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 2 Summary

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When Hannah returns to the living room, she finds the family gathered around Grandpa Will, who is watching old footage about Nazi concentration camp victims on television. As grisly images march across the screen, Grandpa shrieks furiously in both English and Yiddish, gesturing violently with his left arm, on which a five-digit number is tattooed.

When Hannah was younger, these numbers had fascinated her. Right after Aaron had been born, when “all the relatives had been making fools of themselves over him,” Hannah wanted to please Grandpa Will like the new baby did. She wrote a string of numbers on her own left arm with a ballpoint pen. To her surprise, Grandpa did not react at all as she had hoped. Instead of being happy, his face turned “gray and horrible” and he screamed at her in Yiddish, “Malach ha-mavis,” which means “Angel of Death.” The family tried to explain to Hannah why Grandpa Will reacted as he did, but Hannah could not forget the incident and never completely forgave him. Hannah never asked what the Yiddish words Grandpa had shouted so vehemently meant, but “in her dreams she seemed to know.”

This time, when the television is turned off and calm is restored, Hannah asks her mother why Grandpa Will acts so strangely. She does not understand why he cannot just forget what is past, and she is embarrassed by his behavior. Hannah compares Grandpa Will to her maternal grandfather, Grandpa Dan, who does not act like him at all. Mama reminds Hannah that, unlike Grandpa Will, Grandpa Dan did not experience the concentration camps; his family emigrated to America before World War II, and he was born in the United States.

By family tradition, Aunt Eva lights the candles when it is time to begin the Passover celebration. She does not have a house or family of her own, having never married. She has chosen to live with her brother, Will, and his wife. When Hannah had been younger, something about Aunt Eva had held an aura of specialness and magic for her, but now, sadly, she only talks to Aunt Eva about ordinary things. Still, when Aunt Eva lights the holiday candles, she takes on an ethereal beauty, and “the flickering flame [makes] her look almost young.” Every year, at this moment, Hannah feels an inexplicable bond with her favorite aunt, “as if the magic [is] still, somehow, alive.” Just before she begins reciting the traditional Hebrew prayers for the family, Aunt Eva always whispers to Hannah, “A yahrzeit for all the beloved dead, a grace for all the beloved living.” Hannah knows the words by heart and whispers them along with Aunt Eva. Aaron tries to do the same but recites out of rhythm. Hannah is annoyed and pinches him; her father reprimands her.

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Chapter 1 Summary


Chapter 3 Summary