“The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick imparts insight into the lives of three Polish Jews who try to survive in a concentration camp during World War II. The story is told in third person point-of-view through the character of Rosa, the mother of Magda, a baby. Rosa’s struggles to keep her child alive in the hostile environment of the camp required phenomenal efforts.
After some time in the camps, Rosa, Stella, her fourteen year old niece, and Magda, now fifteen months old, are hanging on for their lives. Rosa gives most of her food to Magda, yet she is barely alive. Her eyes are widened and her belly is swollen, typical of starvation and dehydration.
Everywhere Magda goes, the “magical” shawl accompanies her. It has given her great satisfaction and appears to have even fed her as she sucked on it as though it were her mother’s breast. Magda does not speak. Somehow, with the use of the shawl, Rosa has kept Magda hidden from the Nazis.
Stella has always been jealous of Magda. Her desire for the shawl has grown, so she takes it away from the baby. When Rosa is not paying attention, Magda wanders out into the grounds and begins to scream. Rosa despite her shock hurries to find the shawl to lure the baby back into the barracks.
When she returns to the door, Magda has been scooped up by “a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots.” Walking a little way down the fence, the Nazi soldier throws the baby into the electrified fence which instantly kills the baby.
Rosa’s observation of the death of her child comes as she steps from the barracks to find Magda. Her view includes the other side of the deadly fence. To Rosa, a pastoral garden appears.
On the other side of the steel fence, there were green meadows speckled with dandelions and deep-colored violets; beyond them, even farther, innocent tiger lilies.
The conflicted worlds of the ugliness in the concentration camps [described by the author as raining excrement and filled with greasy smoke emanating from the crematoriums] with the beauty on the other side of the fence symbolically fills the reader with empathy. Rosa’s vision simultaneously incorporates both the view of the murder of her child and this luscious meadow.
Faced with the choice to run to her child, stay quiet and return to the barracks, or scream at the top of lungs—to save herself with her baby already dead, Rosa stuffs the shawl in her mouth and begins to suck on it. In another time, the baby and Rosa might have played in a similar place. Now, the baby is dead.
The meadow fills Rosa with grief, guilt and loneliness; however, she will find a way to the other side. Rosa will live in the symbolic garden again and in Magda’s honor.