The Devil's Arithmetic

The Devil's Arithmetic Summary and Analysis of Chapter 19 and Epilogue


Chapter 19

In the darkness, Hannah finds herself in front of a door marked "4N." Four for the four members of my family, she thinks to herself, and N for New Rochelle. Shifre and Esther are nowhere to be found. Hannah considers calling out to them but thinks better of it. Instead, she looks behind her.

She sees a table set with a white cloth and food of all kinds. Seven adults and a little blonde boy sit around the table. The old man says, "Well, Hannah? Is he coming?"

Hannah looks back down the dark hallway. "There is no one," she responds. The old man tells her to shut the door because of the draft and return to the table. Hannah does so and sits down next to Aunt Eva, who comments that Hannah looks very pale. Hannah slips into the chair she knows is symbolically reserved for the prophet Elijah. The adults raise their glasses and Hannah can see the number on Aunt Eva's arm: J18202. Aunt Eva sees Hannah staring at it and asks if Hannah would like her to explain it.

Hannah responds that she will actually explain the number to Aunt Eva. "J is for Jew. And 1 because you were alone, alone of the 8 who had been in your family, though 2 was the actual number of them alive. Your brother was a Kommando, one of the Jews forced to tend the ovens, to handle the dead, so he thought he was a 0." Hannah looks up at Aunt Eva, who stares back. Hannah realizes that Wolfe, Grandpa Will, was Eva's brother, who carried Fayge's body. Aunt Eva explains that after they came to America, they all changed their names. "Remembering was too painful. But to forget was impossible."

Hannah continues, explaining that she knows Aunt Eva believed when it was all over, she and her brother would be two again. Aunt Eva tells her that in the past, in her village, she was known as Rivka. "I remember," says Hannah. "Oh, I remember."


After dinner, Aunt Eva tells Hannah the rest of the story of what happened. Of all the villagers who had come to the camp with Chaya, only Gitl and Yitzchak had survived. Yitzchak survived his escape and joined the partisans, fighting the Nazis. Gitl remained in the camp until 1945 when it was liberated. She only weighed 73 pounds at the time, but she had lived. Leye and her baby had also survived. The blokova was dead.

Gitl and Yitzchak emigrated to Israel. They remained close friends well into their seventies, though neither married. Yitzchak joined the Israeli Senate, the Knesset. Gitl organized a charity to help survivors reconnect with lost family. She named the charity after her niece, CHAYA.


Yolen concludes the novel with Hannah returning to her family, though she expects to be facing her death. Instead she finds herself right back at the apartment door, awaiting the prophet Elijah. She then explains Aunt Eva's tattoo to her, recognizing it as Rivka's. She has remembered everything that Rivka told her and she has endured something she could never forget. Hannah's character arc sees her move from an apathetic young girl to one who has found new connections to her family and its past. Yolen's novel allows us to see the value of everyday things that we might otherwise take for granted.

We all like to believe that we know who we are, but when forces conspire to deny Hannah and the other prisoners their basic humanity, this assumption is not such an easy one. Suddenly, Hannah is faced with the reality that she cannot remember where she came from. All she can remember is the camp. Her past life is virtually erased. As Aunt Eva explains, there is a before and after period for those who survived the Holocaust. Aunt Eva states that she changed her name and moved to America. The past had become too painful to remember but it was impossible to forget what happened.

Believing that her life is about to end, Hannah assigns a personal value to the "4N" she sees on the door. Like the tattoo on her arm, Hannah uses the numbers and letters to remind herself of who she is and where she comes from. It is obvious that Aunt Eva still remembers the value she added to her tattoo. Consider the importance it has for her. She could have had the tattoo removed after she left for America, but she has kept it so that she doesn't forget. What happened is a part of her and she wishes to acknowledge that and pass it on rather than to deny it. This suggests a personal strength, the same strength we saw when she was known as Rivka; it has not waned over the years.

At the beginning of the novel Hannah speaks of a sadness that she sees in Aunt Eva. She pities her. We now have a much clearer understanding of why Aunt Eva is the way she is. We can assume that her relationship with Hannah will be very different and much closer going forward.

We also learn what became of some of the prisoners in the aftermath. Gitl commemorates the memory of her niece by starting a charity and naming it after her. Chaya's name, and its translated meaning, are used for significance at various moments in the novel. The very name becomes a mantra for the prisoners. Hannah states at one point that Gitl repeated her name over and over as if it were a command. Gitl remains true to her philosophy and is one of the very few to survive the "Devil's arithmetic".

Yolen's use of this term to encapsulate the everyday struggle the Nazi's prisoners faced is powerful. Each day survived is a victory but not a guarantee. Every morning brings the possibility of death. Ultimately, Hannah and the others who survived are that much more thankful for the lives they have. Every day is a blessing because of how close they came to death. They find that they appreciate things that for most of us seem trivial and unremarkable. Yolen's novel is an affirmation of life and all its positive and negative moments. All of them allow for a richer experience, especially if we remember the sacrifices others have made to give us the conveniences we have today.