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 4 Summary

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Hannah turns away from the unexpected scene beyond the door, but to her horror, her family and the elegant Seder meal in the room behind her is gone. Instead, Hannah finds herself in an unfamiliar cottage furnished with a large, simple, polished table and an old black stove against the far wall. Strings of onions hang from the ceiling; the room smells of fresh-baked bread.

Disoriented, Hannah thinks for a moment that the wine is giving her daydreams, but her reverie is interrupted by the voice of a woman who demands, “Well? . . . Is he coming?” Thinking vaguely that she is being asked about the prophet Elijah, Hannah turns to see a woman she does not know, dressed in a dark skirt and apron and with a kerchief on her head. The woman is standing at a low table, pounding bread dough. Hannah is further disconcerted when she realizes that the woman is speaking Yiddish, a language she has never been able to understand but which for some reason is now clearly decipherable to her. The woman asks again, “Is Shmuel coming or not?” and Hannah looks out the door to see a tall, handsome man with a thick black beard coming toward the house. He is whistling the familiar song “Dayenu.” Hannah concludes that she must be in “a dream or an elaborate game” and decides to be a good sport and play along.

Hannah tells the woman, who is apparently her Aunt Gitl, that Shmuel is coming. Gitl tells her to set the table. Hannah discovers through Gitl’s running commentary that, in this strange world, she is Gitl and Shmuel’s niece Chaya, who has come to live with them after having survived a terrible fever that has killed her parents in the big city of Lublin. Coincidentally, Chaya is Hannah’s Hebrew name, given to her in honor of Aunt Eva’s dead friend.

When Shmuel, who is getting married the next day, comes into the house, he gives Hannah (Chaya) a big hug. Gitl scolds him, telling him that the child is still recovering from her illness, and gruffly orders him to bathe because he has just come in from the fields. In the light-hearted, teasing exchange that ensues, Hannah learns that Yitzchak the butcher, who has two young children, has asked Gitl to marry him, but Gitl, calling him “a monster,” has so far refused. Shmuel badgers her, accusing her of waiting for another man, Avrom Morovitz, who has gone to America after promising to send for her but who never writes.

Hannah looks on silently, trying to take it all in and wondering how she can be both Hannah and Chaya. She remembers her parents; her little brother, Aaron, whose eyes are so much like Shmuel’s; her house; her best friend, Rosemary; and her school in New Rochelle. Overcome by homesickness, she makes a small noise of sadness, causing Gitl and Shmuel to stop their banter and come to comfort her. Shmuel tells Hannah that she has been through a lot and that one day soon laughter will return to her. Gitl says cryptically, “From your lips to God’s ears . . . these days . . . laughter is our only weapon.”

Hannah remains silent through dinner and eats little. She then goes to bed in the little room she apparently shares with Gitl. As Gitl tenderly tucks her in, Hannah sighs deeply, remembering her mother in New Rochelle. Gitl thinks she is pining for her parents who died in Lublin and asks, “Do you miss them still so much?” When Hannah tries to tell her about her mother and father, the words will not come, and her head begins to spin. Gitl soothes her gently, telling her, “Never mind, little Chaya . . . Shmuel and I—we are your family now.”

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