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 12 Summary

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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 pillows, but when Hannah helps little Tzipporah onto one of the lower shelves, the child curls into a fetal position with her thumb still in her mouth and lies still. Hannah’s stomach rumbles loudly, causing Gitl, who is standing near her, to laugh uproariously. When Hannah asks how she can laugh, Gitl responds, “Without laughter, there is no hope. Without hope, there is no life.” Gitl then goes to the door and asks a guard if there is any food available, as the children have had nothing to eat for days. The guard callously replies, “They will get used to it.” Then he points to a thin line of smoke coming from a distant building and chillingly adds: “That’s Jew smoke! Learn to eat when it’s given to you . . . or you, too, go up that stack.”

Gitl turns back to where the women and children are lying in the barracks, “as still as corpses.” She touches Hannah gently, telling her, “Go to sleep, Chaya.” When Hannah replies darkly that she is now J197241, Gitl tells her that she is a name, not a number, and that she must never forget this, no matter what happens.

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Chapter 11 Summary


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