embarrassment, Yitzchak shoos her away from the group, and when she turns around, she finds herself face to face with a young girl with distinctive green eyes. The girl introduces herself as Rachel and says, “So—you are Lublin Chaya,” and calls over to a group of others their age. Three of these girls come running; they have all heard about Chaya and have been looking for her because Gitl promised that they would meet her at the wedding. Rachel introduces the others as Shifre, Esther, and Yente and declares that she is going to be Chaya’s best friend.
Hannah tells Rachel that she already has a best friend, Rosemary, and the girls, recognizing that Rosemary is “a goyish name,” are scandalized that Hannah has a friend who is not a Jew. Hannah, who senses...
(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 her attention is redirected by the high, wailing sound of a clarinet. Yente, who loves music, exclaims, “The klezmer.... We are almost there!” The villagers begin to travel faster in excited anticipation, and soon the sound of a violin can be heard as well. At a bend in the forest path, the klezmer band, which includes an accordion, comes into view. Shmuel, Yitzchak, and the other men come forward, dancing with abandon. The women, watching from the sidelines, begin to sing. Although Hannah does not know the words, she finds herself singing—“the words stumbling out as if her mouth remembered what her mind did not.” Rachel suddenly cries out that Fayge’s people have even brought a badchan, a tall, skinny man whose job it is “to make up rhymes, sing songs... [and] tell fortunes.” The girls speculate that Fayge’s father must be very rich to have been able to hire a badchan, and they wonder why a girl with such a privileged background would marry someone like Shmuel, who is neither wealthy nor learned. Rachel has heard that Fayge, who is spoiled and always gets what she wants, simply “saw Shmuel and fell in love.” Hannah is surprised to learn that in the village, where the people follow the old traditions, a woman expects to marry a man picked out for her by her parents and a marriage broker; it is almost scandalous to imagine that a woman might marry for love.
Hannah observes the badchan as he moves from group to group, leaving the people laughing uproariously. When he gets to Hannah, he sings with uncanny insightfulness:
Pretty girl, with faraway eyes,
Why do you look with such surprise?
How did you get to be so wise,
(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 young woman reaches down to Hannah almost shyly and invites her to join her on the wagon. Fayge compliments Hannah on the dress she is wearing, and Gitl whispers to her niece triumphantly, “I will not say I told you so...but I did.”
The procession resumes, and Hannah’s new friends dance by the side of the wagon, singing the “Sherele,” a wedding song with incongruously gloomy words. Fayge tells Hannah that she has always hated the “Sherele” and promises that at the wedding itself they will sing and dance to other, more fitting songs all night long. As the wagon bumps along, Fayge confides to Hannah that, for some inexplicable reason, a part of her is apprehensive about marrying her “beloved Shmuel.” Hannah laughs and tells Fayge that Shmuel said the same thing to her that morning.
When Hannah looks ahead again, she sees the village of Viosk at the far end of the meadow: small, neat houses “nestled in a line” with larger buildings standing behind them. The wagons are nearing a central market area with stalls when Fayge notices a group of old automobiles and military vehicles parked in front of the synagogue; she asks her father what they are doing there. The crowd falls silent as they, too, become aware of the interlopers, and Hannah experiences a vague feeling of familiarity and dread. As the crowd slowly approaches the synagogue, uniformed men emerge from the vehicles. The badchan points to one of them and cries out, “I see the malach ha-mavis... the Angel of Death.” Hannah suddenly recalls that her Grandpa Will had once shouted those words at her when she had drawn a string of numbers on her arm as a child. Filled with foreboding, she asks what year it is, and 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. Fayge protests, telling Hannah that her words will call the Angel of Death down upon them. Gitl defends her niece, telling Fayge that Hannah is a child who has only recently recovered from a very serious illness and who under the best of conditions has “too much imagination and stories filling her head.” Rachel says that Hannah had just that morning told them a story called Hansel and Gretel, in which a witch throws children into an oven. Though Hannah insists that what she is saying now is no fairytale, her words are dismissed as the capricious creation of a child’s fanciful mind.
Gitl then asks Fayge kindly why her mother, grandmother, and other relatives are not there at the village to greet them, and Shmuel reveals that, according to the Nazi colonel, they have all been sent for resettlement already. As the people argue about what they should do, the Rabbi steps forward, counseling submission, as they “have no choice in the matter.” The Nazi leader assures the crowd that all their needs will be taken care of in their new homes and that “anyone who wants to work will be treated humanely.” He tells the Jews that they will be happy among their own people, but the badchan murmurs ominously, “The snake smiles but it shows no teeth.” Several in the crowd continue to voice their misgivings, but the Rabbi is immovable. He says he has been told that the war is almost over and that the people will not be kept from their homes in Viosk for long. Again, the badchan mutters darkly, “How long is eternity?”
The people climb into the trucks in their family groups. Shmuel holds Fayge’s hand tightly, despite the disapproving looks of her father the Rabbi. The trucks are packed so...
(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 Nazis, “Do what you are told and no one will be hurt.”
The villagers are ordered to lie face down on the ground, and when they do not comply quickly enough, an officer fires a shot from his pistol into the ground at the feet of one of the men. When the people are lying prone as directed, soldiers circulate among them, taking all jewelry and valuables “for safekeeping.” Lying on her stomach, Hannah sees large boots passing by her head and hears the sound of quiet whimpering and the “low undercurrent of men’s voices...praying.”
After a long while, the Jews are allowed to stand up again. Hannah notices that there is a red mark around Gitl’s neck where a necklace was torn off. Fayge’s earrings and headdress are gone, and several men are bruised and bleeding. The people are herded toward the stationary boxcars, and they proceed “silently, almost willingly, eager to be as far from the... soldiers’ guns as they [can].”
Hannah at first cannot believe that all the people will fit into the two boxcars, but they are roughly shoved in, the older people first. When they are packed in so tightly that Hannah cannot move at all, the doors are pushed shut and bolted from the outside. Women begin to scream, and those near the door hammer against it with their fists, but no one heeds them. After awhile, exhausted, the people fall silent in the hot, airless darkness. A train engine bumps against the boxcars. Hannah knows where they will be taken and pleads with the Rabbi that they “must do something,” but the Rabbi demurs, saying that all they can do now is pray, for they are in God’s hands.
As the train progresses on its interminable journey, those lucky enough to be...
(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 respite.
On the fourth day, the train finally stops and the prisoners disembark. As they stand bewildered in the early morning light, Hannah notes that everyone is significantly weakened. Gitl supports Fayge, who is “as pale as paper,” and Yitzchak carries his children, who lie motionless in his arms. Many more have died since the stop at Troniat, and their bodies are left in the boxcar.
The prisoners are directed toward an area of low barracks surrounded by barbed wire at the bottom of a steep embankment. On a wrought-iron gate at the front of the buildings is a sign that reads, “ARBEIT MACHT FREI.” The Rabbi, who cannot see the sign clearly, asks what it says, and Hannah answers bitterly, “Work makes you free.” The Rabbi tells his people, “See... we are in God’s hands. We are not afraid of work,” but the badchan whispers, “This is the Devil’s work, not God’s.”
The soldiers separate the men from the women at the bottom of the embankment. Yitzchak’s children are torn from his arms and sent with the women; little Reuven whimpers but Tzipporah is silent. In a stark barracks room, the women are addressed by a woman in a blue dress who is a prisoner but is clearly in charge. She informs the newcomers that they are “the lowest of the low” and that the first lesson they must learn is “not to call attention to [them]selves.” In addition, they must always obey immediately and without question. The woman sees Hannah’s hair ribbons and demands them for herself; when Hannah refuses, she slaps her into submission.
The women are taken into another room, where they are ordered to undress in preparation for a shower; despite their humiliation,...
(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 along the hem and deep perspiration stains under the arms.” Remembering with regret how she had called the dark blue dress Gitl had given her to wear for the wedding a rag, she pulls the disgusting garment over her head. Gitl whispers to Hannah, “Help the children,” and Hannah finds a blouse and jumper that looks like it might fit Tzipporah, who sways with her thumb in her mouth. The child is unresponsive, and Hannah has to dress her as if she were a doll.
The women are brought into yet another room, where they are made to line up single file. An old, shaven-headed male prisoner with “an odd-looking metal instrument” is sitting at a table and writes a string of numbers on each woman’s arm. A memory flashes through Hannah’s mind about an old man with similar numbers on his arm, crying out angrily. Sadly, she cannot remember who he is or at whom he is shouting.
When Hannah arrives at the front of the line, the prisoner asks for her name, but she cannot remember it. Gitl, who is standing behind her, whispers, “Chaya. Chaya Abramowicz,” and Hannah repeats the name, although it does not feel like it is hers. The man looks at Hannah with “the saddest eyes she’d ever seen.” He tells her that the dress she is wearing had belonged to his daughter, whose name is also Chaya. As he burns the number J197241 onto her arm, he admonishes her to remember it and reminds her that her name, Chaya, means life. The prisoner then tells Hannah that she must “live... and remember.”
After they have received their numbers, the women are returned to the barracks, in which sleeping shelves, “like triple bunk beds,” are stacked from floor to ceiling. There are neither blankets nor...
(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 her, Gitl orders her not to and slaps her; she then embraces Hannah with such force that Hannah gasps. Gitl sobs brokenly that she will have to tell Yitzchak that his daughter is dead, but she does not know how she will be able to do it.
Gitl’s eyes are dry by the time she and Hannah leave the barracks. The others are already lined up to eat, even Fayge, who is being helped by one of the women from her village. At the first table they come to, a young girl with deep-set brown eyes gives them each a metal bowl. The girl patiently warns them that they must take special care of their bowls, which will be used for eating, drinking, and washing; if they are lost, they cannot be replaced. The girl, who looks no more than ten years old, introduces herself as Rivka and tells Hannah and a few others that if they will meet her after supper, she will tell them how to survive in this terrible place. Hannah nods and receives her ration of watery potato soup and a small slab of dark bread. Famished, she consumes her meager portion in an instant.
After the meal, the three-fingered woman lines the newcomers up with a liberal dose of slaps, pushes, and verbal abuse. She addresses them briefly, and then a man in a uniform adorned with medals takes her place in front of the group. After surveying the prisoners for a long while, the officer states succinctly:
You will have discipline...you will work hard...you will never answer back, complain, or question...you will do it, or you will die.
The three-fingered woman then begins to tell the prisoners what they can expect each day. As she speaks on and on, Hannah’s attention begins to wander; she feels as if...
(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 Jew... 1... because I am alone... 8 is for my family because there were eight of us... 2 because that is all that are left now, me and Wolfe, who believes himself to be a 0... and when... this is over, we will be 2 again... God will allow it.
Hannah protests darkly that God is not there, saying that the camp is the Devil’s place, but Rivka insists that God is there too and that their job is to stay alive.
Rivka knows what they must do to achieve this. She begins by explaining the first rule of survival, which is the importance of knowing their numbers and those of others. The girls must also learn what the numbers mean. They must never stand next to someone with a G in her number because that person is a Greek. Greek Jews do not understand Yiddish or German and so cannot react quickly enough to commands; they are more likely to be chosen for extermination because of this, as is anyone unlucky enough to be associated with them. Conversely, those whose numbers are lower have been at the camp for a comparatively long time, and thus are familiar with the rules of survival. They are likely to know how to organize, or secure necessities for the prisoners, such as shoes, sweaters, and medical supplies.
Another particularly difficult thing the girls will have to learn if they want to stay alive is to “let people go” who have given up on life. In trying to save someone who has chosen not to endure any longer, one stands a very great chance of losing her own life as well. The prisoners must never go near the large wooden fence with “a black handleless door” which lies at one end of the compound. Beyond the...
(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.
As she tries to get the stench of the midden out of her dress that night with a meager cup of liquid, Hannah understands why the children had all left their clothes behind when diving into the dump. Hannah had been worried that the scattered clothing would alert the soldiers, but apparently the Nazis know exactly what is going on and choose to look the other way, making the whole procedure nothing more than “an awful game.”
The days become routine, following an unchangeable pattern of “roll call, breakfast, work, lunch, work, supper, work.” Hannah and Shifre are assigned to the kitchen with Rivka; they find their jobs to be repetitive but not without reward. Sometimes the girls are able to get a bit of extra food for themselves while scraping the pots and pans. Hannah later learns that Rivka has bribed the blokova, or woman in charge, to secure for them these coveted positions. When she tries to thank her friend, Rivka says gently, “Keep your thanks. And hand it on.”
Hannah does indeed try to pass on the kindness shown to her by saving some of her food for little Reuven each day. Gitl, however, scolds her, telling Hannah that she also is a growing girl and must take care of herself. Later, Hannah sees Gitl giving Reuven some of her own portion.
One cool day, the Commandant comes to the camp for a dreaded “Choosing.” Rivka explains that “anyone who cannot get out of bed...will be chosen...for processing because they cannot work.” When Hannah bitterly corrects Rivka, saying that they are actually being chosen for death, Rivka warns her that she must never be overheard using such words. The Nazis use euphemisms to describe their dastardly actions because...
(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 by, admonishes her that she must not let the blokova see her crying. Hannah begins an angry retort but stops herself because criticizing the blokova is a dangerous habit that might lead to being Chosen. Rivka lightens the mood by revealing that the blokova is punished by having a finger cut off every time she loses control of her prisoners. She lost her first finger when a group of newcomers rioted, and she lost the second when six women hanged themselves; if she loses control of her charges again, she will lose yet another finger. When Shifre facetiously suggests that maybe they should do something to “help the blokova balance her hand,” Rivka says it is too dangerous and that any planning of this sort should be left to the grown-ups.
The girls’ conversation is interrupted by a shout announcing that the Commandant is coming. The women begin their desperate clucking, and the children run from everywhere into the garbage pile. Just when the Commandant’s car arrives, the hospital door opens and Reuven emerges with a bandage on his knee. Hannah screams at him to run to the midden, but the child is bewildered and remains frozen where he stands.
The Commandant gets out of his car and walks toward Reuven. Reuven will not look at him, but he reaches his hand out to Hannah with big tears running down his cheeks. Hannah moves toward him but Rivka jerks her back; there is nothing she can do for him now.
The Commandant picks Reuven up with sinister tenderness, asking him where his mother is. Ignoring Rivka’s whispered warnings, Hannah calls out that Reuven’s mother is dead. The Commandant looks at Hannah and asks if she is his sister, and Hannah shakes her head. The Commandant...
(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 dead, he has nothing left. When Hannah asks why she and Shmuel are taking part, Gitl says, “If not us, who? If not now, when?” Hannah has a vague sense that she has heard these words before, and Gitl assures her that she will hear them again.
Days go by and nothing out of the ordinary happens. Transports arrive frequently but their members are sent straight to the ovens, and the skies glow luridly with a perpetual smoky redness. Ironically, the situation has the effect of calming the prisoners in the camp. In the skewed calculations of the Devil’s Arithmetic, the people feel that as long as others are dying they will remain safe.
When the plan is finally to be undertaken, there is no warning, and Hannah is taken by surprise. In the dead of night, Gitl grabs her from behind, covering her mouth and whispering, “Chaya, it is now.” Gitl shoves a pair of shoes into Hannah’s hands and instructs her to follow her outside; they are to meet the others behind the midden. Hannah hesitates a moment, asking about Fayge, but Gitl tells her that Fayge has chosen to stay behind, preferring “the dark wolf she knows to the dark one she does not.”
A dog barks, and Gitl pulls Hannah back against the barracks wall. Suddenly there is a shout and the sound of shooting; a man begins to scream, “high-pitched and horrible.” Gitl whispers in desperation to Hannah, “It is ruined,” and drags her back to safety in the barracks. The two of them squeeze into the same sleeping shelf, and Hannah can feel Gitl shaking with great, silent sobs.
As she lies there in the darkness, a horrible thought occurs to Hannah. In the confused rush outside she has left behind the shoes Gitl had...
(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 exterminated them all upon their arrival as part of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.”
An undercurrent of moaning arises from the assembly as the six shackled men are moved in front of a wall. The Commandant calls for silence, telling the people ominously that if they are quiet they will be allowed to watch. The prisoners comply—not because they want to watch but because they want to bear witness and because they have no other choice.
The six men are left standing or sitting in front of the wall, facing the assembly. The violinist raises his voice in defiant prayer, and all the other men except Shmuel join him. Shmuel looks over the crowd with “a strange smile” on his face until at last he sees the person he is seeking, and he calls out, “Fayge!” With a “loud wail,” Fayge pushes her way forward and falls at Shmuel’s feet. Looking up at her beloved, she declares, “The sky is our canopy.” As Shmuel bends to kiss her head, the guns roar, and the grisly wedding is consummated.
Ten Kommandos come out of the cave of death to take away the bodies of the executed. One of them, who is “hardly more than a boy,” picks Fayge up in his arms and carries her away almost tenderly; Rivka whispers “to no one in particular” that the boy is her brother, Wolfe. The blokova comes forward and frantically harasses the women to get to work; her hand is wrapped in bandages, stained with fresh blood.
As they hurry to the kitchen, Hannah shares with Gitl her observation that Yitzchak had not been among the prisoners executed, bestowing on her “a measure of hope.” Hannah envisions Yitzchak racing into the dark forest to freedom and “smile[s] with the...
(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 notices the numbers tattooed on her arm. As the others return to their dinner conversation, Aunt Eva, seeing Hannah’s interest, offers to tell her about the numbers, but Hannah responds quietly, “No...please, let me explain it to you.” As Aunt Eva listens in astonishment, Hannah recites:
J is for Jew...and 1 because you were alone...8...had been in your family, though [only] 2 of them [were] alive...your brother was a Kommando, forced to tend the ovens, to handle the dead, so he thought he was a 0...you said that when things were over, you would be 2 again forever, J18202.
Aunt Eva closes her eyes for a moment, remembering, as Hannah realizes that her brother, Uncle Will, must have been Wolfe, the young man who carried away Fayge’s body. As Hannah sits in silence, trying to make sense of what has happened, Aunt Eva tells her that after the war, she and Wolfe came to America and changed their names in an attempt to forget what was too painful to remember, only to find that “to forget was impossible.” Aunt Eva tells Hannah what she already knows—that she had been called Rivka. Hannah replies, in a voice loud enough to silence the whole table, “I remember...oh...I remember.”
Some time later, when they are alone, Aunt Eva tells Hannah “the end of the story.” Of the villagers with whom Chaya had come to the camp, only two survived—Yitzchak, who had indeed escaped to join the partisans, and Gitl, who had insisted on sharing her meager rations with the children throughout their time in captivity and weighed only seventy-three pounds when she was finally freed. Rivka and the baby Chaya...
(The entire section is 524 words.)