The Devil's Arithmetic

The Devil's Arithmetic Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13 to 15


Chapter 13

Hannah is awoken by the sound of a bellowing horn. At first she mistakes it for a clock radio; the words "clock radio" seem strange in her mind. She is not even sure what a clock radio is. The others begin to stir and rise and Hannah quickly exits her uncomfortable bunk. A soldier comes to the door to tell them it is time to eat. "Hungry Jews are dead Jews!" he bellows. "Dead Jews do not work!"

Hannah finds Gitl, who looks past her with a distant gaze. Hannah goes to her and sees that Tziporrah is still curled up in bed. A fly crawls on her cheek. Hannah cannot believe her eyes and as she goes to touch Tziporrah, Gitl strikes her twice, telling her not to touch the little girl. Gitl then breaks down, holding Hannah close. She wonders how to tell Yitzchak that the girl is dead.

They are the last to exit the barracks and enter the food line. A small girl, probably about ten years old in Hannah's estimation, hands them each a bowl. It is the only bowl they will receive, she tells them. It will be used for everything. The girl says her name is Rivka. She tells Hannah that she hands out the bowls now but that her mother, now dead, used to do it before her. Hannah devours the bowl of potato soup and a slab of bread quickly.

The women are lined up by the three-fingered woman in the blue dress, who strikes anyone who asks questions or doesn't comply. Hannah dodges such a slap and the slap lands on Shifre, who howls in pain, only to be struck again. Hannah is thankful for not being hit but also feels guilty for Shifre's pain. A Nazi officer in a dark uniform appears before them, wearing medals and a sinister smile. He tells them that they will work hard or they will die. Hannah has to fight to stay awake. Overhead she hears swallows twittering about as they catch insects. The Nazi officer reminds her of someone but she has trouble remembering who that is. A teacher from school? She is unsure. Hannah knows she is forgetting other things as well, even the stories she told the girls earlier. She looks to Gitl and whispers her name. Gitl takes her hand and says "Chaya." It sounds like a promise, or a command.

Chapter 14

After another meal of watery soup and bread, Hannah, Shifre, and Esther find Rivka. Rivka tells them that her family is dead except for her brother Wolfe, who is now a Sonderkommando. She begins to explain to them how they can stay alive. They will have to be smart, pay attention, and know when to avoid a prisoner who may end up getting them killed. Esther walks away, deciding she does not want to hear this. Rivka tells Hannah that people will sometimes do this but there is nothing she can do about it and she must learn to let some people go. What matters, Rivka says, is that they are alive. Though they are trapped, there are things they can do to stay that way. Rivka tells them to avoid Greek Jews, who have a G in the number tattooed on their arms. They do not understand Yiddish or German and frequently pay the price for it. Even those who happen to be near Greek Jews can fall victim by association.

It is very important, Rivka says, is to avoid the black, handle-less doors to the smokestack. She calls it Lilith's Cave. Those who go in do not come out. However, there is one place that can be safe for them: the midden, or garbage dump. The Nazis do not go there. When Commandant Breuer visits the camp, all children under fourteen are kept there. Children under fourteen are not supposed to be in the camp. As disgusting a place as the dump is, at least they can be safe there. Shifre is disgusted by the idea of hiding in garbage, but Rivka reminds her that the alternative can be the line. Shifre asks what line Rivka is referring to. Hannah replies that it is the line to the gas ovens. Shifre is terrified but reflexively dismisses this as yet another of Chaya's stories.

Rivka takes them to her own barracks, which are just as sad and destitute as theirs. Rivka gives them both pairs of old shoes hidden beneath her bunk. They are badly worn but wearable. Rivka explains that all the good pairs they might have been wearing have been sent to Germany. She asks Shifre and Hannah for their real names and then goes through the number on her arm, attaching significance to each numeral to help her remember. Hannah breaks down as she tries to remember her family, Hannah's family, so far away. Shifre explains how Chaya had cholera and lost her parents before. Rivka says they should go find Esther, who is not lost yet.

They search for Esther but are unable to find her in the short time they have before they must return to the barracks. Hannah weeps through her first long night in the barracks. She can hear other women crying in the dark. She dreams of another life where there are cries of joy, but she cannot remember the dream.

Chapter 15

In the morning after roll call and breakfast, a man calls across the fence to tell them the Commandant is coming. Rivka instructs Hannah and Shifre to follow her example. She places her hands to her mouth as if to shout and starts making a sort of clucking sound. Everywhere around them the noise erupts like a chorus of crickets. The small children emerge and race out toward the midden. Hannah notices that one of the camp babies has been left behind. Without asking she picks up the baby and runs toward the midden.

The garbage around her is filthy, made up of old bandages and the contents of the slop buckets. Hannah closes her eyes and submerges herself in the muck with the child. When the clucking has stopped Leye, the baby's mother, comes running. She is angry that Hannah did not remove the child's clothes first. Now they are dirty. Rivka reminds Leye that Hannah likely saved the child's life. Leye says she will "organize," or steal, some water. That night Hannah falls asleep, sure that the stench of the midden will never fully be washed from her pores.

Hannah begins to become accustomed to the routine of the days, filled with mindless work. She is thankful for some sort of routine, as it allows her to know what to expect. She is sent to work with Shifre and Rivka in the kitchen. They spoon out the meager food and wash the cauldrons and pots. Sometimes they are able to find small pieces of food still stuck inside them and can eat what is left. Leye tells Hannah that Rivka bribed the blokova with a gold ring she stole to get Hannah into the kitchen detail. Otherwise, Leye says, Hannah would be out hauling wood with the men and would never have lasted because she is a city girl. Hannah tries to thank Rivka but Rivka tells her to simply pass it on. Hannah takes this to heart by trying to sneak extra food to Reuven, Yitzchak's boy. Gitl tells her not to do so, since Chaya needs the extra food too. Hannah sees Girl giving Reuven some of her own bread instead.

On the third day, Commandant Breuer pays the camp a visit for a Choosing. Hannah wonders what a Choosing is. Rivka runs her finger across her throat. Those who cannot work are chosen for death, although such terminology is not used in the camp. Rather, these unlucky individuals are said to be processed. If prisoners can work they can live. Commandant Breuer inspects the prisoners and then disappears with another man carrying a clipboard. He re-emerges and Hannah can see that the clipboard has prisoner numbers written on it. Hannah cannot understand why they are being killed. She looks at Commandant Breuer and suddenly thinks of Dr Mengele, the Angel of Auschwitz, saying his name aloud but unsure of what connection there is. She wonders if she is going mad, becoming a musselman.

Gitl works in the sorting shed, where prisoner belongings are sorted and sent to Germany. It is also where men and women can speak freely and information can be exchanged between the two camps. That night Gitl tells the women of what she has learned and gives Chaya a blue scarf she “organized” from the shed. It is Chaya's birthday. Hannah says that her birthday is in February, but Gitl dismisses this and recalls the day Chaya was born.

Hannah asks if there is any news of Shmuel and the others. Gitl explains that Shmuel works with the other men carrying wood and is doing all right. There is a cobbler named Tzadik who is making boots for the Commandant. Rumor has it that he wears a size five, a woman's size. Gitl tells them that this has become the source of some humor amongst the prisoners. There is even a rhyme associated with it.

A woman asks if there is any news of Rabbi Boruch. Gitl hesitates but Fayge insists on knowing what has happened to her father. Gitl finally tells her that he was Chosen with about a dozen others yesterday. Fayge screams. The badchan and the rendar have also been Chosen. Even with all his money, says Gitl, the rendar is still just a Jew in the eyes of the Nazis. "He's a schmatte now," says Hannah. Gitl slaps her. That may be suitable talk in the camp, she says, but in the barracks they will recite the prayer of the dead. Hannah says she is right and they begin the Kaddish in unison.


In this portion of the book, Yolen introduces Rivka, a ten-year-old girl who seems much older. Rivka advises Hannah and the other newcomers about the ways of the camp, teaching them all she has learned in the hopes that this knowledge may help them survive. Rivka is a guide, and to invoke the themes of faith and hope, something of a Godsend. As we will learn, Rivka and Aunt Eva are one and the same. Consider the sad, unmarried woman to whom Hannah relates and for whom Hannah feels sorry. When Rivka's life is taken into context, particularly her experiences in the camp at such a young age, we can begin to appreciate how Aunt Eva came to be the way she is. Aunt Eva still displays a strong sense of faith and tradition during the Seder dinner. Hannah's decision to sacrifice herself no doubt played a role in this.

Though they are not explored in great detail, the swallows flying overhead are mentioned a number of times in the novel. Hannah notices them at various moments, flying freely above. They represent freedom; specifically, Hannah's desire for it. We could imagine Hannah coming to resent these birds for their display, but Yolen depicts them more as joyful reminders of happier times. They remind the prisoners of an outside world where such atrocities are not the norm. In this sense, they help the prisoners retain a sense of hope for better days to come.

Rivka warns Hannah and the other girls to stay away from the handle-less doors that lead to the ovens. She calls this place Lilith's Cave. Lilith is a figure in Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman mythology as well as Judeo-Christian theology. In Jewish folklore, Lilith was Adam's first wife. She left him after refusing to be subservient to him. This legend is still used as source material in literature, occultism, fantasy, and horror. Here, Yolen uses it in its more traditional context: the ovens are a hellish place.

Rivka also explains the personal meaning she has attached to the tattoo on her arm. Hannah learns to do the same. This allows the branded prisoner to make something placed on their bodies against their will their own. The tattoo becomes an everyday reminder for Aunt Eva and Wolfe of what they endured. Over time they are able to draw strength from the ink on their skin instead of fear or bitterness. This also allows Rivka and Hannah to retain some sense of self. It doesn't simply have to be a random number assigned to them by the Nazis. The act of reassigning a personal meaning to it is one of rebellion but also of affirmation. It affirms that they are all real people with real names and real stories. They, like so much else in the novel, are not to be forgotten.

We also see a pattern of sacrifice emerging in Hannah in this section of the novel. She risks her own life to save Leye's baby, taking the child to the garbage dump to hide from Commandant Breuer and subjecting herself to the filth there to remain unseen. Hannah also learns that Rivka has used her influence to secure Hannah a job in the kitchen instead of out collecting firewood where she would likely not last long. By doing so Rivka has likely saved Hannah's life already. Hannah wishes to pay Rivka back but Rivka tells her to pay it forward instead. This sacrifice by Rivka echoes Grandpa Will's words at the Seder dinner, stating that a sacrifice performed without being asked for is a greater sacrifice. Rivka did this for Hannah without any expectation of a favor in return. Hannah tries to give some of her bread to Reuven, foreshadowing her attempt to save Reuven from the Commandant, which will be unsuccessful.

Sacrifice allows the prisoners to retain some sense of their own humanity. Though they are living in the worst of conditions, they are not above acts of kindness. Rivka explains how the prisoners must be discerning if they are to survive, sometimes having to distance themselves from others, but she is the first to exhibit the best in herself.