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The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

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In the novel The Devil's Arithmetic, where do Gitl and Shmuel live?

In Jane Yolan's The Devil's Arithmetic, Gitl and Shmuel live in an unnamed shtetl, a Jewish village, in rural Poland.

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In real life, a shtetl is a small Jewish community in Eastern Europe. In The Devil's Arithmetic, the main character, Hannah, goes back in time, as Chaya, and meets her aunt and uncle, Gitl and Shmuel, who live in one of these shtetls. However, the author never chooses to name the specific shtetl they live in, because she wants it to represent the Jewish small town as a way of life. While, historically, each shtetl was unique and had its own distinct culture, the Jewish shtetl in general represents a small, safe community for Jews to live and practice freely, the kind of community which disappeared after the Holocaust and industrialization.

The setting of Gitl and Shmuel's shtetl also serves as a stark contrast to where both modern Hannah and her alter ego Chaya are from in the story. When Hannah is Chaya, she has come from Lublin, Poland, which is a big city compared to the shtetl. Her aunt and uncle are surprised by how she acts, and they think she knows too much for her age, blaming this on the fact that she came from a city. The real Hannah tries to explain to them that her odd, modern ways come from the fact that she is really from New Rochelle in America, which they quickly dismiss as nonsense. The setting of the shtetl in the novel symbolizes the Jewish traditional small towns which were destroyed after the Holocaust.

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When Hannah gets transported to another time and place during the Seder, she meets Gitl and Schmuel. Gitl and Shmuel are brother and sister, and aunt and uncle to Chaya. Chaya is Hannah’s Hebrew name. Gitl and Shmuel live in a shtetl in the country in Poland. Shtetls are “the small villages in which Jews lived for centuries in Eastern Europe” (Source 1). When Chaya’s parents married, they moved to the city of Lublin, which is located in Eastern Europe. Her parents died there of disease, and Chaya was very ill for a long period of time. Gitl says,

"I swear, Shmuel, city living does damage to the soul. When our brother Moishe and his wife—may they rest in peace—left for Lublin, they had happy souls” (pg 29).

The name of the village where Gitl and Shmuel live is never specifically mentioned; the characters just refer to it as “our shtetl.” On her first day in the other world, Schmuel is getting married to Fayge, and they have to travel to her village of Viosk for the wedding ceremony. Viosk no longer exists, but you will find Lublin, the city, on the map and may visit there today. The article below documents the structure of the shtetls. It also says,

"And while shtetl life was inexorably changed by industrialization and modernization, it was destroyed by the Holocaust. Thus, shtetl life is sanctified with an aura of martyrdom" (See Source 1).

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Where do Gitl and Shmuel live in The Devil's Arithmetic?

In The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolan, the young Jewish American girl Hannah Stern travels back in time...

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to the 1940s. She finds herself in the home of her aunt and uncle, Gitl and Shmuel, who are sister and brother. Gitl and Shmuel live in rural Poland in a Jewish community called ashtetl.

We are not told the actual name of the shtetl, for it is meant to represent the typical Jewish village, but the characters in the novel clearly love their community very much, continually referring to it as "our shtetl." It is, for the residents, a place of security, a comfortable home. Certainly there is much work to do, but there are also family members, friends, religious observances, and traditional customs that bring happiness and peace to life.

In fact, those who leave the shtetl are pitied by those who remain behind. Hannah discovers that in Poland, her name is Chaya and her parents are dead. They had moved to Lublin, a city in Eastern Poland, after their marriage, and Gitl declares that "city living does damage to the soul." It also exposes people to a greater risk for diseases, like the one that killed Chaya's parents.

As the story progresses, Gitl, Shmuel, Hannah/Chaya, and many of their neighbors are rounded up by the Nazis and transported to a concentration camp. The members of the shtetl try their best to remain together and support each other. Some, including Shmuel, even die together during an escape attempt.

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