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 18 Summary

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The sky is a brilliant blue and the birds are singing merrily, which creates a chillingly incongruous backdrop to roll call the next morning. The commandant is in attendance, and six men in chains are lined up before him. One of them is Shmuel and another is the violinist in the klezmer band; all the men have been beaten badly, but Hannah notes immediately that Yitzchak is not among them.

The commandant announces to the assembly that the six men have tried to escape, and he emphasizes the foolishness of their undertaking: the camp is located in a desolate area, and they would have had nowhere to go. The commandant laments that he has been too lenient on the prisoners. He has been told repeatedly that he should have exterminated them all upon their arrival as part of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.”

An undercurrent of moaning arises from the assembly as the six shackled men are moved in front of a wall. The commandant calls for silence, telling the people ominously that if they are quiet they will be allowed to watch. The prisoners comply—not because they want to watch but because they want to bear witness and because they have no other choice.

The six men are left standing or sitting in front of the wall, facing the assembly. The violinist raises his voice in defiant prayer, and all the other men except Shmuel join him. Shmuel looks over the crowd with “a strange smile” on his face until at last he sees the person he is seeking, and he calls out, “Fayge!” With a “loud wail,” Fayge pushes her way forward and falls at Shmuel’s feet. Looking up at her beloved, she declares, “The sky is our canopy.” As Shmuel bends to kiss her head, the guns roar, and the grisly wedding is consummated.

Ten Kommandos come out of the cave of death to take away the bodies of the executed. One of them, who is “hardly more than a boy,” picks Fayge up in his arms and carries her away almost tenderly; Rivka whispers “to no one in particular” that the boy is her brother, Wolfe. The blokova comes forward and frantically harasses the women to get to work; her hand is wrapped in bandages, stained with fresh blood.

As they hurry to the kitchen, Hannah shares with Gitl her observation that Yitzchak had not been among the prisoners executed, bestowing on her “a measure of hope.” Hannah envisions Yitzchak racing into the dark forest to freedom and “smile[s] with the memory.”

Later that day, when she is at the water pump with Rivka, Shifre, and Esther, an image from Hannah’s life in New Rochelle flashes across her mind. Stunned by the sudden return of remembrance, Hannah begins to tell the girls a story about the future. She explains that, for whatever reason, she has been gifted with layers of memory, one on top of the other—first of her time in Lublin with her parents, then of her brief stay with Shmuel and Gitl, and finally of her life in the future in America. Hannah reveals that six million Jews will be killed in camps like the one they are in but that their people will ultimately live on and that one day there will be a Jewish state called Israel. As she is talking, the commandant comes by and tells the girls that he has a quota to fill; since they are talking and not working, three of the four of them will be sent to the ovens. The commandant capriciously chooses Hannah to be spared and orders the others to report to the cave of death.

As the commandant walks away, Hannah, “without thinking through the why of it,” snatches the scarf Rivka is wearing on her head and puts it on her own, urging her, “Run for your life, Rivka . . . for your future . . . run . . . and remember.” Then, taking Rivka’s place, she walks bravely to her death with the two weeping girls, continuing to reassure them with her story about the Jewish people who will survive.

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