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 19 and Epilogue Summary

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When the darkness of the cave of death resolves itself, Hannah finds herself staring at an apartment door across an empty hallway. Shifre and Esther are gone, and when Hannah turns to look behind her, she is startled to see her family waiting expectantly at a table set decorously and piled high with food. The old man at the head of the table asks Hannah, “Is he coming?” Hannah looks back at the empty hallway and whispers, “There’s no one there.”

Another of the men at the table calls Hannah to come back in, and she goes to sit by her aunt Eva, in the chair reserved for the prophet Elijah. All the grown-ups raise their glasses in a toast to life, “L’chaim,” and when Hannah turns to Aunt Eva, she notices the numbers tattooed on her arm. As the others return to their dinner conversation, Aunt Eva, seeing Hannah’s interest, offers to tell her about the numbers, but Hannah responds quietly, “No . . . please, let me explain it to you.” As Aunt Eva listens in astonishment, Hannah recites:

J is for Jew . . . and 1 because you were alone . . . 8 . . . had been in your family, though [only] 2 of them [were] alive . . . your brother was a Kommando, forced to tend the ovens, to handle the dead, so he thought he was a 0 . . . you said that when things were over, you would be 2 again forever, J18202.

Aunt Eva closes her eyes for a moment, remembering, as Hannah realizes that her brother, Uncle Will, must have been Wolfe, the young man who carried away Fayge’s body. As Hannah sits in silence, trying to make sense of what has happened, Aunt Eva tells her that after the war, she and Wolfe came to America and changed their names in an attempt to forget what was too painful to remember, only to find that “to forget was impossible.” Aunt Eva tells Hannah what she already knows—that she had been called Rivka. Hannah replies, in a voice loud enough to silence the whole table, “I remember . . . oh . . . I remember.”

Some time later, when they are alone, Aunt Eva tells Hannah “the end of the story.” Of the villagers with whom Chaya had come to the camp, only two survived—Yitzchak, who had indeed escaped to join the partisans, and Gitl, who had insisted on sharing her meager rations with the children throughout their time in captivity and weighed only seventy-three pounds when she was finally freed. Rivka and the baby Chaya had saved by taking her into the midden were also among the few others who were still alive at the end of the war.

Yitzchak and Gitl emigrated to Israel; although they never married, they remained close friends. Both of them devoted their remaining years to the establishment of a Jewish state and the salvaging of lives torn apart by the Nazi attempt at genocide as a solution to the “Jewish Problem.” Yitzchak served as a member of the Israeli senate. Gitl established an adoption agency that became renowned throughout the Mideast. She called the organization CHAYA in remembrance of her niece, whose name, fittingly, means life.

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Chapter 18 Summary