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The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

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Who is Shmuel in The Devil's Arithmetic?

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In The Devil's Arithmetic, Shmuel is the uncle of Chaya Abramowicz, the persona Hannah takes on when she travels back to 1942.

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In The Devil's Arithmetic, Hannah Stern, a girl who is bored by stories of the Holocaust, is transported back into the midst of it. She finds herself in 1942 on the border between Poland and Germany, living in a Yiddish-speaking household. In this reality (which, for obvious reasons, seems unreal to Hannah), she is Chaya Abramowicz, a girl who is recovering from an attack of cholera, which killed both her parents.

Shmuel is Chaya's uncle who, along with his sister, Gitl, has been looking after her during her illness. At the time Hannah travels back in time, Shmuel is about to marry Fayge, a girl from a neighboring village. However, when the wedding party arrives at Fayge's village, the family are arrested by the Nazis and taken away for resettlement. Shmuel does not know what this means, though Hannah, having studied the Holocaust, can see what is going to happen.

After a failed escape plan in the concentration camp, Shmuel is executed. He is portrayed as a brave man who is also kind, generous, and loyal, never failing in his love for Fayge, whom he holds in his arms until the last moment. The courage of Shmuel and others she meets in the past convince Hannah of the importance of remembering the Holocaust.

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What is Shmuel's physical appearance in The Devil's Arithmetic?

Chaya, or Hannah, as she is in the present day, is still trying to get used to her strange new surroundings when a big, bearded man marches into the house where she's living and suddenly grabs her and starts spinning her around. The young lady was somewhat confused and disoriented to begin with and now she's even more so.

The man in question is none other than Chaya's uncle Shmuel. In present-day New York, Hannah doesn't have an Uncle Shmuel, especially not one who looks like this. As we've already seen, Shmuel is a big, bearded man; he also smells like sweat, grass, and horses. But he's a jolly man with a contagious sense of joy. Chaya can only respond by giving her uncle a nice big hug.

It tells us a lot about Shmuel's extraordinary personality that Chaya can give him a hug even though he still smells from work and hasn't yet had a chance to bathe. The fact that he's about to get married is also instructive. Shmuel's sister Gitl may express surprise that Fayge has accepted Shmuel's offer of marriage, but one can reasonably assume that she's responded positively to the genuine warmth and ebullience of her future husband's personality.

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