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 16 Summary

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After a while, even the dreaded Choosings become routine. Hannah learns that by following certain rules, such as not standing too near the Greeks and not drawing attention to herself by annoying the blokova or working too slowly, she improves her chances of not being Chosen significantly. A part of Hannah is revolted by the “insanity of the rules,” but another part of her is thankful because they help her to stay alive and to understand her bizarre universe. Gitl calls the whole system “the Devil’s Arithmetic.”

During a conversation with Shifre about their favorite foods, Hannah realizes that she remembers very little now about her life before coming to the camp. She starts to weep, and Rivka, who is passing by, admonishes her that she must not let the blokova see her crying. Hannah begins an angry retort but stops herself because criticizing the blokova is a dangerous habit that might lead to being Chosen. Rivka lightens the mood by revealing that the blokova is punished by having a finger cut off every time she loses control of her prisoners. She lost her first finger when a group of newcomers rioted, and she lost the second when six women hanged themselves; if she loses control of her charges again, she will lose yet another finger. When Shifre facetiously suggests that maybe they should do something to “help the blokova balance her hand,” Rivka says it is too dangerous and that any planning of this sort should be left to the grown-ups.

The girls’ conversation is interrupted by a shout announcing that the commandant is coming. The women begin their desperate clucking, and the children run from everywhere into the garbage pile. Just when the commandant’s car arrives, the hospital door opens and Reuven emerges with a bandage on his knee. Hannah screams at him to run to the midden, but the child is bewildered and remains frozen where he stands.

The commandant gets out of his car and walks toward Reuven. Reuven will not look at him, but he reaches his hand out to Hannah with big tears running down his cheeks. Hannah moves toward him but Rivka jerks her back; there is nothing she can do for him now.

The commandant picks Reuven up with sinister tenderness, asking him where his mother is. Ignoring Rivka’s whispered warnings, Hannah calls out that Reuven’s mother is dead. The commandant looks at Hannah and asks if she is his sister, and Hannah shakes her head. The commandant responds, “That is good. For you.” Handing Reuven to his driver, he says to the child, “A boy your age should be with his mother. . . . I shall be sure you go to her.”

Reuven is taken away and does not return. That evening, the ovens burn continually; the camp is full, and new arrivals are no longer placed in barracks but are sent directly to processing, for extermination. Hannah berates herself for not having been able to save Reuven. Rivka tries to console her, telling her that the Nazis are monsters and they are victims, but Hannah insists that they are monsters, too, because they are allowing the atrocities to happen. Hannah believes that they, the Jews, should “go down fighting” like the heroes of the Bible, but Rivka argues that it is much harder to live and die as they are doing now. Rivka says, “We are all heroes here.”

That night in the barracks, Fayge finally begins to speak; she tells the women a story she learned from her father. The tale is about a young boy named Israel who leads a band of children against a werewolf whose heart is Satan’s. At the end, Israel walks into the werewolf’s body, takes the beast’s “awful dark heart,” and places it upon the earth. The earth opens, “swallow[ing] the black heart into itself,” the heart which is filled with “immeasurable pain . . . a pain that began before time and will endure forever.”

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