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 17 Summary

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One night, Gitl creeps onto Hannah’s sleeping shelf and whispers to her that there is an escape plan being developed and that she, Shmuel, and Yitzchak are involved. Gitl is sharing this information with Hannah because she is their “only flesh and blood . . . [and] link to the past.” If something should happen to them, it will be up to Hannah to remember and to keep alive the legacy of their courage and their fate. Hannah promises that she will do this and asks about the plan. Gitl will give her no details, telling Hannah only that when the time comes, she will know.

Hannah asks if Yitzchak is participating in the dangerous scheme because of what has happened to Reuven, and Gitl says he is; now that his children are dead, he has nothing left. When Hannah asks why she and Shmuel are taking part, Gitl says, “If not us, who? If not now, when?” Hannah has a vague sense that she has heard these words before, and Gitl assures her that she will hear them again.

Days go by and nothing out of the ordinary happens. Transports arrive frequently, but their members are sent straight to the ovens, and the skies glow luridly with a perpetual smoky redness. Ironically, the situation has the effect of calming the prisoners in the camp. In the skewed calculations of the Devil’s Arithmetic, the people feel that as long as others are dying, they will remain safe.

When the plan is finally to be undertaken, there is no warning, and Hannah is taken by surprise. In the dead of night, Gitl grabs her from behind, covering her mouth and whispering, “Chaya, it is now.” Gitl shoves a pair of shoes into Hannah’s hands and instructs her to follow her outside; they are to meet the others behind the midden. Hannah hesitates a moment, asking about Fayge, but Gitl tells her that Fayge has chosen to stay behind, preferring “the dark wolf she knows to the dark one she does not.”

A dog barks, and Gitl pulls Hannah back against the barracks wall. Suddenly there is a shout and the sound of shooting; a man begins to scream, “high-pitched and horrible.” Gitl whispers in desperation to Hannah, “It is ruined,” and drags her back to safety in the barracks. The two of them squeeze into the same sleeping shelf, and Hannah can feel Gitl shaking with great, silent sobs.

As she lies there in the darkness, a horrible thought occurs to Hannah. In the confused rush outside she has left behind the shoes Gitl had handed her. Terrified that the shoes will be identified, she tells Gitl what she has done, but Gitl is not concerned. The shoes she has given Hannah are the blokova’s shoes; it is she who will be condemned when they are discovered in the morning.

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