“The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick (1989)

It’s really interesting that this and the last book I read a few days ago both center around a Jewish woman mourning the loss of a child. In my review from the other day I discussed Colm Tóibín’s take on the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the author’s focus more on her grief and humanity and almost his dismissal of any and all supernatural and religious aspects traditionally associated with the tale. Cynthia Ozick also does something similar with The Shawl, which comprises the short story that gives the book its name and the longer novella Rosa. And just as Tóibín did with the Gospels, here Ozick seems to do the same with the Holocaust, using it as the catalyst to explore a mother’s grief, but unlike many other stories with a similar narrative frame, the author shifts attention to the human rather than the inhuman atrocity as a whole.

the shawl

Rosa is the protagonist of both stories present in this publication, which came out in 1989. The first story takes place in a concentration camp and it introduces the reader to the woman and young mother to the toddler Magda as well as Rosa’s bitter and perceived as selfish niece Stella. The story is less than ten pages long and focuses mostly on the connection between mother and child and the love between the two. There is an element of magical realism present in the text as we learn that Rosa’s milk has dried up, but that the shawl that the woman uses to hide the existence of the child from the officers also provides the child with the sustenance needed to survive. Stella, on the other hand, wants the shawl to keep warm and when possible tries to steal it away from little Magda. The story ends in tragedy when Magda is found out and meets a gruesome end.

Picking up several decades later in Miami, Florida, Rosa is a much more complex analysis of grief and identity in light of a tragic past. The same woman from the previous short story is now in her advanced middle age and living quite frugally out of a dirty hotel room. She has ended up in Miami to escape her life with Stella in New York City, where she had a breakdown of some sorts during which she destroyed the store she owned and operated. Rosa spends most of her time writing letters to Stella and to her deceased daughter Magda. Given that the narrator is unreliable, even though it’s in the third person, details and truths concerning Magda’s origins and Rosa’s life or statements altogether are not always immediately clear or knowable. However, to Rosa Magda is still very much alive, and her daughter provides the only solace to a woman worn down by life’s horrors and a real and perceived stalking by academics and strangers alike. The shawl is also present in this story as well, but it no longer provides cover or life, rather it is now a medium through which memory and the past can come back to life. An erasure of trauma in many ways.

Cynthia Ozick

It’s very interesting that both stories I’ve read this week also center around women who are in many ways imprisoned. Mary was guarded by her son’s followers to ensure that her story match their version of events in order to tell a story of great importance. Rosa begins her story in a very real prison, a concentration camp, however the majority of her story finds her technically free, yet confined mostly, by her own will, to the claustrophobic hotel room but also jailed by her memories and her inescapable past: at one point she breaks down her life saying that the past cannot be returned to, life after the camp has been a dream or illusion, and the only thing that is real and that persists is the camp itself. And yet Rosa does go on living, if anything, for her daughter and to keep her (memory) alive.


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