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 11 Summary

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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, they have no choice but to obey. Hannah, remembering what she has learned in school, protests to the others, telling them, “There are no showers. There are only the gas ovens.” Esther begs Hannah to stop trying to frighten them, and Gitl tells Hannah that she should allow them to just “live moment by moment.” Hannah is at first angry but soon realizes that her knowledge of the future can do nothing for them except take away all hope and intensify their misery.

As the women wait in the freezing room, Hannah asks Esther where Rachel is—and discovers that her friend has died. A young soldier comes in and sends everyone into the showers. The water is icy cold, but Hannah is grateful for it and drinks deeply as she bathes. When the water is turned off, the women are sent back into the waiting room without towels to dry themselves. A barber, who is also a prisoner, comes in and clumsily shaves the hair from all their heads. When it is Hannah’s turn, she closes her eyes and tries to think about what will happen next, but she can no longer remember. It is as if her memory is being shorn from her along with her hair.

When the barber is finished, Hannah looks around at the others and finds that everyone looks the same. Sobbing, she cries out for Gitl, who puts her arms around her to comfort her. Gitl makes Hannah promise that she “will cry no more before these monsters,” and Hannah agrees, drawing strength from her resolve.

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