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 14 Summary

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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 door is the “cave of death,” and those who pass through will never return. A final rule that must be learned is the midden, or garbage dump. Children under fourteen are not allowed in the camp, but the Nazis ignore this regulation as long as they do not actually see the children. When the commandant comes for an inspection, the women join together in making a clicking sound, which alerts all the children that they must hide in the midden, a place where the Germans will never look.

The girls go with Rivka back to her barracks, where the resourceful young girl pulls a box of shoes she has organized from under her sleeping shelf. She finds three pairs that might fit her new friends, then asks them to tell her their names. Hannah whispers, “Chaya,” then explains her number as Rivka has shown them. She says:

J for Jew . . . and 1 for me, alone . . . 9 in English is pronounced . . . like the German word for no . . . No, I will not die here . . . 7 is for . . . every day of the week I stay alive . . . 2 for Gitl and Shmuel . . . 4 for . . . my family . . . and 1 . . . because I am all alone . . . in this place . . . in this time.

In the middle of her recitation, Hannah frets because she cannot quite remember her family. Rivka tells her that sometimes people forget because remembering is too painful but that her memory will return when she is ready for it. That night Hannah dreams, and when she awakens, her face and arms are wet with tears. She cannot remember her dreams.

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