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 15 Summary

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The commandant arrives the next morning after roll call, and the women immediately begin making “a penetrating clucking noise” with their tongues. Hannah watches in amazement as children come scrambling from all directions, shedding their clothes and diving into the midden. Catching sight of a forgotten baby cradled in a washtub, Hannah instinctively runs to grab the child and flees with it into the garbage pile. When the all-clear signal finally comes, the child’s mother scolds Hannah for not taking her child’s clothes off before submerging her in the midden, but Rivka reminds her that Hannah has saved the baby’s life. Chastened, the mother goes to organize some water so both Hannah and the baby can be cleaned up.

As she tries to get the stench of the midden out of her dress that night with a meager cup of liquid, Hannah understands why the children had all left their clothes behind when diving into the dump. Hannah had been worried that the scattered clothing would alert the soldiers, but apparently the Nazis know exactly what is going on and choose to look the other way, making the whole procedure nothing more than “an awful game.”

The days become routine, following an unchangeable pattern of “roll call, breakfast, work, lunch, work, supper, work.” Hannah and Shifre are assigned to the kitchen with Rivka; they find their jobs to be repetitive but not without reward. Sometimes the girls are able to get a bit of extra food for themselves while scraping the pots and pans. Hannah later learns that Rivka has bribed the blokova, or woman in charge, to secure for them these coveted positions. When she tries to thank her friend, Rivka says gently, “Keep your thanks. And hand it on.”

Hannah does indeed try to pass on the kindness shown to her by saving some of her food for little Reuven each day. Gitl, however, scolds her, telling Hannah that she also is a growing girl and must take care of herself. Later, Hannah sees Gitl giving Reuven some of her own portion.

One cool day, the commandant comes to the camp for a dreaded “Choosing.” Rivka explains that “anyone who cannot get out of bed . . . will be chosen . . . for processing because they cannot work.” When Hannah bitterly corrects Rivka, saying that they are actually being chosen for death, Rivka warns her that she must never be overheard using such words. The Nazis use euphemisms to describe their dastardly actions because “what is not recorded cannot be blamed.”

Gitl has a job in the sorting shed, the only place in the camp where men and women work together. Because of this, she is able to glean bits of news about what is happening to the men in the camp, and she shares this information with the others. From Gitl, the women learn that Shmuel and Yitzchak and a few other men from their village are on a crew that cuts wood. Tzadik the cobbler is making shoes and belts for the Nazi officers, and Naftali, a goldsmith from Viosk, is making gold rings for the SS men. A woman asks about Fayge’s father, the rabbi; after hesitating, Gitl reveals that he has been chosen. The badchan and “two dozen others” have been chosen as well, for a variety of reasons. The rabbi had been in the hospital, his heart broken by what he had seen. The badchan alone had chosen to die because he had found the camp to be “not a place for a fool, where there are idiots in charge.”

Hannah unthinkingly repeats an irreverent comment she heard about one of those chosen, and Gitl slaps her, admonishing her that outside their barracks there may be talk like that, but inside they will “say the prayer for the dead properly, like good Jews.” Hannah agrees that Gitl is right, and the women begin reciting the Kaddish in memory of their dead.

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