The Devil's Arithmetic

The Devil's Arithmetic Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16 to 18


Chapter 16

The first Choosing is the hardest to endure for Hannah. After that it becomes part of the routine of life in the camp. Hannah learns the rules so she can avoid being Chosen. The rules anger her, but she is thankful for them because they provide some semblance of order. Each day that she stays alive is one more that she remains alive. One plus one plus one. Gitl calls it the Devil's arithmetic.

Each day blends into the next. Hannah realizes that her memories are now limited to what has happened in the camp. She can remember words referring to other things, but she cannot remember what these things were. One day while cleaning out the cauldrons, Shifre asks her what her favorite food is. Hannah remembers something called pizza, but cannot remember what it actually is. Shifre tells her that she can still remember Lublin and the shtetl. Hannah answers that she cannot and becomes upset.

Rivka appears and tells her not to cry, because the blokova might see her. Hannah learns that the lady in the blue dress had her fingers cut off for losing control of the prisoners. Hannah wonders if there is a way to get her into more trouble so that she might lose more fingers. Rivka says it is too dangerous and that it is better to let the grown-ups make their plans.

Hannah asks what this means but at that moment the Commandant arrives. Hannah can't believe it. The Commandant was here just yesterday. He is not due for a few more days. Rivka is already making the clucking noise to warn the children, who begin making their way to the midden.

The Commandant's car enters the camp and has just made its way past the hospital when the hospital door opens. It is Reuven. He has a bloody knee and is rubbing dirt from around his eyes. Hannah calls to him to run to the midden, but Reuven is stopped by the Commandant, who asks Reuven if he is hurt. Reuven doesn't answer as the Commandant wipes Reuven's knee with a handkerchief. He asks Reuven where his mother is. Hannah runs over and tells the Commandant that Reuven's mother is dead, eliciting a gasp from Rivka. Hannah clarifies that Reuven's mother died before he came to the camp. He asks Hannah if she is Reuven's sister. She shakes her head. The Commandant tells her that is good for her. He takes Reuven, telling Hannah that he will return Reuven to his mother.

That night the smoke from the stacks is red and black. Hannah never sees Reuven again. Rumors abound in the camp that new arrivals are now being sent directly to be "processed" instead of going to the barracks. The camp is full. Hannah tells Gitl and Rivka that she should have told the Commandant that Reuven was her brother. Rivka tells her that if she had, she too would be dead now. Hannah is overcome with anger. "We are all monsters," she proclaims, "because we are letting it happen."

Rivka tells her that it is God that is letting it happen and that it must be happening for a reason. Hannah says they should fight. Rivka tells her that it is much harder to live like this than to go out shooting. "We are all heroes here," she says.

That night Fayge tells them a story about the great Ba'al Shem Tov. In the story he is just a boy named Israel. His father warns him that the enemy will always be with him because the enemy is part of him. The father assures Israel that the enemy cannot ever enter Israel's soul, because his soul is part of God. In the story Israel leads a small band of boys against a werewolf, whose heart is Satan's. Israel walks straight into the werewolf's body and retrieves the heart, an awful heart filled with immeasurable pain. Israel pities the heart and wishes to give it freedom. He places it on the ground and the earth opens to claim the black heart into itself.

Hannah sighs and reflects on the story. So they are in the belly of a werewolf. She wonders where its heart is as she drifts off to sleep.

Chapter 17

Gitl informs Hannah that there is a plan. She does not go into detail, nor does she tell Hannah what the plan is or when it will take place. Hannah only knows that she will be involved somehow. Gitl refuses to tell Hannah out of concern that Hannah may inadvertently discuss it and be overheard. Hannah asks Gitl again and again over the next days, but Gitl tells her nothing.

The days pass in this fashion. Each evening the smoke rises from the stacks. The prisoners are glad that as long as someone else is being "processed," they themselves will not be.

One night Hannah is awoken by Gitl, who tells her that it is time. She descends from her bunk. Gitl hands her a pair of shoes in the dark. The door to the barracks is unlocked. Gitl tells Hannah that some guards can be bribed. Hannah asks if Fayge is coming too. Gitl tells her that Fayge has decided to stay, preferring the dark wolf she knows to the dark one she does not. Fayge only craves her next bowl of soup.

Gitl and Hannah exit the barracks under a moonless sky. The plan is to meet behind the midden. Suddenly there is a shout and then a shot. Gitl sees that their plan has been foiled. She moves to get herself and Hannah back inside. Great spotlights come on, narrowly missing them as they re-enter the barracks and shut the door.

The blokova calls out from her private room, asking what is happening. Gitl calmly explains that she went outside with her bowl to relieve herself when she heard shots and returned inside. The blokova reprimands her but otherwise only tells her to return to her bunk.

Hannah is overcome with fear because she accidentally dropped the shoes Gitl gave her outside. She is sure they will be discovered. Gitl tells her that the shoes belonged to the blokova. No one will know Hannah left the barracks. Gitl begins to laugh, a sound so much like sobbing that Hannah is unsure which it is.

Chapter 18

Commandant Breuer presides over the roll call in the morning. Six of the prisoners are held in chains. Shmuel and the violin player from the klezmer band are among them. Hannah does not recognize the others. She notices that Yitzchak is absent and tries to convey this to Gitl, who tells her to be quiet.

The Commandant announces that the captured men tried to escape the night before. Shmuel spits and is struck with the butt of a rifle. Breuer reminds them all that they are in the middle of nowhere. There is nowhere to run to and no one would take them in. He tells them that they are treated better here in this camp than in many others. He reasons he has been too easy on them. He orders the men be lined up against the wall. Hannah and the others let out a sort of groan as they hear this.

The violin player begins to recite a prayer and the other prisoners join in, except for Shmuel. He continues to smile and utters a single word: "Fayge." She erupts from the crowd and runs to him, throwing herself at his feet and telling him that the sky is their canopy. He bends down and kisses the top of her head as the shots are fired.

The Kommandos emerge from Lilith's Cave and collect all seven bodies. Rivka tells them that her brother, Wolfe, is the one carrying Fayge's body. The blokova orders the women back to work. Hannah notices that her hand is bandaged and there is fresh blood staining the bandage. Hannah again asks Gitl if she noticed that Yitzchak was not among the captured prisoners. He escaped. She smiles at this thought.

Later that afternoon Hannah accompanies Rivka, Esther, and Shifre to the water pump. Esther has lost a lot of weight, and her dress is billowing around her frail frame. Hannah looks up, spotting the swallows flying overhead, eating insects. The setting is picturesque; if only the situation were different. Hannah looks at the girls pumping water and suddenly has a vision of two girls in school uniforms playing near a water fountain. Hannah tries to adjust her eyes but the vision remains. She tells the girls that she has a story to tell them.

Hannah explains that she knows that six million Jews will perish in the Holocaust, but also that the Jewish people will survive and endure. They will have a country of their own and they will even be featured in American movies. The other girls dismiss some of Hannah's claims but she reiterates that they must remember all of this for the future. A guard interrupts them, saying he has found four girls that are not working. He needs three more for the latest load. Rivka protests that they were working. The guard chooses all the girls but Hannah. Shifre and Esther are carted off, with Rivka to follow. Hannah snatches the handkerchief from Rivka's head and ties it around her own. She tells Rivka to run; the guard will not know the difference between them. Rivka does as she is told and Hannah runs to catch up with Shifre and Esther, placing her arms around them both, telling them a story about a girl named Hannah Stern who lives in New Rochelle. Together, they enter the gate.


The importance of memory becomes painfully apparent to Hannah when she realizes that she can no longer remember anything before her time in the camp. Her past has been obliterated, and with it her identity. The life at the camp comes to define any prisoner who loses this connection to their past and to the knowledge that there is a world outside of the camp. To lose this connection is to also lose hope. As Gitl explains, without hope there is no life. Yolen's analogy presents life, particularly in its most trying moments, as something of an endurance test. To push on we require the will and the belief that better days are ahead. This is, essentially, an act of faith. Without this faith there is no fuel to motivate the prisoners, and they accept the situation they are in as inevitable.

Hannah's reaction to Reuven's death mirrors her relationship to her own younger brother, Aaron. As we saw in the first section of the novel, Hannah is a caring older sister who acts as a mentor and guide to her younger brother. She takes her role seriously and clearly loves the boy. Watching Reuven being escorted away by the Commandant is like watching Aaron being taken. Hannah's immediate reaction is of anger and guilt. She announces that she should have told the Commandant that Reuven was her brother. She wishes she could have been taken as well because then at least she would not feel so guilty about not being able to save the boy. Rivka reminds her that if she had done so, she too would be dead now. Hannah turns her anger on the other prisoners, indicting them as well. They are all monsters, she says, because they are allowing this to happen. Hannah is also dealing with feelings of powerlessness and frustration because she feels she is the only one who is outraged by their experiences.

At this point the novel returns to the theme of faith and God. Rivka insists that all of this is happening for a reason that only God understands. They must have faith in God, she says. She tells Hannah that their perseverance in the face of such odds makes them heroes. Rivka's statement is another affirmation of her faith. She believes that such faith will be rewarded. Rivka understands that they could make a stand against the Nazis and they would likely die in the fight. That would be the easier way out, though some may think it more honorable. It is much harder, she asserts, to endure at the camp.

Fayge's story about Ba'al Shem Tov requires some analysis. Ba'al Shem Tov was a Jewish mystical rabbi also known as Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer. He is credited widely as the founder of Hassidic Judaism. He is believed to have died in Poland in 1760. His parents died when he was young and it is believed he was raised by his community. A biography of the Rabbi is difficult to accurately represent, since much of his story involves miracles and legends.

One of these legends is the story that Fayge tells the others. Before his death, the Rabbi's father told him to never fear anything and to always believe that God is with him. The Rabbi took this to heart and one day, while he was escorting children to the synagogue, a wolf appeared. In Fayge's version, it is a werewolf. Ba'al Shem Tov drives the wolf away. In some versions this wolf is Satan, in others the wolf has been sent or inspired by Satan. In Fayge's version, Ba'al Shem Tov is able to remove the heart, which is filled with pain. He pities the heart and it is consumed by the earth. The message of the legend is that even the wolf, or Satan, has some element of good or divinity within it. Ba'al Shem Tov removes the hate and pain from the wolf out of pity, a gesture of empathy and sympathy. Hannah wonders where the heart of the werewolf is.

Consider Yolen's use of this legend in the story. The werewolf in this situation is the Nazi machine itself. It is filled with hate and pain. Fayge's story tells the others that there is nothing to fear. They must meet the "wolf" here with a sense of pity and empathy as well, though the wolf wishes to hurt them. Here, Yolen ties in the themes of faith and humanity. The lesson for the others is to not become hateful and vengeful themselves. If they do, the pain and suffering will spread. The prisoners' experiences in the camp will certainly affect and change them, but Fayge's story is a reminder to not let themselves become like the wolf.

Hannah has another vision while collecting water with the other girls. Yolen specifically mentions the swallows flying overhead, eating insects. This recurring motif symbolizes the freedom the swallows have, the freedom Hannah and the others so wish for. This time in her vision, Hannah sees two girls playing around a fountain, dressed in school uniforms. Hannah sees the future, more specifically an actual future for the Jewish people. She immediately shares this with the other girls: Shifre, Esther, and Rivka. Despite how many of them will perish in the Holocaust, she assures them that the Jewish people will endure and have a country of their own. The two girls she sees can be interpreted as another future generation, perhaps even her own descendants. They will be able to go to school and make a life for themselves.

This story gets them into trouble when a Nazi guard overhears them. He chooses all the girls except Hannah to be taken away. Hannah then makes the supreme sacrifice to save her friend Rivka by tricking the guard into taking her instead. This great sacrifice, greater because it was not asked for, saves Rivka's life and returns Hannah to her family. Her faith is rewarded and she is reunited with her family and her own life while Rivka is able to live on.