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 8 Summary

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Now that the people from the villages of both the bride and groom have joined together, the forest is filled with noisy, happy voices. Hannah hangs back, trying to recall her home in New Rochelle, but her memories seem to be fading. Gitl comes over and takes Hannah by the arm, leading her to a wagon on which sit two people, a dour, older man who is clearly a rabbi and a young lady dressed all in white, “the most beautiful woman Hannah [has] ever seen.” The woman, Shmuel’s bride-to-be, Fayge, is wearing gold rings on her fingers and long, dangling earrings; her jet-black curly hair is topped by an elegantly beaded headdress. Hannah is at first intimidated by Fayge’s regal bearing and “fierce, piercing look,” but the young woman reaches down to Hannah almost shyly and invites her to join her on the wagon. Fayge compliments Hannah on the dress she is wearing, and Gitl whispers to her niece triumphantly, “I will not say I told you so . . . but I did.”

The procession resumes, and Hannah’s new friends dance by the side of the wagon, singing the “Sherele,” a wedding song with incongruously gloomy words. Fayge tells Hannah that she has always hated the “Sherele” and promises that at the wedding itself they will sing and dance to other, more fitting songs all night long. As the wagon bumps along, Fayge confides to Hannah that, for some inexplicable reason, a part of her is apprehensive about marrying her “beloved Shmuel.” Hannah laughs and tells Fayge that Shmuel said the same thing to her that morning.

When Hannah looks ahead again, she sees the village of Viosk at the far end of the meadow: small, neat houses “nestled in a line” with larger buildings standing behind them. The wagons are nearing a central market area with stalls when Fayge notices a group of old automobiles and military vehicles parked in front of the synagogue; she asks her father what they are doing there. The crowd falls silent as they, too, become aware of the interlopers, and Hannah experiences a vague feeling of familiarity and dread. As the crowd slowly approaches the synagogue, uniformed men emerge from the vehicles. The badchan points to one of them and cries out, “I see the malach ha-mavis . . . the Angel of Death.” Hannah suddenly recalls that her grandpa Will had once shouted those words at her when she had drawn a string of numbers on her arm as a child. Filled with foreboding, she asks what year it is, and the badchan answers that it is 1942.

Finally, Hannah understands where she is. Thinking that what she knows about the Holocaust might serve as a warning, she tries to tell the villagers that the uninvited strangers are Nazis and that they will kill six million Jews. Hannah tells the people that their only hope is to run, but they do not believe her. The rabbi, declaring that it is not “mere men” that they must fear but only God himself, directs the frightened group to proceed as planned. At his signal, the wagons move forward, toward the uniformed men waiting for them in front of the synagogue doors.

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