illustration of main character Hannah opening a door which leads to a barbed wire fence

The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

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Chapter 10 Summary

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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 facedown 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 standing against the walls of the boxcar are able to see glimpses of the unfamiliar countryside flashing by. At one point, the train passes a group of peasants who gesture by running their fingers across their throats. Their cruelty and indifference instigate a rash of grisly storytelling among the prisoners in the boxcar. One man recalls hearing that in a nearby village the Jews were forced to lie packed together in trenches, where they were systematically slaughtered with machine guns. Another tells of an incident in which a Jewish doctor was dragged off in the middle of an operation and subsequently killed with his own instruments in front of his family. Hannah tries to affirm that what the men are saying is true, but Gitl silences her, and the rabbi dismisses the stories as simply “rumors and gossip.” The morbid tales continue nonetheless, and dark, ironic jokes are made about some of the details. When Hannah asks Gitl how people can laugh about such things, Gitl responds:

We Jews . . . joke about death because what you laugh at and make familiar can no longer frighten you. Besides . . . what else is there to do?

Finally, a woman cries out for the storytelling to stop, saying that her child “is senseless with all [the] talk.” Another woman takes the child from her, hoping to relieve her for a while, but quickly exclaims in horror that the child is dead. As the women pray, Hannah weeps.

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