The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick, 1988

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by Cynthia Ozick, 1988

First published in 1981 in The New Yorker, Cynthia Ozick's "The Shawl" was combined in 1988 with another piece of short fiction, "Rosa," to comprise the novella also titled The Shawl. Although the two segments are related, the 1981 story has a power and integrity sufficient to stand on its own merits, for it renders the Holocaust in searingly vivid sensory impressions of the cold, filth, starvation, and paralytic fear that afflicted its death camp victims. At the same time that these horrors arouse our sympathy, however, Ozick's strongly held Judaic ethos puts her victim-hero's maternal passion in conflict with the central basis of Jewish identity. "The single most serviceable … description of a Jew," she has written, is "someone who shuns idols." An idol, in turn, is anything that is treasured "instead of" God. And there is no doubting that Rosa Lublin in The Shawl reveres her martyred infant instead of God, going so far as to worship the shawl it had slept in as a sacred totem.

Even the child's name, Magda (a cognate of "magic"), evokes the realm of occult power that classic Judaism repudiates. In fact, Ozick's general choice of names reinforces her theme of cultural conflict. Although Rosa's last name, Lublin, is a powerful reminder of the Holocaust atrocities associated with Poland's second largest city, where 200, 000 Jews were liquidated, her first name, along with that of Stella and Magda, suggest a peculiarly Christianized sensibility. Traditionally the rose, as in a cathedral's rose window, symbolizes the Incarnation of Christ, while the other two names, Stella and Magda, evoke Latinate analogies with the Advent of the Christ child, the former with the star of Bethlehem and the latter with the Magi who came bearing gifts. (In Orthodox Judaism an icon such as a crucifix is a graven image, and the Trinity represents polytheism, making Christianity a pagan religion.) Deepening this dilemma of Jewish identity under siege is the apparent paternity of the child, whose blond eyes and blue hair lead Stella to call her "Aryan," "You could think she was one of their babies." (In "Rosa" the evidence favors Magda's father as being an SS guard.)

A consummate stylist in her other writings, Ozick here works to the outer reach of her talent, combining a mastery of metaphor with brutally precise diction for her most unforgettable effects. The filth in the barracks, for example, comes across in the "thick turd-braids, and the slow stinking waterfall that slunk down from the upper bunks, the stink mixed with a bitter fatty floating smoke that greased Rosa's skin." Outside, in "the ash-stippled wind," Stella, Rosa's teenage niece, looks skeletal: "Her knees were tumors on sticks, her elbows chicken bones…. Rosa and Stella were slowly turning into air." Meanwhile, surrounding the camp in heartless mockery is the burgeoning glory of nature: "The sunheat murmured of another life, of butterflies in summer…. green meadows speckled with dandelions and deep-colored violets … innocent tiger lilies, tall, lifting their orange bonnets." The two contrasting realms of nature's beauty and human brutality seem to join for one paralyzing moment when the infant Magda is flung by a guard into the fence, making her appear to Rosa from a distance "like a butterfly touching a silver wire." But when the child hits it, the electrified fence becomes animated with Moloch-like hunger, "The steel voices went mad in their growling."

At this moment Rosa too goes mad with the maternal frenzy that would sustain her idolatrous daughter worship undiminished throughout a lifetime. In the novella at large, though not in "The Shawl," we discover the reason for Rosa's cultural inadequacy. Before the war she had been raised in a wealthy family so totally assimilated into the Polish aristocracy as to make her utterly de-Judaized. As a result her major grievance against the Warsaw ghetto is her family's forced proximity to its class inferiors: "We were furious because we had to be billeted with such a class, with these old peasant Jews worn out from their rituals and superstitions, phylacteries on their foreheads sticking up so stupidly, like unicorn horns." The conflicting claims of maternal idolatry, class bias, and the Judaic ethos in The Shawl form a rich texture of ideas and feelings to which "The Shawl" is prologue. And in its own right, despite Ozick's reluctance to make art of the Holocaust, which delayed publication of the story for several years, "The Shawl" figures to rank as a classic work on the subject. It has an interior grasp of Holocaust horror that is graphic enough to be unsurpassed in the realm of imaginative literature.

—Victor Strandberg