The Devil's Arithmetic

The Devil's Arithmetic Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4 to 6


Chapter 4

Hannah asks how her grandfather performed this trick, but when she turns around everyone and everything is gone, including the dinnerware, food, and the wine. Instead Hannah only sees a simple table adorned with two candles around a single wooden bowl. A black stove sits against the wall. Hannah can smell bread baking. It must be the wine that is making her see these things, she thinks to herself.

A woman dressed in simple clothes asks her if he is coming. "The prophet Elijah?" she responds. "A goy zugt a vertl," says the woman. It is a phrase Hannah has heard before but now it is as if she understands it perfectly. It means, "As the peasant says." The woman calls Hannah by her Hebrew name, Chaya. How could she know about that, wonders Hannah. Nevertheless, Hannah decides to play along with whatever game her family is up to. The woman asks again if Chaya's Uncle Shmuel, who is about to get married, is coming. Hannah looks out the door again and sees the figure approaching, no longer singing, but whistling a familiar song: Dayenu. He is coming. The woman orders her to set the table and to use the special table cloth, since it is a special occasion. The woman wonders what is wrong with Chaya. Ever since the fever, the woman remarks, she has never been the same. The fever claimed Chaya's parents’ lives.

Uncle Shmuel arrives and greets Chaya with a big hug. The woman, Hannah learns, is named Gitl; she is Shmuel's sister. Shmuel is to marry Fayge and will live in this house with his sister. Hannah starts to become distressed. She knows she is Hannah, so how could she be this Chaya as well? Shmuel remarks that Gitl could be married to Yitzchak the butcher. Gitl has no interest in Yitzchak. Shmuel tells Hannah that Gitl is still waiting to hear from Avrom Morowitz, who went to America three years ago. Gitl responds that she would not go to America for him. She will stay there as did her parents and her grandparents before them. The two of them laugh loudly. Hannah realizes that they are not speaking English, but Yiddish, and that she can understand them just as she had listened to the translator on a class trip to the United Nations. How could this be?

The two adults ask her what is wrong. She must have made some sort of sound. They remark that city living is hard on the soul. Soon they will take Chaya to the country where she will be happy again after the loss of her parents.

Hannah doesn't eat much at dinner, much to Gitl's chagrin. The food is not like a dream, but tastes real. She must be dreaming, though, she thinks to herself. What other explanation is there?

Chapter 5

Hannah wakes in the dark and makes her way through the unfamiliar house to the front door. She waits before opening it, hoping that when she does, all will be as it was. Instead she can see that dawn has broken and she can hear a rooster in the distance. Shmuel emerges behind her, asking Hannah if she had trouble sleeping, too. Shmuel admits that he is afraid of getting married, though he is not afraid of being married. Hannah wonders what the difference is. She tells Shmuel that she is not Chaya from Lublin but Hannah from New Rochelle in America. Shmuel thinks Hannah is playing some sort of game and tells her that he must get ready for the ceremony. He must feed the horses, Hopel and Popel. Hannah puts on Chaya’s shoes, which fit her perfectly, and follows him to help.

Breakfast is nothing more than a jug of milk, some coffee, and a loaf of bread. Hannah asks if there is any cereal or white bread. Gitl remarks that white bread is for wealthy people. At least, she says, Chaya is showing some interest in food.

There is a sudden knock at the door. It is Yitzchak, the butcher. Gitl invites him in somewhat begrudgingly, offering him coffee. He has brought a wagon with chickens in cages. The chickens are a wedding gift. Shmuel tells Yitzchak to leave them here as he and Fayge will return this evening alone. Gitl and Chaya will remain at Fayge's family's home for the night. "The walls are thin," he says, blushing. Gitl tells Shmuel not to say such things in front of the child. Hannah announces that she knows what a wedding night entails. She saw it on General Hospital. Gitl is a bit shocked. No young lady should speak of such things and hospitals should not teach anyone so young about sex.

Yitzchak says he has come to help and brought his children too. Gitl wonders where he has left them, in the cages with the chickens? She goes to the door to fetch them and tells them to sit at the table with her niece, Chaya, who can tell them stories of milk with things in it and a place called New Rochelle. Yitzchak departs with his children as Shmuel jokes that he is already henpecked and not even married to Gitl. Gitl reaffirms that she has no interest in Yitzchak, though Hannah says that he seems nice. Gitl dismisses her opinion, stating that she seems to know so much, but not anything about raising motherless children.

Chapter 6

Gitl tells Hannah that it is time to get dressed. Hannah is excited to think that she will be wearing something other than the sad nightgown she is wearing now. She follows Gitl into the room they share. Gitl says it is a shame that Chaya's clothes and bedding had to be burned, but it was feared that they carried the disease. Gitl promises to make her some new clothes before the winter. In the meantime, Gitl gives Chaya the dress she wore to Shmuel's Bar Mitzvah. The dress is a bit babyish for Hannah. She thinks it is quite ugly. Gitl promises she will look fine and gives her shoes and stockings as well. She fixes up Chaya's hair and has her look herself over in the mirror. Hannah does not recognize the girl in the mirror. She looks like herself but there is something different, something that reminds her of old photographs in the living room at home.

Outside waiting to leave, Hannah is a bit nervous around all these strange people. She meets four girls: Rachel, Shifre, Yente, and Esther. They have heard of a young girl coming from Lublin and are eager to meet her. Rachel tells Chaya that she will be her best friend. Hannah responds that she already has a best friend named Rosemary. The girls are astonished that Chaya is allowed to have friends who are not Jewish.

Hannah tells them of her life in New Rochelle. They are amazed to hear that she can go to school and even goes shopping on the Sabbath. Hannah tells them of the movie Yentl, in which Barbra Streisand disguises herself as a boy to enter a school to study the Torah.


Yolen begins to distinguish between the two eras that Hannah now inhabits, sometimes to humorous effect. Growing up in a different time and in a more open culture, Hannah has been exposed to things that young girls in 1942 would not have known about. She is aware of sexuality, and Rachel, Shifre, Esther, and Yente are amazed that she is allowed to have friends who are not Jewish. They chalk this up to Chaya's city upbringing. However, it is clear to the reader that in Hannah's modern age she has escaped many of the everyday hardships that these girls face. She is accustomed to food in greater abundance and in greater variety. She is used to having more personal freedom. As Hannah spends more time as Chaya, she will begin to have a much more substantial appreciation for things she took for granted. Though Chaya’s future is yet to come, for Hannah this is the past, and she suddenly tries very hard to keep it alive in her own mind, lest she forget who she is and where she came from.

The Holocaust robbed many not only of their lives but also of their past. For those who did survive, the past became too painful a memory to bear, yet they felt it was important not to forget what had happened. Many survivors had to start over and forge new lives for themselves. Suddenly removed from her family and transported to a strange place, Hannah wishes to be reunited with the very family she had not even wanted to see a few hours earlier. Yolen draws comparisons between a respect for the past and a strong sense of family.

Our families represent a great deal about who we are, whether we feel close to them or not. Hannah insists that her name is not Chaya, and that she is from New Rochelle instead of Lublin. To be robbed of our names and homes leaves a deep psychological scar. Hannah’s experience parallels that of the survivors of the Holocaust, as they moved away from their homelands and changed their names. They had to invent new personas and lives for themselves after the ones they had were exterminated by the Nazis.

This may seem at odds with the novel's main theme of remembering. But a balance has to be found so that while the survivors are not constantly reminded of what happened, they do not forget it or the families they lost. After all, these survivors needed live the rest of their lives. Wallowing in the past would not have done them any good and would prove of little benefit to those around them. Grandpa Will, for example, is presented as being unable to let go of much of the past. It has a stranglehold on his present, affecting his relationships with those around him.

Hannah finds that she is the source of much excitement and discussion as Chaya. Her ability to tell stories finds a suddenly very eager audience. It is possible that this element of Hannah's character reflects Yolen's own experiences in becoming a writer. Having an interest in writing is a start, but the newfound realization that others want to hear these stories presents the possibility of an actual career. Consider also that stories are a means of transmitting an oral or written history of a people. A record of what has happened before is also a form of remembering and commemorating the past.