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The Shawl: A Story and a Novella Cynthia Ozick

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Trudie Vosce) American short fiction writer, novelist, essayist, and playwright.

The following entry presents criticism of Ozick's short fiction collection The Shawl: A Story and a Novella (1989).

One of Ozick's most critically acclaimed works, The...

(The entire section contains 45778 words.)

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The Shawl: A Story and a Novella Cynthia Ozick

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Trudie Vosce) American short fiction writer, novelist, essayist, and playwright.

The following entry presents criticism of Ozick's short fiction collection The Shawl: A Story and a Novella (1989).

One of Ozick's most critically acclaimed works, The Shawl: A Story and a Novella (1989), consisting of the short story “The Shawl” and the novella “Rosa,” provides a devastating picture of the Holocaust and a survivor's life after it. Considered a departure from Ozick's previously cerebral and ironic tone, the fierceness and immediacy of The Shawl make it one of her most powerful works. The focus of these narratives is a woman who idolatrously worships the memory of her infant daughter who was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.

Plot and Major Characters

The Shawl tells the story of Rosa Lublin's life, both during the Holocaust and her existence afterwards in Florida. “The Shawl,” which first appeared in the New Yorker on May 26, 1980, depicts the death of Rosa's fifteen-month-old daughter, Magda, in a concentration camp and the shawl that sustained her when Rosa's breasts could not. “Rosa,” originally published in the New Yorker on March 23, 1983, is set some thirty years later in Florida, where Rosa has moved after burning down her store in New York. The torment Rosa still feels from her experience in the concentration camp can be seen through her interactions with Stella, a niece who shared her experience in the camp and now supports Rosa from New York, and Rosa's interactions with people in her immediate surroundings including Dr. Tree, who would like her to join a study on people who have been incarcerated and malnourished. The effects of Rosa's horrifying experience can be seen through her memories and her active imagination. Throughout the story, she brings her daughter back to life in order to invent different lives for her, which serve to allow the reader to see the intense psychological and emotional effects of having lived through such an odious event. It is only through a friendship she begins to forge with the unrelenting Simon Persky, also originally from Warsaw, that she may be able to escape the torment of her own experiences.

Major Themes

Although the Holocaust serves as a touchstone in much of Ozick's short fiction, for the most part her works examine the dilemma of being Jewish in modern Western society, particularly the United States. However, “The Shawl” focuses on the experience and the horror of the Holocaust itself. Despite its brevity, Ozick vividly conveys the unspeakable atrocities that occurred in the concentration camps. “Rosa” then focuses on the aftereffects of such an experience on Rosa. The loss of her daughter and Rosa's obsession with the shawl that Magda carried until just prior to her death come to symbolize one of the strongest themes of the collection, the extreme losses suffered by the Holocaust survivors. The shawl also points to a second theme that does not appear until the very end of the text, that of recovery. It is only when Rosa is finally reunited with Magda's shawl that the reader can see the possibility of Rosa letting go of the past and focusing on the present.

Critical Reception

Since the publication of her first novel Trust (1966), Ozick has garnered critical acclaim for her attention to language and thought-provoking arguments about Jewish American culture. Reviews of The Shawl commend the powerful manner in which Ozick portrays the brutality of the Holocaust both in the camps themselves and in its aftereffects. Both “The Shawl” and “Rosa” won first prize in the O. Henry Prize Stories and were chosen for Best American Short Stories. Much of the criticism of Ozick's works focuses on her identity as a Jewish woman and her representations of Jewish people in her texts. Although many critics are quick to find somewhat simplistic interpretations of both works, many others point to the complexity of the characters and situations created by Ozick. Ozick herself has warned against reducing her work to oversimplified themes; instead, readers need to examine the intricacies and accept the contradictions. Many scholars have focused their criticism on one of Ozick's major recurring themes—the contradiction between writing fiction and obeying Jewish law which forbids the creation of idols. The critical reaction to Ozick's argument that art can act as a form of idolatry has been sharply mixed.

Principal Works

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The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories 1971

Bloodshed and Three Novellas 1976

Levitation: Five Fictions 1982

*The Shawl: A Story and a Novella 1989

Puttermesser Papers 1997

Trust (novel) 1966

Art and Ardor (essays) 1983

The Cannibal Galaxy (novel) 1983

The Messiah of Stockholm (novel) 1987

Fame and Folly: Essays (essays) 1989

Metaphor and Memory: Essays (essays) 1989

What Henry James Knew and Other Essays on Writers (essays) 1993

Blue Light (play) 1994

Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character and Other Essays on Writing (essays) 1996

Quarrel and Quandary (essays) 2000

*Includes the short story “The Shawl” and the novella “Rosa,” which is also termed a story by some critics.

Elaine M. Kauver (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Kauver, Elaine M. “The Magic Shawl.” In Cynthia Ozick's Fiction: Tradition and Invention, pp. 179-202. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Kauver investigates how themes from Ozick's earlier writings both reoccur and change in The Shawl.]

A writer who resists finality is a writer whose imagination is given over to a habit of many sidedness and multiplicity. Having concluded The Cannibal Galaxy and “The Laughter of Akiva” in Miami, Florida, with Joseph Brill and Reuben Karpov inhabiting at the end of their lives a metaphoric hell of their own devising, Ozick begins “The Shawl” and “Rosa,” which she wrote during the same period, with Rosa Lublin first in the demonic hell of the Nazi death camps and then in the continuing hell of their aftermath. Initially published separately—“The Shawl” in 1980 and “Rosa” in 1983—before they appeared in a single volume in 1989, the two stories are wed thematically, yoked by corresponding images, and unified by a commanding metaphor; the tales flow seamlessly together. Ozick duplicates their imagery, pairs their events, and then allows them to coalesce so as to see them with double sight. In its emphasis on the relationship between mother and daughter, in its engagement with the significance of silence, in its involvement with the idea of cannibalism, The Shawl bears marked resemblances to The Cannibal Galaxy and “The Laughter of Akiva.” But The Shawl turns their concerns inside out: “every notion owns a double face.” Manifesting the storyteller's practice of shaping related tales into fictions that unfold alternate positions, The Shawl opens a perspective unlike the one Cynthia Ozick developed in her second novel.


Hidden in the cellar of a convent, Joseph Brill escaped the butchery of the death camps; incarcerated in one of them, Rosa Lublin experienced its horrors and witnessed a demonic world of unparalleled proportions. In The Shawl Ozick not only instances with piercing intensity the brutality common to the German hell but reveals how it continued to torment its victims and perpetuated the work of the victimizers. For the first time in her fiction, she tells a tale directly from the consciousness of a Holocaust survivor, enshrining her as a spokeswoman for the truth. To Holocaust literature The Shawl is undeniably of huge importance: the events in the German abattoir become searingly real as their effects emerge in Rosa Lublin's thoughts, which record the torment the survivor endured and so “rescue the suffering … from dreadful anonymity” (Appelfeld 92). Ozick's achievement does not end there, however, for incorporating into the tales facts gleaned from history and events derived from memoirs, the storyteller lays bare the intricacies of the human mind. As she has from the very beginning of her career, Cynthia Ozick penetrates the individual psyche by apprehending the historical occurrences that shaped it. If “The Shawl” and “Rosa” expose the anguish inflicted by radical evil, they affirm the courage displayed by human beings in their efforts to vanquish the powers of darkness.

Interwoven in “The Shawl” are allusions to Elie Wiesel's Night, to which Ozick refers in “A Mercenary,” and to Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz. What memoirs contain are facts; and facts, as Enoch Vand and Stanislav Lushinski avow, constitute “what really happened.” Facts register the “Real.” The unfathomable reality of the German hell, the harrowing events reported by Wiesel and Levi, are evoked in The Shawl and lend to it the configurations of biography. It is to the interrelatedness of biography and fiction that Ozick increasingly turns; yoking the two forms, she implies they yield a key to the world's design. But the linear time of biography is radically dislocated in “The Shawl” and replaced by the terrifying feeling of timelessness, the sense that for the victims of the death camps “history had stopped” (Levi 107). For that reason, the beginning of “The Shawl,” which recounts events from Rosa's point of view, affords neither orientation in time nor clarification of place. Instead, the tale opens with the elliptical, “Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell.” What follows unfolds the effects of that hell on the three people imprisoned in it. Not until the second paragraph, when she mentions the yellow Star of David sewn into Rosa's coat, does Ozick reveal that Rosa, Stella, and Magda are Jews on a march whose destination is a Nazi concentration camp.

The stars, which in The Cannibal Galaxy represent the heights to which Joseph Brill once aspired, have in “The Shawl” become ominous signs of exclusion and doom. And they are buttressed by Rosa's description of Stella: “Her knees were tumors on sticks, her elbows chicken bones” (3). In “Levitation” flight signals the direction toward which the Jews soar to recover Covenant; for Joseph Brill, height points to success. But in “The Shawl” the dichotomy between the air and the ground marks the distinction between the innocent and the evil: “Rosa did not feel hunger; she felt light, not like someone walking but like someone in a faint, in trance, arrested in a fit, someone who is already a floating angel, alert and seeing everything, but in the air, not there, not touching the road” (3-4). Of separating the victims of the Holocaust from its perpetrators Ozick has written:

The Holocaust happened to its victims. It did not happen in them. The victims were not the participants. The event swept over them, but they were separate from it. That is why they are “sanctified”—because they did not perform evil. … And if there is one notion we need to understand more than any other, it is this principle of separation. The people for whom the Holocaust “happened” were the people who made it happen. The perpetrators are the Holocaust; the victims stand apart.

(“Roundtable” 284)

The metaphor of flight in “The Shawl” does not link Rosa to Feingold in “Levitation,” nor does it attribute to her the ability “to overcome history” (Berger 53). Rosa is in the air because she does not partake of evil. She is divided from desecration.

That intensifies Rosa's struggle to conceal Magda from the Nazis, which in turn increases the conflicts with a fourteen-year-old's jealousy and makes more fierce the battle Rosa must wage to stay alive. She judges her niece—Stella's relationship to Rosa is divulged in the following story—the epitome of coldness, her envy the prelude to cannibalism. Wanting “to be wrapped in a shawl, hidden away, asleep, rocked by the march, a baby, a round infant in arms,” Stella, Rosa thinks, is “waiting for Magda to die” (3, 5). But it is Stella who studies the blueness of the baby's eyes, gazes at the roundness of its face, stares at the yellowness of its hair, and declares Magda an Aryan. In fact, Magda appears to be “one of their babies,” the child, Ozick intimates, born of an S.S. officer in a concentration camp (4).

The implied connection between Rosa and a German recalls “The Suitcase” and “A Mercenary”—the relationship between Genevieve Lewin and Gottfried Hencke and the one between Stanislav Lushinski and his mistress Lulu. Imagery from those stories, as well as from Trust, reappears in “The Shawl.” At first associating yellow with Europe and then with Tilbeck, Ozick ultimately joins the aestheticism that produced the Final Solution to paganism. Yellow is the color to which Mr. Hencke is “susceptible”: buttercups remind him of his past in Germany, and the color suffuses the dream he has of his niece lying dead on a turntable in the nave, her body covered only by her yellow hair (PR 105). In Trust, however, a baby plays with a spool of yellow thread, an emblem of what is to come. Catching up those implications, Magda's yellow hair connects the infant to the color of Germany and to the baby in Trust who, like Magda, is an augury of the future. To the paganism conjured up by yellow in “The Shawl” Ozick adds roundness, a reminder of Lushinski's adopted and pagan country. That mourning is associated with roundness in “A Mercenary” suggests the “round infant” in “The Shawl,” its tooth an “elfin tombstone of white marble,” will be the reason for her mother's grief (4). Although Rosa shares with Lushinski's parents the impulse to give their child away, she can neither save her infant nor spare herself the horror of being a witness to her daughter's death. That is the event toward which “The Shawl” inexorably moves.

It is the event the shawl delays. To the main metaphor of “The Shawl” and “Rosa,” Ozick attaches antithetical pairs of images—sound and silence, darkness and light. Wrapped in the shawl in the “place without pity,” Magda is safe because quiet. The substitute for her mother's teat, its “duct crevice extinct, a dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole,” the shawl is “guarded” by Magda: “No one could touch it; only Rosa could touch it. Stella was not allowed. The shawl was Magda's own baby, her pet, her little sister” (4, 6). Robbed of the shawl, Magda breaks the long silence that enabled Rosa to hide the baby in the barracks or to disguise the infant as the “shivering mound” of her mother's breasts. Because of its capacity to nourish an “infant for three days and three nights,” Rosa believes the shawl is magic; because Stella took the shawl away, Rosa thinks her niece “made Magda die.” But the reason Magda died had little to do with her lost shawl and less to do with her cries; Magda died because “the historical necessity of killing the children of Jews was self-demonstrative to the Germans” (Levi 16).

Even magic could not have saved Magda from those murderers. Bereft of her shawl, she toddles into the “roll-call arena” where her mouth spills a “long viscous rope of clamor,” forcing her mother to decide whether to rush into the arena and grab the “howling” baby or to run back to the barracks, recover the shawl, and silence her grieving daughter (8). Having fetched the magical object she believes will preserve her infant's life, Rosa emerges from the dark barracks into the “perilous sunlight of the arena” only to glimpse her baby far away, “high up, elevated, riding someone's shoulder” (8, 9). It is the shoulder from which Magda is hurled against the electrified fence. If the absence of the shawl contributes to Magda's death, the shawl helps keep Stella and Rosa alive. Hidden under the shawl after she steals it from Magda, Stella sleeps safely in the barracks while Magda is being murdered. Juxtaposing those events, Ozick doubles Magda's milking the shawl at the beginning of the story with Rosa's stuffing the shawl into her mouth at the end of the story. Forced to watch Magda fall “from her flight against the electrified fence,” Rosa knows that to cry out or to dash to her dead child is to be shot: the shawl, which once nourished the infant, now stifles its mother's screams—the “wolf's screech” that will bring instant death. The antithesis between sound and silence, between speech and muteness, pervades the story, recalls the role accorded to silence in The Cannibal Galaxy, and reinforces the shawl's significance. “The Shawl” begins with Magda's scream on the road to the camp and ends with Rosa's suppressed cry. Throughout the tale, it is silence that saves: “Everyday Magda was silent, and so she did not die” (7). But it is her infant's quietness that induces Rosa to believe that “Magda was defective, without a voice; perhaps she was deaf; there might be something amiss with her intelligence” (7).

Rosa's anxieties about Magda revive Brill's conclusions about Beulah Lilt: the principal regards her reticence as evidence of her stupidity, the sign of failure. In Ozick's second novel, the absence of language signals potential, the kind of silence André Neher accords to the “boundary event in the human history of silence”—Auschwitz (137). That silence—the stilling of “human sound,” the muteness before the incomprehensibility of madness—counters the “curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command” in the description Levi provides of his journey to Auschwitz (15). In his memoir Wiesel tells of the silence of God, the “nocturnal silence” that robbed him “of the desire to live”; but in “The Shawl,” it is silence and darkness which offer a chance for survival (Wiesel 31-32). The “grainy sad voices,” which Rosa hears in the fence and which Stella says are “only an imagining,” at first direct the mother to “hold up the shawl, high” to lure her child back and then turning “mad in their growling,” the voices urge Rosa to rush to Magda. To obey the “lamenting voices,” the voices she has internalized, would invite certain death and so Rosa “took Magda's shawl, and filled her mouth with it.” Stifling her screams, she remains alive while her child dies in the sunlit arena.1 In the pitiless world of the death camps, the sun's ordinary benefits were transformed into omens of danger: “it seemed,” Primo Levi writes, “as though the new sun rose as an ally of our enemies to assist in our destruction” (12). It is the dark gloom of the barracks that conceals and protects in “The Shawl”; “in the perilous sunlight of the arena” Magda is detected and murdered (4).

Against the innocent “sunheat” which “murmured of another life, of butterflies in summer” Ozick juxtaposes the sunlit roll-call arena (8). Above the arena, separate from the evil perpetrated in it, or beyond the fence, where “green meadows speckled with dandelions and deep-colored violets” thrive, the light “was placid, mellow” (8). That light promotes bloom. But in the roll-call arena the harsh sunlight exposes Magda's murderer, his glinting helmet “tapped” by the light that “sparkled” the helmet “into a goblet” (9). To the opposing kinds of light, Ozick adds the competing round heads—the helmeted murderer's head, reminiscent of Morris Ngambe's “forehead, perfectly rounded, like a goblet,” and the round, vulnerable infant's head. The contrasting images divide good from evil; but Magda's eyes, innocent of evil, are “horribly alive, like blue tigers.” Magda's eyes reflect the fierceness born of deprivation. Outside the fence, nourished by nature's plenitude, grow “innocent tiger lilies, tall, lifting their orange bonnets” (8). Emblems of the life struggled for inside the fence and the life flourishing outside it, the tiger eyes and the tiger lilies divide the world of the death camp from the world that surrounds it.

Images of life vie with images of death as Ozick evokes the chilling events common to the death camps in almost unbearably moving terms. Because of its perfect narrative art, “The Shawl” manages to celebrate the power to imagine another life, the human endeavor to survive. The voices in the fence and the magic of the shawl are imaginings; when they direct Rosa to unfurl the shawl to attract Magda, the voices represent the saving power of the imagination. But the power to preserve coexists in the imagination alongside the power to destroy, as the “electrified voices” demonstrate when they begin “to chatter wildly” and command Rosa to die (9). The magic she attributes to the shawl is for the narrator of “Usurpation” forbidden, but in “The Shawl” Rosa owes her life to the shawl's magic. And Magda, her saliva redolent of cinnamon and almond—part of the sacred anointing oil in Scripture and a biblical symbol of divine approval—becomes for Rosa a holy babe capable of being sustained for three days and three nights as if by magic.

Indeed, Rosa's belief in the magic forbidden by Judaism is more accurately linked to paganism. More importantly, the three days and three nights the magic shawl keeps Magda alive conjure in her mother the infant Jesus Christ; and the allusion to Christ in context of the Holocaust recalls Lucy Feingold equating it with the Crucifixion. That alive the baby “flopped onward with her little pencil legs scribbling this way and that,” that the child “swimming through the air” resembles a “butterfly touching a silver vine”—these are images which sever Magda from the evildoers in the camp, it is true. But the images are not evidence of Rosa's covenantal belief; they foreshadow the miraculous realm of the imagination to which Rosa will be forced to consign her beloved dead child and its magical shawl.2 Although the child journeys “through loftiness,” her flight ends in a fall against the electrified fence (9). Magda's fate is not Sheindel's. In employing the image of the butterfly by placing it first in the context of life and then in the context of death, Ozick summons up the doubleness with which she has endowed her image. Present at the conclusion of The Cannibal Galaxy as a sign of Beulah Lilt's aestheticism, the butterfly is a pagan emblem, one appropriate to the pagan act from which Magda was born. Seeing her fall to her death, Rosa envisions her child as Psyche's emblem. Yet at the end of “The Shawl,” despite the imaginary voices urging her like sirens to follow them to the fence where she will be shot, Rosa contravenes what she imagines. Her will to live triumphs over her imagination, over rushing to her infant's remains, over her maternal instincts. The insupportable pain arising in the wake of such an experience constitutes part of the terrible cost of surviving the German hell.


What follows in its aftermath becomes achingly apparent in “Rosa,” which takes place, though Ozick does not immediately divulge it, over thirty years after “The Shawl.” Instead of presenting the events of Rosa's life directly, Ozick begins her novella evocatively: “Rosa Lublin, a madwoman and a scavenger, gave up her store—she smashed it up herself—and moved to Miami.” The reasons she was driven to destroy her store emerge later in the tale, not in the chronology of biography but in the associations made by the psyche. In the sequel to “The Shawl” Ozick continues to disclose the linear past the way it appears in the consciousness of her character, but in “Rosa” the storyteller also employs the epistolary form to set forth the events in Rosa's life. Like Allegra Vand, Rosa Lublin recounts her history in the letters she writes. Whether imaginary or real, letters illuminate the workings of a mind, and letters occupy a prominent place in Ozick's fiction: they constitute chapters of people's lives. If in “The Shawl” the consequences of what Rosa has undergone are registered in her thoughts, in “Rosa” she refashions her history in the act of letterwriting. More than the portrayal of Rosa's psyche adjoins “The Shawl” to “Rosa,” however. They are connected by common thematic concerns, unified by a mutual metaphor, linked by shared imagery; the tales are consanguineous. Doubling actions and images in “The Shawl” and “Rosa,” Ozick penetrates the multiple significations inhering in all experience.

Not only are “The Shawl” and “Rosa” reflections of each other, they mirror the themes that obsess The Cannibal Galaxy. Haunting all three fictions is the idea of hell. At the beginning of Ozick's second novel, Joseph Brill envisions the Middle as a particular kind of hell; at the beginning of “The Shawl,” Rosa Lublin ponders the coldness of hell in the death camp; but in “Rosa,” under the blaze of Miami's sun, she “felt she was in hell” (14). In late middle age, the fifty-eight-year-old schoolmaster and the fifty-eight-year-old woman are melancholics, counters of losses, worshipers at altars of death. Bearing similarities to Joseph Brill, Rosa Lublin recalls Hester Lilt as well. Her relationship with Beulah, one the schoolmaster judges analogous to that between Madame de Sévigné and her daughter, is echoed and extended in the relationship between Rosa and Magda. If the kinship between mother and daughter provides, as it did for Madame de Sévigné, a muse for Hester Lilt and Rosa Lublin, the bond leaves Beulah Lilt an orphan of the future and turns Rosa Lublin into an idolator of the past. Sharing with Trust a concern for the relations between mothers and daughters, The Cannibal Galaxy and “The Shawl” are tied to Ozick's first novel by the issue of a mysterious paternity. But the puzzle of Beulah's paternity remains unresolved, that of Magda's only dimly perceived. Wholly disparate, the three tales are nonetheless harnessed by kindred themes and paired motifs. In fact, “Rosa,” which is set in Miami and which begins where “The Laughter of Akiva” and The Cannibal Galaxy end, becomes a kind of sequel to them as well as to “The Shawl.” Although the novella's three parts duplicate the number prominent in “The Shawl,” they extend—they do not merely repeat—the significance of the number three. Matching images and related events occur throughout “Rosa,” as Ozick doubles episodes within the novella and between it and the story to connect existence in the camp to life after it, to distinguish truth from illusion, to reflect emotional conflict, to measure psychic change. In evidence from the very beginning of “Rosa,” doubling is the organizing principle of the novella.

In Miami Rosa lives “in a dark hole, a single room in a ‘hotel’” that recalls the dark barracks of the camp (13). There she was starved; in her room she starves herself. She exists on “toast with a bit of sour cream and half a sardine, or a small can of peas heated in a Pyrex mug” or, like Zindel, on “two bites of a hard-boiled egg” (13, 14). Imagining the hot streets are a “furnace, the sun, an executioner,” she aligns them to the sunheat in the arena, to Moloch to whom children were sacrificed (14). In the darkness of her room, Rosa Lublin re-enacts the horrors she lived through in the past. But the scraps of food she eats—some fish, a bit of egg—augur fertility, betoken the renewal of life. On her writing board, Rosa composes letters to Magda in Polish and writes to Stella in English. Her letters set forth feelings about a daughter whose death Rosa often does not acknowledge and about her niece whom she addresses “Angel … for the sake of peace,” but privately thinks is the “Angel of Death” (15). Rosa's description of Stella, “already nearly fifty years old,” reveals that the novella takes place almost thirty-five years after “The Shawl,” when Stella was only fourteen and when Rosa was convinced her niece made her daughter die (15). And Stella's “round … doll's eyes” and “buttercup lips” recall Magda as Rosa describes her in “The Shawl” (15). Attributing to them twin traits, Ozick implies that for Rosa Magda and Stella are opposing selves. In the death camp Rosa believed the fourteen-year-old girl had thoughts of cannibalizing the baby; in Miami Rosa has “cannibal dreams about Stella” (15). It is as if Rosa has revived the past in the present, for the “killing” sun in Florida—a “murdering sunball” which “fried” the elderly “scarecrows”—conjures up the perilous sunlight in the arena and its emaciated victims (15, 16). Over three decades later, even Florida is awash with reminders of the torment she endured in the German hell.

Ruminating over the past, Rosa gazes at her dirty sheets and knows she must wash them; at the laundromat an “old man sat cross-legged beside her, fingering a newspaper” (17). He speaks Yiddish, but she does not, and her mother's mockery of Yiddish explains why. Their mutual birthplaces in Warsaw, their inability to speak English fluently—these bring Rosa and Persky together, but she separates herself from him, lamenting her “lost and kidnapped Polish” the way Edelshtein mourns “in English the death of Yiddish” (Shawl 20; PR 43). The “Warsaw of her girlhood” is juxtaposed against the “thieves who took her life,” and Warsaw survives “behind her eyes”: a “bright field flashed; then a certain shadowy corridor. … Once, walking there, she was conscious of the coursing of her own ecstasy” (20). Of the “house of her girlhood” she recalls a “thousand books. Polish, German, French; her father's Latin books”; in that house she read the Polish poet Julian Tuwim (21). Hers was a family proud of its assimilation.

Born of middle-class Jewish parents, the Polish poet came from a background strikingly parallel to Rosa's. Not only do his allegiances clarify Rosa's, they signal the presence of another theme in the novella—the obsessions of the writer. Like Rosa Lublin's, Julian Tuwim's mother was an assimilationist who instilled in her son a devoted Polish spirit. The Polish poet's pervasive use of the word “blood,” as Adam Gillon explains, “fits neatly into Tuwim's pantheistic view of the world, according to which everything can be deified, everything constitutes an element of God” (Gillon 10). Scorning the elderly in Florida for being bourgeois, preoccupied with fabrics, the “meals they used to cook,” their hair, Rosa resembles Tuwim and his hatred of “Philistines … for their lack of imagination” (Shawl 20; Gömöri 51). In his poems he celebrated the sacredness of poetry, often alluding to Christ and even producing litanies.3 An émigré in New York in 1944, Tuwim loved Poland ardently, but he was savaged by its antisemitic critics.4 Out of his experience came “We the Jews of Poland,” wherein Tuwim declared the “only binding ties those based on … the blood of martyrs, spilled by villains” (Markish 41). Tuwim's article became the manifesto of assimilated Jewry throughout Europe, and at the end of his life, the Polish poet gave his support to Israel. His path augurs Rosa's.

To her new acquaintance Simon Persky, a “third cousin to Shimon Peres, the Israeli politician,” Rosa speaks of Warsaw, the model of “Cultivation, old civilization, beauty, history!” (22, 21). A “great light” illuminated Warsaw and its gardens; murderous sunlight burns the “perpetual garden of Florida” (21, 16). Doubling the gardens, Ozick dramatizes the way in which Rosa keeps the memory of Warsaw alive in Florida. That she calls herself “Lublin, Rosa” reveals her attachment to Poland; that Ozick chose the name Lublin stresses the fate of Rosa's assimilation. Originally planned as a reservation for the concentration of Jews by the Nazis, Lublin became one of the centers for mass extermination and was the site of a prisoner of war camp for Jews who had served in the Polish army. The Nazis made no distinction between Jews who abandoned their Jewishness and Jews who celebrated it: religious Jews were murdered alongside assimilated ones. Rosa's and Lushinski's histories accentuate the fundamental futility of the Jew in hiding.5 Though they resemble each other in denying their identities, Rosa and Lushinski are opposites. Where Lushinski runs from the roil of Europe and masters the language of Africa, Rosa remains mainly ignorant of English and wants to return to her girlhood in Poland.

To gainsay any similarity to the Jew Persky, Rosa reiterates the distinction between her Warsaw and his. But Persky, “proud of being a flirt,” is not easily discouraged. Instinctively sensing the reason she lives like a hermit, he admonishes her, “‘You can't live in the past.’” Before the window of the kosher cafeteria to which her new acquaintance leads her, Rosa descries a “ragged old bird with worn feathers, Skinny, a stork” (23). Of the reason the stork is deemed impure by Jewish law, Hester Lilt writes: “She hopes only for the distinction of the little one under her heart. She will not cherish the stranger's young” (CG 158). The window, like the mirrors in Trust, “Envy,” and “The Doctor's Wife,” throws back an image of the truth: Rosa cares only for Magda. Other facts emerge in the conversation Rosa and Persky have as they sit at a round table, a counterpart to the table in Rosa's room. His son, whom Persky supports, forced his father to sell the factory where he made buttons and accessories; Rosa, whom Stella supports, specialized in antique mirrors until she destroyed her own store. Their careers establish their differences: an unexceptional man, Persky wanted to make new and ordinary buttons. He sought to join things together, but treasuring a former time, Rosa detached herself from others. Without even a pocket mirror now—a reminder of her lost daughter's “pocket mirror of a face”—Rosa revived the past in her antique mirrors. But her missing button not only separates her from Persky, it is an emblem of the hell she crawled out of. Part of the hell of Auschwitz, Primo Levi observed, had to do with the “infinite and senseless” rites of the camp such as the “control of buttons on one's jacket, which had to be five” (29). And later in his memoir, the absence of buttons becomes a sign of the helplessness and vulnerability of those who were forced to leave the camp's infirmary, “naked and almost always insufficiently cured,” and had to adapt to a new Block and a new Kommando (51). Finding herself in another hell three decades after the German one, Rosa, Ozick implies, is as ill-equipped for “human contact” as the partially healed man Levi describes in his memoirs (51).

Rosa's psychic wounds have not healed, for the “thieves” who wrested her life from her left Rosa no alternative save to retreat to a life “inside her eyes” (20-21). And so she toils away from a new human contact to withdraw to her room. On Miami's scalding streets, she thinks, “Summer without end, a mistake!” (28). Her reflection conjures up Joseph Brill's grim apprehension of perpetuity and alludes to E. B. White's essay, “Once More to the Lake.” Revisiting the summer camp of his childhood with his son, the father witnessed the perdurability of nature, the “pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end” (200). The distinction between himself, his father, and his son blurred, White felt that “there had been no years,” that the generations were linked “in a strong indestructible chain” (199, 202). But in the wake of that perception comes a more chilling one—his sudden awareness of the swift and inexorable passage of time, a glimpse of his own mortality. In Miami where her memories of the death camp are continually awakened, Rosa is racked not by her own mortality but by her daughter's death, not by the congruence of the generations but by their disjunction, not by the ravages of time but by “time at the fix.”

The mirrored lobby yields up a reflection of the hotel's residents and Rosa sees they believe “in the seamless continuity of the body,” in the eternal sameness of life, in permanence: “In these mirrors the guests appeared to themselves as they used to be” (28, 29). Forgetful of their children and their grandchildren, the aged grow “significant to themselves” (29). What is important to them is insignificant to Rosa, for she looks forward to finding her child's shawl delivered in the day's mail. Turning the box “round and round” in her room as if to mimic the shape of Magda's face, Rosa recollects her child's smell, the “holy fragrance of the lost babe. Murdered. Thrown against the fence, barbed, thorned, electrified; grid and griddle; a furnace; the child on fire!” (31). The bed covers “knotted together like an umbilical cord” link the mother's dreams in Miami to the infant who died in Germany. Of the ritual that accompanies Rosa's memories Stella writes:

It's thirty years, forty, who knows, give it a rest. It isn't as if I don't know just exactly how you do it, what it's like. What a scene, disgusting! You'll open the box and take it out and cry, and you'll kiss it like a crazy person. Making holes in it with kisses. You're like those people in the Middle Ages who worshiped a piece of the True Cross, a splinter from some old outhouse as far as anybody knew, or else they fell down in front of a single hair supposed to be some saint's.


And in Stella's comparison of Rosa's idolatry to the worship of the Cross, Ozick affirms what she implies in “The Shawl”—that the child who was kept alive for three days and three nights is for its mother an image of the infant Christ. It is an image that renders Rosa unable to relinquish the past and incapable of resuming her life. To face the truth of Stella's remarks is to sacrifice illusion and to suffer further loss. The Angel of Death who made Magda die wants to shatter Rosa's idol.

In a remarkably deft association, Ozick joins Stella's urging Rosa to live her life, her memory of the thieves who robbed her of her life, and her missing a pair of underpants. That loss, ostensibly a trivial one, symbolizes a loss of such magnitude that to confront it directly would be intolerable. Untangling a blue-striped dress, Stella's birthday present, from the bedsheets the way Persky had unwound her laundry, Rosa recalls the striped uniforms worn in the death camps: “Stripes, never again anything on her body with stripes!” (33). And she condemns Stella for buying the dress, denounces her for forgetting her past—“As if innocent, as if ignorant, as if not there”—and for becoming “indistinguishable” from “ordinary” Americans who cannot “guess what hell she had crawled out of” (33). The memory of that hell prompts Rosa to remember Magda's shawl, which she means “to crush … in her mouth” the way she did when she witnessed her baby murdered (35). As if to receive communion, “She tidied all around. … She spread jelly on three crackers and deposited a Lipton's tea bag on the Welch's lid. It was grape jelly” (34). But the idea that Persky “had her underpants in his pocket” distracts her from her ritual and revives memories of a painful sexual experience: “The shame. Pain in the loins. Burning” (34). Ozick forges the links among the events indirectly, the way they appear in consciousness when ordinary sights and objects evoke deeper and more disturbing thoughts from which the mind turns in wincing pain.

Rather than remember the brute who violated her, Rosa makes Persky into the culprit: a “sex maniac, a wife among the insane, his parts starved” (34). That Stella believes her aunt belongs with the insane and has the power to put Rosa in a mental hospital, as Persky has his wife, induces Rosa to imagine herself with Mrs. Persky learning about “Persky's sexual habits” and telling her, a “woman with children,” about Magda (35). In this manner, Ozick doubles the kinds of madness in order to distinguish them: she separates mental pathology from the madness brought about by war.6 The intricacy of the consciousness Ozick has produced emerges in the letters Rosa writes and in her responses to the letters of others. Letters afford entry into Rosa's consciousness; they furnish the fragments of a history that must be fit together like the pieces of a puzzle. Vacillating between remembering her baby's death and denying it, Rosa bears testimony to the extent of her suffering. Of such agony Dr. James W. Tree from the “Department of Clinical Social Pathology at the University of Kansas-Iowa” knows little. His “university letter,” which arrived along with Stella's letter, reduces Rosa's anguish to sociological jargon, conjuring up the mechanistic predictions of the psychologists against whom Hester Lilt inveighs and the pompous platitudes of the famous critic whom Ozick satirizes in “The Suitcase.”

The recipient of funds from “the Minew Foundation of the Kansas-Iowa Institute for Humanitarian Context,” Dr. James W. Tree finds “remarkable” the persistence in survivors' lives of “neurological residues” and “hormonal changes” (36). What “particularly engages” him is the “‘metaphysical’ side of Repressed Animation (R.A),” a theory he believes accounts for survivors' responses to the death camps: “It begins to be evident that prisoners gradually came to Buddhist positions. They gave up craving and began to function in terms of non-functioning, i.e., non-attachment. … Non-attachment is attained through the Eightfold Path, the highest stage of which is the cessation of human craving, the loftiest rapture, one might say, of consummated indifference” (37, 38). Rosa considers the “special word … survivor” the way Lushinski protests Lulu's exclusion of the Jews from mankind: “A name like a number—counted apart from the ordinary swarm. Blue digits on the arm, what difference?” (36). To Tree's request that she invite him to study her “survivor syndroming within the natural setting” Rosa cries, “Home. Where, where?” (38). Of his opinion that she is “ideally circumstanced to make a contribution to [the] R-S study” she thinks, “Drop in a hole! Disease! … this is the cure for the taking of a life” (38-39). And setting his letter afire, she throws it in the sink, consigning Tree to a dark void like her hotel room and submitting his letter to a fate like Magda's. But she revives Magda by writing to her, and imagining her daughter a “professor of Greek philosophy at Columbia University,” Rosa invents a life for her child the way a storyteller brings a character into being.

Her letter—part biography, part fiction—chronicles the tale of three generations. The daughter of a father who “had the instincts of a natural nobleman” and “was never a Zionist,” Rosa saved Stella from being “shipped … with a boatload of orphans to Palestine, to become God knows what, to live God knows how. A field worker jabbering Hebrew” (40). The scorn Rosa has for such a fate parallels her derision of Yiddish and bears the imprint of her family. Similarly, her belief, “like the Catholics, in mystery” stems from her mother's desire to convert: attracted to Christianity, her mother “let the maid keep a statue of the Virgin and the Child in the corner of the kitchen” (41). From motherhood, Rosa tells Magda, comes the ability “To pass on a whole genetic system”; from her mother, a poetess who “was not afraid to call herself a ‘symbolist,’” comes Rosa's capacity to imagine other lives. Replicating traits of parents in their children, Ozick instances the continuity between generations.

If Rosa tells the truth about her own upbringing, she fabricates one for Magda. Claiming for her child parents who had “respectable, gentle, cultivated, lives,” Rosa then reveals that she was not married to Andrzej but “engaged to be married” to him (43). Nonetheless, she denies “Stella's accusations,” for they furnish a less than gentle account of Magda's father: “your father was not a German. I was forced by a German, it's true, and more than once, but I was too sick to conceive. Stella has a naturally pornographic mind, she can't resist dreaming up a dirty sire for you, an S.S. man! Stella was with me the whole time, she knows just what I know” (43). The suggestion in “The Shawl” that Magda could belong to a German and was born in a camp, the memory Rosa has of the degrading pain in her loins, the admission that she was raped by Germans several times—these revelations identify Magda's father as the S.S. man who raped Rosa. They are recollections too painful to face, they motivate the accusation that Stella “thieves all the truth”; they spur Rosa to create another history (43). Called a “parable-maker” by Stella, Rosa is one of Ozick's artists:

What a curiosity it was to hold a pen—nothing but a small pointed stick, after all, oozing its hieroglyphic puddles: a pen that speaks, miraculously, Polish. A lock removed from the tongue. Otherwise the tongue is chained to the teeth and the palate. An immersion into the living language: all at once this cleanliness, this capacity, this power to make a history, to tell, to explain. To retrieve, to reprieve!

To lie.


That Magda will become her mother's muse is hinted at in “The Shawl” when Rosa considers her baby's “pencil legs” as they scribble into the arena and likens her daughter to a butterfly as she flutters through the air to her death. That Rosa calls Magda a “yellow lioness”—an allusion to the last three lines of Tuwim's poem, “Draw Blood with the Word”—attaches the child to writing: “O words! Sharp and Golden! / Pouncing words of prey, / Like lions! Like lions!” (Gillon 33). Oozing puddles, the pen recalls the volcanic typewriter in “Usurpation”; releasing lies, the pen is an instrument for mendacity as well as for veracity.

The “routine” Rosa practices after receiving “university letters” counters the ritual she engages in with Magda's shawl: in those acts she divides her rage from her grief. Dressed in “good shoes” and a “nice dress,” Rosa mounts the “bed on her knees,” as if kneeling before an altar (44). In that position she ruminates, like Joseph Brill, for hours on the “pitiless tableaux” of her past, worshiping like James's Stransom at an altar of loss (45). The word “pitiless” matches the triple repetition of the phrase, the “place without pity” in “The Shawl” and determines the provenance of the tableaux—the death camp where Magda was murdered. In the tableaux there are “Darkened cities, tombstones, colorless garlands, a black fire in a gray field, brutes forcing the innocent, women with their mouths stretched and their arms wild, her mother's voice calling” (44-45). In the newspaper after Rosa demolished her store there was a “big photograph, Stella standing near with her mouth stretched and her arms wild” (18). Bringing together the tombstones in the tableaux with Magda's “tombstone tooth,” the violated women with the distraught Stella, Ozick links the rapists to the infant, a self-destructive act to a savage one, and makes Rosa's niece a witness to both. Absorbed by such recollections until late afternoon, Rosa becomes “certain that whoever put her underpants in his pocket was a criminal capable of every base act. Humiliation. Degradation. Stella's pornography!” (45). In those linked associations is the significance of the lost underpants: they symbolize Rosa's sexual organs which the rape violated and desecrated, dirtied like the “stains in the crotch [that] are nobody's business” (34).

Wanting “to retrieve, to reprieve,” powers she accords to her pen, Rosa leaves the box she believes holds Magda's shawl on the table and goes in search of her underpants. Grieved by her loss of them, she is driven into the streets of Miami as once, bereft of her shawl, Magda toddled into the perilous roll-call arena, where she died. Like the arena, the streets are scalded by the “murdering sunball” during the day; toward dusk a “scarlet sun, round and brilliant as a blooded egg yolk” hangs in the sky. Reminiscent of Rosa's hard-boiled egg, the fertilized egg in “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” and the cosmic egg in Trust, the egg alludes to the primordial egg from which Eros sprang, a symbol of the repetition of the primeval act. At the end of the long road, Ozick suggests, lies a new world, the possibility of a future. Oppressive by day, at night the streets “are clogged with wanderers and watchers; everyone in search, bedouins with no fixed paths” (45). Unlike the roll-call arena, the streets are an arena in which to reclaim life. Just as Puttermesser's “long introspective stride” up Lexington Avenue uncovers the lawyer's motives for creating a golem, Rosa's peregrination of Miami unearths the reasons the survivor must recover her underpants. And Rosa's impression of the sand is the first of several associations leading to the meaning of the “lost laundry”: the “sand never at rest, always churning, always inhabited; copulation under blankets at night, beneath neon-radiant low horizons” (46). Her subsequent ideas of the underpants “smoldering in an ash heap” or in “conflagrations of old magazines” invoke the death camp and connect it to the underpants (46). To imagine “what a weight of sand would feel like in the crotch of her pants, wet heavy sand, still hot from the day” is to wonder what it would feel like to have the trunk of her body buried (47). Walking “unconnected to anything,” seeing “everything, but as if out of invention, out of imagination,” Rosa retreats to a landscape behind her eyes (47).

The one before them is littered with “so many double mounds,” bodies in the sand which conjure up a photograph of Pompeii (48). Among the pictures taken of the fields of ash that preserved the shapes of corpses within a mold of a void, were casts of lovers “who fell together, side by side, mingling their last breath” (Brion 37). Ozick's reference to those photographs supplies the connection Rosa makes between her lost laundry and the fate of the buried lovers: “Her pants were under the sand; or else packed hard with sand, like a piece of torso, a broken statue, the human groin detached, the whole soul gone, only the loins left for kicking by strangers” (48). From that alliance emerges the reason she cares more for her underwear than for her store: it was only a “cave of junk” (21). But the theft of her pants left her broken like one of those shells Brill sees on the beach of the Phlegethon, the “life in them cleaned out, scooped, eaten, decomposed” (CG 86). Amid the “lovers plugged into a kiss,” Rosa considers stepping “cleanly into the sea,” a suicidal impulse like murdering “her business with her own hands” (48). As she does at the end of “The Shawl,” Rosa rejects the pull toward death, the ease with which she could enter the “horizontal tunnel,” for the “unpredictable”—for life (48). Double acts of self-preservation compete against double impulses to self-destruction: they manifest the way victimizers manage to perpetuate torment in their victims long after victimizing them. His oppressors drove Lushinski to murder his own soul, to appropriate another identity, to end in desolation. To overcome the desolation Rosa must repossess her soul.

On the beach she encounters a pair of homosexual lovers; their mockery elicits her hissing response, “Sodom,” and Ozick establishes the chain of Rosa's associations—Pompeii, Sodom and Gomorrah, the death camps. In connecting those places, Rosa unites their history of sexual perversion, and the storyteller yokes the wicked biblical cities destroyed by the fire of heaven, the immoral pagan city buried by an eruption, and the modern country whose ferocious evil annihilated an entire civilization. Derided by the homosexuals' laughter and “locked behind” the “barbed wire” of the fence encircling the private beach, Rosa trembles in remembrance; but she is no longer in the place without pity, the place with the murderous fence (49). Although they conjure in her memories of sexual perversion and Nazi paganism, the homosexual lovers are not bent on killing her but on ignoring her: “They hated women. Or else they saw she was a Jew; they hated Jews; but no, she had noticed the circumcision, like a jonquil, in the dim sand. … No one knew who she was; what had happened to her; where she came from” (49). The jonquil parallels the buttercup to which she compares Stella's lips, the “harmless containers” in which the “bloodsucker comes,” and both flowers bring back the innocent tiger lilies growing outside the fence at the end of “The Shawl” (15). Then Rosa could only gaze beyond the fence and dream of another life; in Miami the fence leads her to “light” and to freedom.

Free, she accosts the manager in the hotel lobby: “‘Only Nazis,’” she tells him, “‘catch innocent people behind barbed wire’” (51). Judging the way he runs his hotel evidence of Finkelstein's indifference to the Holocaust, Rosa is enraged. Whereas silence had been her savior in the camp, noise became her redeemer after she was liberated: “They had trapped her, nearly caught her; but she knew how to escape. Speak up, yell. The same way she saved Stella, when they were pressing to take her on the boat to Palestine” (52). Unlike the survivors in Ozick's other fiction—Sheindel in “The Pagan Rabbi,” the rebbe in “Bloodshed,” the refugee in “Levitation”—Rosa has inherited from her parents a “certain contempt” for Jews, whom she regards as “primitive” and common (52, 53). Finkelstein's red wig reminds her of Persky's red wig: “Florida was glutted with fake fire, burning false hair! Everyone a piece of imposter” (50). In Warsaw, she regarded the “swarm” of Jews as “shut off from the grandeur of the true world”; in Miami, she protests Tree's word, “survivor,” because it excludes Jews from the “ordinary swarm” (52-53, 36). But she divides herself from both groups of Jews and leaves the Hotel Marie Louise “Irradiated, triumphant, cleansed” (52). To complete her victory, Rosa must find her underpants: she must reclaim her soul.

Like the trek to the laundromat, Rosa's walk culminates in a meeting with Persky. In her room, “miraculously ready: tidy, clarified,” their differences become more apparent (55). Persky judges her room “cozy”; Rosa finds it “cramped.” One seeks a good “way of describing,” the other calls that a way of lying (56). Hugging the box she presumes contains Magda's shawl, Rosa feels as if “someone had cut out her life-organs and given them to her to hold,” had removed her soul (56). Aware she has “to work things through,” Persky advises her to “‘adjust,’” to become a “‘regular person,’” to forget the past so as “‘to get something out of life’” (57, 58). What Persky, an American Jew, cannot fathom and has no right to judge is her enduring memory of the Holocaust, and so Rosa shames him with her account of the survivor's three lives: “‘The life after is now. The life before is our real life, at home, where we was born. … Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays. And to call it a life is a lie’” (58). For the rebbe in “Bloodshed,” a man who believes in “turnings,” the life after holds possibility, potential, hope. On one thing, however, the rebbe and Rosa agree: the importance of remembering the past, and that conviction is fundamental to Ozick's thought, especially with regard to the Holocaust. In a discussion about writing and the Holocaust published in 1988, five years after “Rosa,” Ozick anticipates the objections to her own “act of memorial,” her steadfast refusal ever to visit Germany: “What can be done about it now? Let bygones be bygones. Choose erasure. Wipe out memory” (“Roundtable” 283). In Ozick's novella, it is Rosa who complains that Stella “wants to wipe out memory,” but her aunt's “act of memorial” results in an obsession, in idolatrous worship of the dead—a pagan ritual.

To include Persky in that ritual is to yield to a stranger “what her own hands longed to do.” It is “to prove herself pure: a madonna” (59). But the box shelters not Magda's shawl but houses Hidgeson's book, Repressed Animation: A Theory of the Biological Ground of Survival, the study of survivors Tree extolled in the letter Rosa burned in the sink. Enraged by Tree's note directing her to read Chapter Six, “Defensive Group Formation: The Way of the Baboons,” Rosa hurls the book at the ceiling, the way she smashed up her store; and Ozick separates a melancholic self-destructive impulse from an angry and healthy one. Attempting to wreck Tree for his indifference to human suffering, Rosa adds to her first outburst of fury with Finkelstein a second erruption of rage against Tree and a third one against Persky. Connecting him to the researchers who have equated the human struggle to survive the inhuman conditions in the death camps with the habits of baboons, Rosa cries: “‘I'm not your button, Persky! I'm nobody's button, not even if they got barbed wire everywhere!’” (61). That she accuses him of being a “thief”—the name she calls the person who took her life—reveals she has projected onto Persky feelings about someone else. He has become in her mind the tormentor from her past. To her allegation Persky responds, “‘I can see I'm involved in a mistake,’” and Rosa discovers her mistake the next day when she finds the missing underpants “curled inside a towel” (61).

Unfolding from her character's consciousness the events that ultimately led to intense rage, Ozick instances the sorrows of Jewish history and brings them into sharp relief by depicting their grave effects on one woman's life. At the same time, the storyteller explores with acute and compassionate insight the way the human psyche can turn against itself, transforming rage into guilt and guilt into grief which, at its most extreme, can develop into the melancholia that abrogates interest in the outside world. That it is necessary for Rosa “to prove herself pure” attests to a deeper emotional demand: the need to deny the history of Magda's creation, to metamorphose her infant into a holy babe brought forth not from a violent rape but from an immaculate conception. The shawl's magical capacity to nurture a child for three days and three nights testifies to that psychic requirement. Three is a preponderant number in “Rosa.” At first establishing an affinity in “The Shawl” between Magda and the infant Christ, the number three becomes in “Rosa” an insistent reminder of the death camps: under the Third Reich, one-third of the Jewish people were murdered. The three lives survivors possess, the three cups Rosa owns, the three crackers she prepares for her ritual, the three steps she takes to the bed, the three “bloodsuckers” she counts, and the three members of her family who she tells Persky remained alive after the Holocaust—these signal indelible memories of the German hell for which three is a symbol.

Nonetheless, Rosa delays writing to Magda and decides instead to reconnect her telephone. Ozick converts the electrified wire of the camp's fence from which Rosa heard “grainy sad voices” urging her to die into ordinary telephone wire empowering her to live. That she has begun to emerge from the landscape behind her eyes is suggested by her indifference to Magda's shawl. Once redolent of the holy fragrance of the murdered child, the shawl now “lay like an old bandage, a discarded sling,” its “faint saliva smell … more nearly imagined than smelled” (62). Rather than engage in her ritual, Rosa telephones Stella who grimly tells her aunt to end her “morbidness,” to recuperate, not to call “long distance” (64). On that phrase, “Magda sprang to life” and Rosa puts the shawl “over the knob of the receiver,” transforming it into a “little doll's head,” a reminder of Stella's round “doll's” eyes (64). But the shawl chokes off Rosa's conversation the way it once stifled Rosa's screams and revives the memory of the child lighting on the electrified fence like a butterfly on a silver vine.

The mother recoils from that memory and imagines her daughter at sixteen dressed in a “sky-colored dress,” one of “Rosa's dresses from high school” (64). Beginning “to resemble Rosa's father,” Magda begins to become Rosa, but she is bewildered by her daughter's “other strain”: “The other strain was ghostly, even dangerous. It was as if the peril hummed out from the filaments of Magda's hair, those narrow bright wires” (65-66). In the imagery with which Rosa limns the girl is a clue to Magda's other strain. Reminiscent of the “lamenting voices” in the camp's fence, Magda's hair recalls the sirens' songs. If the daughter's “sky-filled” eyes are like the mother's blue dress, Magda's buttercup yellow hair is the color of the yellow badges issued in Nazi Germany. Inherited from “idolatrous Germans,” Magda's “other strain” is the dangerous strain inhering in the imagination—the propensity for paganism (A& A 235). In calling Magda a butterfly and in choosing butterfly pins for Beulah Lilt's hair, Ozick makes the two girls, who are their mother's muses, symbols of the imagination in its capacity to invent idols. If Hester Lilt produces an aesthete who forgets her past, Rosa Lublin bears a daughter whose death anchors her mother in the past; if the painter escapes into a nimbus, the letter-writer retreats into her thoughts. Behind her eyes Rosa envisions various lives for Magda, fancies her a professor of Greek philosophy, pictures her a painter or a musician, conceives her history, writes her story.

The power of the imagination to remove a lock from the tongue, to impel the pen “to tell, to explain”—the imagination's crowning act of splendor—is illustrated in the second and imaginary letter Rosa writes to Magda. A kind of parable, the letter recounts the history of Rosa's family and doubles events from the past in each of Rosa's three lives. Despite their ability to enunciate “Polish … with the most precise articulation,” despite their assimilation into Polish life, despite their denial of a Jewish identity, Rosa and her family were confined in a ghetto “with teeming Mockowiczes and Rabinowiczes and Perskys and Finkelsteins … old Jew peasants worn out from their rituals and superstitions” (68, 66, 67). Including Persky and Finkelstein among the Warsaw Jews, Rosa renders them indistinguishable from American Jews. But all the Jews in Warsaw were separated from other Polish citizens by the wall built around the ghetto, and the memory of the tramcar that “came right through the middle of the ghetto” was one Rosa used to share with her customers as testimony to the evils she had witnessed. The bridge constructed to prevent the Jews from escaping into the “other side of the wall” kept them crowded together in a “terrible slum” while ordinary Poles traveled through the ghetto daily and witnessed the Jews' misery without protesting. In the death camp the wall of the ghetto was replaced by the fence, the overhead electric wire of the tramcar by the fence's electrified wires.

After she was liberated, Rosa remembered the woman she had seen with a head of lettuce protruding from her shopping sack: that plain, working-class woman was considered a Pole, better than Rosa and her well-educated family. That woman remained silent and unresponsive to the suffering around her. In New York Rosa “became like the woman with the lettuce”: a witness, but one who spoke up “to the deaf” in her store (69). Impassive and indifferent like the Polish citizens the tramcar carried through the ghetto, Rosa's customers reignited the rage of abandonment Rosa experienced in the ghetto, the rage the tormented feels against the tormentor, the rage that later propelled Rosa to wreck her store. But in Miami Rosa met a former vegetable-store owner whose reminiscences of romaine lettuce revived the painful event she endured over thirty years ago in the Warsaw Ghetto. Her suffering there—the salivary glands that ached at the sight of the lettuce—became excitement for others: “They let their mouths water up. … Consider also the special word they used: survivor. … Even when your bones get melted into the grains of the earth, still they'll forget human being. Survivor and survivor and survivor; always and always. Who made up these words, parasites on the throat of suffering!” (36-37). Pairing events from the past and the present, Cynthia Ozick dramatizes their persistence.

If the witness who recounts the Nazis' atrocities to unconcerned Americans speaks English the way the uneducated woman in Warsaw spoke Polish, it is not because Rosa is uncultivated: “They, who couldn't read one line of Tuwim, never mind Virgil, and my father, who knew nearly the whole half of the Aeneid by heart” (69). Having lived in a house filled with art—“replicas of Greek vases” and “wonderful ink drawings”—Rosa has inherited a “whole genetic system,” the legacy of classicism (68). To that tradition belong her ritual with Magda's shawl, her belief in mystery, her idolatry. But the imaginary letter, the ones she writes “inside a blazing flying current, a terrible beak of light bleeding out a kind of cuneiform on the underside of her brain,” fatigues her and augurs change (69). In matching Magda's disappearance at the end of “Rosa”—the “blue of her dress” becoming “only a speck in Rosa's eye”—with Rosa's vision of the “speck of Magda” before she was thrown against the fence, Ozick doubles Rosa's losses (69, 9). The first is brought by Magda's death, the second by the collapse of Rosa's illusion. That is the illusion the imagination fashions: it can transform a telephone into a “little grimy silent god” akin to the “black baal” in The Cannibal Galaxy, an idol that founders before reality—“Voices, sounds, echoes, noise” (69). The silence that pervades “The Shawl” is broken in “Rosa” where the ringing phone heralds the arrival of Persky—the ordinary button, the shatterer of illusion, the harbinger of renewal. Accepting Persky, Rosa abandons her father's aversion for Jews.

In Trust Ozick alludes to the Odyssey as she charts the quest to recover a father; in “Rosa” the storyteller adverts to the Aeneid as she chronicles the need for separation from the father. To unlock the secret of her father's identity, the narrator of Trust must enter hell, the room where William apprises her of her illegitimacy. If “every story has its Charon,” several of Ozick's tales have their hells. Referring to Edom in “A Mercenary,” Ozick implies that Lushinski ends in a kind of hell; Joseph Brill and Rosa Lublin proclaim hell their habitations. Where Brill ends is where Rosa begins. Images from the Aeneid thread their way through “Rosa,” but the parallels Ozick draws between Aeneas's journey to the underworld and Rosa's symbolic descent into the past broadens the meaning of the novella, lending to its revelations universal truth. From the very beginning of “Rosa,” Ozick establishes resemblances between Rosa and Aeneas: survivors of wars which are moral tragedies and which result in exile, Rosa and Aeneas are aligned to Venus, Aeneas's mother, whose sacred flower, the rose, and whose emblem, the star, are alluded to in the names Rosa and Stella. In Ozick's novella and Virgil's poem, a slain daughter is a grim foreboding of a return, the sacrifice of Iphigenia to appease the gods a counterpart to the brutally irrational murder of Magda. Aeneas, whom Virgil likens to a wolf—the poet's symbol of “birth” and “violence”—must make his way into the particular hell of Troy's fall even as Rosa must stifle her “wolf's screech” and make her way into a private hell, the hell of the persistent “during” (Putnam 148; Virgil 2.383). Aeneas and Rosa both grieve over dead families, desire to die, and are forced to wander.

Ozick merges in “Rosa” episodes and motifs from several books of the Aeneid. Rosa's madness conjures up the madness which accompanies the fall of Troy in Virgil's poem, which like the novella possesses a “pattern of madness suppressed and released” (Putnam 16). The madness of the survivor is induced by the madness of war and is not madness at all. To have been forced to witness the murder of her own child is, as the dying Priam cries out angrily after watching the murder of his son Polites, the “worst pollution” (2.563). Small wonder, then, that Rosa in her grief must continue, like Andromache, to call Magda's “ghost to the place which she had hallowed / With double altars, a green and empty tomb” (3.304-5). The injustice, the horror, the madness of war—these point to the central question of the Aeneid: “What divinity can demand the righteous suffer and why?” (Medcalf 306). It is the question asked by Job; it is the question many raised in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and it is the unspoken question at the heart of “Rosa.” Which is to say, the question has no answer. The triumphant experience Rosa has at the Hotel Marie Louise attests not to her discovery of saving truths in the Holocaust, for “no promise, no use, no restitution and no redemption can come out of the suffering and destruction of one-third of the Jewish people,” but to her ultimate refusal to become someone's button, to surrender her soul, to die (“Roundtable” 279). Hers is a victory of the human spirit.

But it is a victory with its own demands. To possess a future Rosa and Aeneas must return to the past, liberate themselves from its shackles, master their grief. If Aeneas drives his fleet “To Cumae's coast-line” to begin his descent to the underworld, Rosa moves to the peninsula of Florida and writes to her niece, “‘Where I put myself is in hell’” (14). Throughout her novella, Ozick alludes to the first six books of the Aeneid; conflating episodes from it, invoking its imagery, rearranging its events, she summons up the Virgilian hell in Miami, Florida, to illuminate Rosa Lublin's harrowing experience in the German hell. At the beginning of her walk on the shore, the sun and the moon, “Two strange competing lamps … hung simultaneously at either end of the long road”; they are reminders of Cumae, of Apollo's temple and Diana's grove, of the Sibyl's dwelling place (45). In the Sibyl's dusky cave the Trojan learns how to cross the Styx, to find his father, whom Aeneas carried out of Troy on his shoulders. Less loving shoulders dispatched Magda to her death. Driven like Aeneas and frenzied like the Sibyl in her cavern, Rosa resides in a “dark hole” in Miami, in a Sibylline cave.

In the Aeneid Apollo's temple stands near the priestess's cave, and its doors, carved by Daedalus, portray scenes akin to Rosa's experiences. “On a trip to Crete,” Rosa's father discovered a Greek vase, a reminder of the urn on the temple doors, the urn from which lots were drawn to determine the children “For sacrifice each year” (Shawl 68; Virgil 6.23). The “land of Crete,” to which Rosa's father traveled and from which Daedalus fled, rises out of the picture the artisan chiseled on the doors, which display “The mongrel Minotaur, half man, half monster, / The proof of lust unspeakable” (6.28-29). His overwhelming grief prevented Daedalus from including his son Icarus in the picture. The “souls of infants” who died “Before their share of living,” the doomed youth Marcellus—these dead children, the children Aeneas sees in the underworld, are in “Rosa” versions of Magda, the murdered babe, proof of unspeakable lust (6.455, 457).

After that horror Rosa believed herself “used to everything”; thinking “no form of trouble … Is new, or unexpected,” Aeneas begs the Sibyl to open the portals barring the way to his father. For Rosa as for Aeneas

… the portals of dark Dis
Stand open: it is easy, the descending
Down to Avernus
But to climb again,
To trace the footsteps back to the air above,
There lies the task, the toil.


Entering the gates to the private beach of the Hotel Marie Louise, the “threshold of the wicked,” Rosa sees “Vague forms in lonely darkness,” unearths “matters buried deep in earth and darkness” (6.583,285,284). Just as Aeneas must confront his past in his descent, so Rosa must confront hers. But before Aeneas can see the Stygian kingdoms, he has to prepare Misenus for burial. Washing him from water in “Bronze caldrons,” the men perform the rites required for admittance to Dis's portals; watching the “round porthole of the washing machine,” where her underwear is “slapped … against the pane,” her dress “against the caldron's metal sides,” Rosa readies herself to conquer her furies (19). Then approaching their respective gates, Aeneas and Rosa brave their pasts.

On the beach, Rosa envisions her lost underpants “like a piece of torso” detached from the loins and Ozick summons up Priam's terrible death: “a nameless body, on the shore, / Dismembered, huge, the head torn from the shoulders” (2.581-82). Rending Priam's head from his shoulders, Pyrrhus leaves the proud ruler nameless, unidentifiable; forcibly desecrating her genitals, the Nazi wrested from his victim her very soul. To discharge her fury at Finkelstein is to force the deaf customers to hear what she witnessed, to redirect the rage that impelled her to a kind of suicide, to reclaim the “loins” the S.S. man “left for kicking” (48). It is “to trace the footsteps back to the air above.” As Aeneas's two encounters with Palinurus and Dido precede the third and most important one with Anchises, so Rosa's conflicts with the homosexual couple and Finkelstein herald a vision of Magda.

And she is evoked by Stella's word “long dis stance.” The god of the lower world, Dis is offered “An altar in the night,” an altar such as the one Rosa prepares in her room (6.270). In its power to provide nourishment for three days and three nights, in its ability to save a mother from death, in its capacity to afford contact with the dead, Magda's shawl stands as a counterpart to the golden bough, which was sacred to Persephone, queen of the underworld. It is to that maiden Ozick alludes in Rosa's imaginary letter. Unlike the first letter, which Rosa begins, “Magda, My Soul's Blessing,” the salutation of the second letter implies that Magda is a symbolic Persephone: “My Gold, my Wealth, My Treasure, my Hidden Sesame, my Paradise, my Yellow Flower, my Magda! Queen of Bloom and Blossom!” (39, 66). And Magda, in whom a ghostly, perilous strain runs has, like Persephone, “two aspects, girl-like daughter of the Corn Goddess and Mistress of the Dead” (Burkert 159). Attaching to Magda's hair “two barrettes, in the shape of cornets,” emblems of Persephone's attribute, the cornucopia, Ozick joins Magda to Persephone as well as to Beulah Lilt, to whose hair the storyteller fastens symbols of the imagination.

The union of the three girls holds tightly together, their various strands of significance gathering in the fabric of Ozick's art into an intricate knot. If the imagination yields new bloom, it is bound to the world of the dead: as long as Demeter wanders through the world “fasting, with her hair untied, carrying flaming torches … propelled by pain and anger … in mourning, a reversal of normal life takes place” (Burkert 160). The lost child halts germination, arrests growth; even as her return ushers in the cycle of vegetation, the revival of life, she introduces into it the presence of death. Yoked to Madame de Sévigné and Françoise Marguerite, to Allegra Vand and her daughter, to Hester and Beulah Lilt, Rosa Lublin and Magda raise the Demeter and Persephone myth into a parable about art, into historical truth. The motive force for the survivor's anguish and the pivot of Rosa's creativity, the death of Magda differs from the loss of Persephone.

Abducted and raped by Hades, Persephone returns periodically, and mother and daughter come together again. Only in Rosa's imagination can mother and child be reunited. If Persephone's marriage to Hades is a “common” metaphor “for death,” if “[a]t bottom, the myth does not speak of a cycle either” but of how “things will never be the same as they were before the rape,” Rosa's Hades speaks of history's reality, history's evil (Burkert 161). In Trust Ozick incorporates the myth of Demeter and Poseidon into the origins of the narrator's history; watching the intercourse between Stephanie and Tilbeck, the narrator of Trust, a symbolic Persephone, “witnessed the very style of [her] creation” and is initiated into the mysteries of her existence (Trust 598). In “Rosa” Ozick integrates the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the basis for the mysteries of Eleusis and its initiation rites, into the brutal events of Jewish history. A victim of them, Rosa Lublin becomes another kind of witness, a witness to the very style of destruction, and is initiated into the evils of existence. The narrator of Trust must recover her history to make a future; Rosa must overcome her history to have a future. Theirs are separate journeys.

Like Aeneas's final encounter with Anchises in the underworld, Rosa's imagined experience with Magda leads ultimately to an engagement not with death but with life. Although Magda “did not even stay to claim her letter” and runs from Persky, Rosa's unspoken words reveal her reluctance to sever her ties to Magda forever: “Butterfly, I am not ashamed of your presence: only come to me, come to me again, if no longer now, then later, always come” (69). It is a temporary farewell. Magda's “head as bright as a lantern” recalls the lamps at the beginning of Rosa's journey, conjures up Apollo, and aligns the brightness of Magda's head with the nimbus into which Beulah Lilt escapes (70). Present at the end of The Cannibal Galaxy and “Rosa” are signs of paganism along with emblems of the imagination. Yet the two hotels in which Rosa works through the anguish of the past, her own hotel a “parody of a real hotel … the Marie Louise,” suggest her as a visitor, not an inhabitant, of hell—the way at Duneacres the narrator of Trust is a tourist, not a tenant, of the ruined abbey (70).

Doubling the hotels, Ozick doubles as well Rosa's experiences in those hotels. At seventeen the “future Marie Curie” felt the “coursing of her own ecstasy” as she walked to the “laboratory-supplies closet”; at fifty-eight, after forty-one years of wandering in the wilderness her life became, Rosa marches triumphantly “through the emerald glitter” at the Hotel Marie Louise and away from “its fountains, its golden thrones, its thorned wire, its burning Tree” (20, 52, 70). The “shadowy corridor” leading to the supply closet ultimately becomes the “hall of a palace,” the hotel's lobby. There the “thorned wire” revives the “thorned” fence, the “burning Tree,” the “child on fire”—the memories Rosa relives in her hotel room and which have placed an embargo on her life. But she prevails amidst the “golden babble” at the Marie Louise: she transforms the “frivolous” into the momentous, the trivializing term, “Repressed Animation,” into healthy fury, the Tree of the Buddha's Awakening, which the narrator of Trust envisioned in the swamp at Duneacres, into the tree of the sociologist's undoing (50). And Ozick, as she does in Trust, endows the tree in “Rosa” with multiple meanings. If Dr. Tree occasions Rosa's rage and elicits her mockery of his “Buddhist positions,” the burning tree also conjures up the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses and the golden thrones in Ezekiel's description of God's appearance on His throne surrounded by fire. That her mind returns to the scene at the Marie Louise as Rosa awaits Persky's arrival implies that her liberation arises from her acceptance of the world of the Jews. The target of her catharsis, Finkelstein is the opposite of Persky, the dispeller of illusion, the agent of regeneration. But the journey toward renewal, the exit from hell, has persisted for over thirty years. Though she completes that journey, Rosa, in late middle age, faces a shrinking future. The thieves who took her life own most of it.

Invoking the Roman poet's hell in her novella, the storyteller becomes a kind of “Virgil of the German hell,” a guide into the subterranean world of a survivor. In 1988, five years after the publication of “Rosa,” Ozick wrote of Primo Levi, “He has been a Darwin of the death camps: not the Virgil of the German hell but its scientific investigator” (M& M 37). Her review of the last book Levi wrote, The Drowned and the Saved, before committing suicide revives the powerful electrical imagery in “The Shawl” and “Rosa,” uncovers the consequence of Levi's famous and widely praised detachment, and affords a striking parallel to the psychic truths disclosed in Cynthia Ozick's own novella. Rather than merely accept the appearance of tranquility in Levi's books, Ozick exposes, in images that conjure up those in “The Shawl” and “Rosa,” the “deadly anger” that saturates “Levi's final testimony”: “Gradually, cumulatively, rumble by rumble, it [“the change of tone”] leads to disclosure, exposure—one can follow the sizzle flying along the fuse. … It may be cruel; but it is Levi's own hand that tears away the veil and sets the fuse. The fuse is ignited almost instantly, in the Preface” (M& M 41). Withholding his rage, Levi, Ozick reveals, achieved “not detachment” but the “slow accretion of an insurmountable pressure,” a pressure that imploded in “a convulsion: self-destruction” (47). Conscious of the furies propelling Rosa to destroy her store, Ozick chronicles the catharsis that releases Rosa from the rage that led Primo Levi, more than forty years after Auschwitz, to commit suicide so as to escape the horrors of an endless “during.” In her fiction and in her essay, Ozick probes the historical and psychic forces that drive human beings to turn rage into self-destruction. Hers is a vision that encompasses in its breadth historical veracity and emotional verity. To limit “Rosa” to “authentic Jewish response to catastrophe” or to “Holocaust melancholia,” therefore, is to deny the painful truths of “Primo Levi's Suicide Note” (Berger 126, 127).

From the sadists who elicited the note from Levi, Rosa discovers a painful truth: their absolute idea of the Jew, traditional or assimilated. Disdainful of the Jewishness her father taught her to shun, Rosa Lublin ultimately comes to acknowledge as her own the identity he disavowed. In moving toward the Yiddish-speaking Persky, in welcoming him into her life, she separates herself from her father, from his Hellenism, and moves closer to Hebraism. That she removes the shawl from the phone, that its clamor, “animated at will, ardent with its cry,” replaces Magda with Persky suggests Rosa's acceptance of the Jews she once resented being “billeted with” (70, 67). That Magda runs from Persky, that she is only “away” implies her eventual return. The ending of the tale bears its teller's elusive and inconclusive mark—the uncertain note on which Ozick closes her fiction from Trust onward.

Recurring to the concerns central to her first novel, Ozick inverts and augments them. What the narrator of Trust searches for, Rosa owns; what the girl celebrates, Rosa is forced to question. The one must discover her father's legacy, the other must repudiate it. And the storyteller's allusions to the Odyssey and to the Aeneid buttress Ozick's overarching concern with the father. The roles of the fathers in the two epics diverge, the fathers' fates part, the sons' paths fork. If Telemachos and the narrator of Trust must find their fathers, Aeneas and Rosa must detach themselves from theirs, must emerge from Virgil's hell, not encounter, as the girl does at Duneacres, the “Virgil of the Eclogues” (Trust 531). If the girl and Rosa have unlike quests, Tilbeck, Allegra Vand, and Rosa's parents are yoked by a reverence for Ancient Greece and Sacred Beauty, the idyllic vision of nature. In Trust the daughter compares her mother's idea of nature to an art object: a “vase with its dark dread hole kept secret and small … and the whole to be held to the light for an unimaginable and always absent flaw … as though nature had no bloody underside, and grief had no ugliness, and fact had no dirt in it” (Trust 422). Like the Greek jars Tilbeck collects, the Greek vase unearthed by Rosa's father testifies to a similar notion: the vase “was all pieced together, and the missing parts, which broke up the design of a warrior with a javelin, filled in with reddish clay” (68). In their veneration of Ancient Greece, the parents overlook the “tragic grain of nature,” the savagery of war. Linked by their illegitimacy, the narrator of Trust and Magda are related to Beulah Lilt, whose father is unknown. The finding of the father, the fate of the fatherless, the farewell to the father—these evince an abiding interest in a figure to whom Ozick accords a further dimension in The Messiah of Stockholm, her third novel.


  1. Berger remarks that “the dialectical movement between silence and speech as authentic responses to the catastrophe” is “curiously absent from Ozick's literary interpretation” of the Holocaust (58-59).

  2. See Berger (53) and Lowin (109) for interpretations that attempt to join Rosa to Covenant.

  3. This is a summary taken from Gillon (10-11).

  4. Conflated from Gillon (10-11) and Markish (41-42).

  5. Berger comments that Ozick uses Lublin and Warsaw to link the “fate of religious and assimilationist Jews” and claims that despite her religious attitudes, Rosa “exemplifies a specifically Jewish determination to survive and testify” (121).

  6. To limit, as Berger does, Rosa's madness to “Wieselian moral madness,” which is “anchored in the prophetic strain of Judaism,” is to deny the significance of the Christian imagery in the story (122).

Works Cited

Appelfeld, Aharon. “After the Holocaust.” In Lang, Writing 83-92.

Brion, Marcel. Pompeii and Herculaneum: The Glory and the Grief. New York: Crown, 1960.

Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Trans. John Raffan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1985.

Gillon, Adam, ed. The Dancing Socrates and Other Poems, by Julian Tuwim. New York: Twayne, 1968.

Gömöri, George. Polish and Hungarian Poetry, 1945-1956. London: Oxford UP, 1966.

Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

Medcalf, Stephen. “Virgil's ‘Aeneid.’” The Classical World. Ed. David Daiches and Anthony Thorlby. London: Aldus, 1972. 297-326.

Ozick, Cynthia. Art & Ardor. 1983. Reprint. New York: Dutton, 1984.

———. The Cannibal Galaxy. New York: Knopf, 1983.

———. Metaphor & Memory. New York: Knopf, 1989.

———. The Shawl. New York: Knopf, 1989.

———. Trust. 1966. Reprint. New York: Dutton, 1983.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. New York: Scribner's, 1951.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Bantam, 1982.

S. Lillian Kremer (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6807

SOURCE: Kremer, S. Lillian. “The Holocaust and the Witnessing Imagination.” In Violence, Silence, and Anger: Women's Writing as Transgression, edited by Deirdre Lashgari, pp. 231-46. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

[In the following essay, Kremer compares The Shawl to Touching Evil by Jewish American writer Norma Rosen, while exploring the violence brought upon Jewish women in the Holocaust.]

Writing by Jewish American women focusing on women's Holocaust experience portrays Jewish women doubly cursed in the Nazi universe as racial pariahs and sexual victims, brutalized while the world remained silent. Although the primary motives of the Nazis' commitment to the destruction of the Jewish people were rooted in political, racial, and religious beliefs, women experienced the Holocaust in ways unique to their gender. Beyond the starvation, disease, hard labor, and physical violence endured by all victims, women were subject to gender-based suffering and degradation. They were sexually abused and subjected to medical experiments; pregnant women were killed or forced to undergo abortions; infants were systematically destroyed at birth; and young mothers were routinely murdered with their children rather than selected for slave labor. When the survivors returned to civilization, silence about their experience was often both internally and externally imposed. Some sought to still their voices to hasten recovery and quicken their adjustment to postwar society. Others, ready to testify, encountered indifference and at times hostility from those who did not want to know, from those who chose to evade the truth because of what it implied about the human condition, and from those who shrank from facing their own complicity. In the succeeding decades as Holocaust history and literature became more readily available, the experiences and perceptions of Jewish women were often obscured or absorbed into accounts and interpretations of male experience. However, significant writing by women survivors, scholars, and artists has appeared that gives voice to the experience of Jewish women under Nazi rule as well as to the postwar reactions of women survivors.

American novelists Cynthia Ozick and Norma Rosen had no direct Holocaust experience. They nevertheless felt compelled to write about the event that altered conventional thought about humanity, divinity, and social and political structure. In “Toward a New Yiddish,” Ozick advocates an indigenous American Jewish literature, “centrally Jewish in its concerns.”1 Jewish history and the Holocaust, as the orienting event of the twentieth century, are moral and artistic imperatives for such a literature. Psychological, political, and theological consequences of the catastrophe find expression throughout Ozick's work.2 The short story and novella collected in The Shawl focus on a woman who endures the agony of watching a guard murder her child in a Nazi camp and spends ensuing decades trapped by that memory. Norma Rosen, Ozick's colleague and friend, was profoundly moved by Emmanuel Ringelblum's Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto and by eyewitness testimony at the Eichmann trial. Rosen professes to be a “witness-through-the-imagination,” a “documenter of the responses of those who ‘had heard the terrible news.’”3 Because the Holocaust is “the central occurrence of the twentieth-century … the central human occurrence,” Rosen wrote Touching Evil to explore “what might happen to people who truly took into consciousness the fact of the Holocaust … the meaning to human life and aspiration of the knowledge that human beings—in great numbers—could do what had been done.”4 Both The Shawl and Touching Evil explore the violence perpetrated against Jewish women during the Holocaust, the responses of the victims and those who remember them, and the problematics of Holocaust transmission.

The title story of The Shawl marks the first instance in which Ozick locates her fiction directly in the lice-infested, disease-ridden, death-dominated world of the concentration camp. Its sequel, Rosa, chronicles the postwar survivor syndrome of the title character nearly four decades after the events recounted in the first story. Unlike “The Shawl,” Rosen's Touching Evil is removed in time and place from the historic concentration camp universe. The present tense of the novel is 1961, during the Eichmann trial; the place America; the major characters neither Jewish nor survivors of the Holocaust. Because Rosen perceives the Holocaust as a human rather than a Jewish problem, Jews appear only as the ghostly shadows of the documentaries, a somber reminder of the enormity of the Final Solution. The central characters of the novel are two gentile American women who learn of the horror through newspaper photographs of concentration camps and television coverage of the Eichmann trial. Their friendship is initiated and sustained by exposure to the concentration camp universe as they meet each day to view the trial. Past and present collide and merge as the novel alternates between 1944, the year Jean learned of the death camps, and 1961, the year of the Eichmann trial, which is the catalyst both for her rediscovery of the Holocaust's central significance to her life and for Hattie's initial Holocaust encounter. Moments of consciousness impinge on one another, varying in intensity from the fleeting to the all-consuming, and extend to penetrate the emotions and intellects of both women.

“The Shawl” begins dramatically with the central characters, Rosa, a young mother and her infant, Magda, and Rosa's fourteen-year-old niece, Stella, struggling to survive a death march to a concentration camp. Rosa confronts the choice many Jewish mothers suffered, whether to entrust her child to a stranger's goodwill or try to preserve its life herself. She considers passing her baby to a woman along the road, a choice fraught with danger for mother and child, since the penalty for stepping out of the line of march is death. There are other risks, too: the unexpected transfer might so startle the stranger that she would drop the bundle and injure the child, or if the stranger understood the Jewish woman's intentions, she might reject the child and denounce the mother.

Throughout the march and in the concentration camp, Ozick invests the shawl, which covers mother and child, with mystical power as an agent of its bearer's survival. The shawl provides Magda shelter, concealment, and nourishment. Ozick conveys the nurturing capacity of the shawl by juxtaposing the natural world with the unnatural Nazi universe. She describes the shawl-swaddled infant as “a squirrel in a nest”; the shawl forms a “little house” that hides her in the barracks when her mother stands outdoors for roll call.5

Ozick foreshadows the child's death by inverting normally joyous childhood milestones. The infant Magda's first tooth is described as “an elfin tombstone of white marble” (4), and her first steps are but a new source of terror for Rosa, who fears that a mobile but uncomprehending infant will stray into the sight of a German guard. When Stella usurps the shawl to warm her own frozen body, Magda toddles into the roll call area crying, uttering her first sounds since Rosa's breasts dried up. Uncertain whether to run for the shawl or to retrieve Magda without it and chance her continued screaming, Rosa runs for the shawl. But she is too late. As Magda reaches toward mother and shawl, a German guard sweeps her up and tosses her onto the electrified fence. The novelist gives life metonymically to the endangered Jewish woman and dead child by enumerating human parts, arms, legs, head, belly, to signify the valued lives. For the Nazis, she uses such metonyms as “helmet” and “boots,” signifying their callousness and their disregard for Jewish life.

Nature imagery, pointedly contrasting Nazi-Jewish dichotomies, drawing attention to the discrepancy between the natural order and its German perversion, sharply heightens the intensity of the death scene. Ozick counterpoints plant and flower imagery suggestive of the world beyond the barbed wire with images of the human desecration of nature to convey the environment of the concentration camp and the transitory quality of life for the Jewish prisoners. Even the infant's journey to death is symbolically imbued with life as we follow her “swimming through the air … like a butterfly touching a silver vine” (9). The unnatural morbidity of the Nazi system and its environment is evoked in the humming of the electric fence and the “ash-stippled wind” (7). Butterflies yield to electrified fence as the Jewish reverence for life succumbs to the technologically charged carnage of the Nazis.

The text compounds the impact of the mother's pain by revealing her need to endure silently. With the electricity buzzing, Rosa suppresses her maternal instinct to scream and run to her child. She stifles the instinctive “wolf's screech” (10) ascending through her body. She must deny her body to save it; she must still her despairing voice and mute her grief, and she must stop her legs from running to the still child. Instead, she honors the survival instinct. To shriek and retrieve her baby's charred corpse would invite her own murder. As women have often responded to male violence with silence, so Rosa muffles her cry in the shawl, now her life preserver.

Although scenes of mothers witnessing the suffering and murder of their young children are a central feature of women's Holocaust writing, they are virtually absent in male Holocaust fiction, because children were segregated with women. Engaging reader sympathy through the evocation of the victimization of mothers and children is an essential feature in Touching Evil as well as in The Shawl. Norma Rosen's American women empathize with the women of the Holocaust: Jean, who expresses solidarity with the victims by remaining childless, and the pregnant Hattie, who identifies with women she learned of through the Eichmann trial: a pregnant woman on a forced march and another woman giving birth in typhus-lice-infested straw. Unlike the immediacy of the Holocaust universe in “The Shawl,” Norma Rosen composes an indirect encounter, in which the characters witness the Holocaust through a fusion of documentary and art. Desire for respite from Eichmann trial testimony about the murder of mothers and children has brought the childless Jean and pregnant Hattie to the Museum of Modern Art to look at visions of holiness, statues of serene mothers surrounded by healthy, exuberant children. While the expectant mother gazes at the marble mother, a testament to human creative genius, she begins to read from a newspaper clipping covering trial testimony that shares with Ozick's portrait images of nurturing women trying, in vain, to bring some measure of relief to doomed children: “The children were covered with sores. They had diarrhea. They screamed and wept all night in the empty rooms where they had been put. There was nothing in the rooms but filthy mats full of vermin. Before dawn, our women crept among the children, trying to comfort and clean them. But there were no clean cloths, the water was icy cold. Terror had overcome them. The halls were a madhouse. When the orders were given to take the children to Auschwitz, it was as if they sensed what was in store. Then the police would go up and the children, screaming with terror, would be carried kicking and struggling to the courtyard.”6 Complementing the reported cries of the captive children is Jean's imagined hearing of a sound something like a great scream filling the silent sculpture hall and her imagined vision of the great goddesses “on broken toes with hands severed at the wrists” (223) suddenly struck blind, petrified by the testimony of human degradation. The children clinging to the mutilated marble figures now evoke Holocaust mothers and children. Rosen's integration of documentary detail and artistic empathy fuses the destructive and creative impulses of the twentieth century.

Both Ozick and Rosen make use of diction and image patterns to emphasize the gender-related suffering of the characters and their ways of coping. Ozick uses breast imagery to emphasize the female nature of women's Holocaust experience: Rosa, no longer able to nurse because of malnutrition, agonizes over her incapacity to provide nourishment for her infant. Anxiety about Magda's danger from starvation or electrocution is conveyed through references to teat and nipple: “Magda relinquished Rosa's teats … both were cracked, not a sniff of milk. The duct-crevice extinct, a dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole, so Magda took the corner of the shawl and milked it instead” (4) And when Magda walks into the roll call area, “A tide of commands hammered in Rosa's nipples” (8). Rosen's propensity for mixing Holocaust images with those of procreation and sexuality earned her Edward Alexander's condemnation for having “a womb's eye view” of the Holocaust and being “diverted by the temptations of analogy, of heavy symbolism, and feminist topicality.”7 Far from distracting, this rhetoric provides the authentic voice by which Rosen's women understand and claim the Holocaust. It is, indeed, through feminine language and imagery that Jean and Hattie connect humanely and elementally to their concentration camp sisters.

Like a number of other American writers who have not experienced the Holocaust directly, Rosen delineates the Holocaust sphere indirectly. Her American women respond to the victims' experiences through their own experience of pain. Hattie's childbirth and Jean's rape provide them with a means to imagine the pain and violation European Jewry suffered. Although Rosen deliberately removes her novel from the place and time of the Holocaust, the event is intended to be an experience that is felt, not an abstraction. Her language with its emphasis on sexuality and biology is intrinsic to her female characters' will to remember the suffering of women in the Holocaust. To suggest, as Nora Sayre does, that Rosen is making a feminist assertion that hospitals, or labor rooms in particular, are like concentration camps, is to ignore their role as objective correlative, as Hattie's postwar referent for the helplessness and vulnerability of the camp inmate.8 Hattie's commiseration with a helpless patient subjected to the cruel indifference of an overworked inner-city hospital intern gains significance because it provides another connection with the Jewish woman who was completely powerless and humiliated, giving birth in a prison barrack beneath the gaze of a booted soldier of the “master race.” The American patient's “unsightly genitals, bleeding, gaping, oozing” in the presence of and at the mercy of unsympathetic white, urban medical personnel in starched uniforms are Hattie's postwar link with the Eichmann trial account of the woman “who squeezed her baby out into a world of concrete, straw, and lice” (252). And it is Hattie's acknowledgment of the Holocaust legacy that is the source of her scream of outrage: “Cursed be the booted feet. Cursed be the legs that stood on them … Curse the Hun heart that shit on this grace” (252-53). In this cry, Hattie gives voice to the sexist nature of Nazi persecution of Jewish women and becomes a witness for the millions of Jewish women who did not live to testify to the devastation.

The violence the fictional women endure, whether Rosa's encounter with radical evil in the concentration camp or the emotional assault that the American women experience upon exposure to Holocaust history, becomes a constant element of their consciousness. In a sense, the American women, too, are survivors: Rosa is a physical survivor, but the Americans are psychological survivors. Rosa, the long sequel to “The Shawl,” deals with the title character at fifty-eight, decades after the events recounted in the first story, as it explores the long-term effects of Holocaust trauma. Measuring time and life by the Holocaust, Rosa identifies three ages of human experience: “The life before, the life during, the life after. … The life after is now. The life before is our real life, at home, where we was born” (58). “During” is, of course, the Nazi era. For Rosa, “Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays and to call it a life is a lie” (58). Rosa is unable either to repress or to express Holocaust memories, and mourns perpetually for her lost child. Unlike parents who lose their children to natural causes or accident and are granted time to withdraw temporarily from routine activities, to grieve and express their anguish, Holocaust victims were imprisoned in silence.

Ozick dramatizes the severity of Rosa's lasting torment by contrasting her continued suffering with Stella's apparent recovery. Although Stella has no dramatic role in the narrative, she functions as Rosa's psychological foil. We do not know whether Stella is free of Holocaust trauma because she is kept offstage and we do not enter her thoughts and dreams, but we do get an inkling of her post-Holocaust adjustment in her letters to Rosa and in Rosa's commentary on them. In contrast to Rosa's fixation on the past, Stella focuses on school, career plans, and personal goals. Emblematic of their antithetical attitudes is Stella's gift of a striped dress to Rosa. Rosa, baffled and pained, concludes that Stella is acting “as if innocent, as if ignorant, as if not there” (33). To Stella, the dress is only an attractive garment; to Rosa, it is a direct link to the hated camp uniforms. Equally illustrative of their differences is Stella's embrace of English and Rosa's stubborn clinging to Polish. Rosa's faulty English, with its syntactical misstructuring and fragmentation, evokes the Holocaust-wrought ruptures she endured. Increasingly tormented by the remembered loss of her child and frustrated by her customers' indifference on the rare occasions when she tries to communicate her feelings about the Holocaust, Rosa destroys her antique shop and is sent by Stella to recuperate in Florida. Her violent behavior abates, but there is little evidence of significant healing during the Florida respite. Mourning Magda's loss is Rosa's major preoccupation.

Rosa and Stella perceive each other as mentally ill. Their understanding of the shawl and of Magda's death could hardly be more different. For Rosa, the shawl is a holy emblem of her child; for Stella, it is Rosa's “trauma,” “fetish,” “idol,” and she compares Rosa's adulation of the shawl to that of a benighted medieval worshiper of a false relic. Rosa pretends to accept Magda's death to appease Stella and convince her that she is sane. Yet her behavior reveals her delusion that Magda lives. Stella knows Rosa is trapped in the Holocaust and urges her to emerge from her self-imposed prison: “It's thirty years, forty … give it a rest” (31). In her letter chastising Rosa for worshiping the shawl, she warns, “One more public outburst puts you in the bughouse” (32-33). Stella's harsh words reinforce Rosa's charge of heartlessness, except in her last sentence, where she urges Rosa, “Live your life!” (33).

Rosa and Stella represent antithetical survivor roles. Rosa resembles survivors in the psychiatric literature who are plagued by associations and memories in their waking hours and by nightmares during sleep. Her survival is bitter: the hell of failed communication both with those who evade her Holocaust testimony and with those who would exploit her history; the hell of lost family, lost aspirations, lost language, lost life. Separated from the family she loved, the culture she loved, the language she loved, Rosa views life as a chain of dismal encounters that differ only in degree. She says, “Once I thought the worst was the worst, after that nothing could be the worst. But now I see, even after the worst there's still more” (14). From Rosa's perspective, Stella is free of Holocaust memories and anxieties because she consciously represses them and believes in the possibility of a new world. Rosa repudiates Stella's attitudes. In letters to the daughter she imagines is still alive, and in conversations with her Florida acquaintance, Persky, Rosa charges that “Stella is self-indulgent. She wants to wipe out memory” (58).

Ozick illustrates the survivor's tendency to experience postwar life through the Holocaust prism in a scene in which Rosa strays onto a private beach surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Rosa, like other survivors, experiences terror when encountering images that trigger Holocaust memories. She rebukes the hotel manager, insisting that barbed wire fences are inappropriate in American society. “‘Only Nazis,’” she charges, “‘catch innocent people behind barbed wire’” (51). When the manager treats her as a nuisance, she asks, “‘Where were you when we was there?’” (51), challenging his ethics and, by implication, challenging others guilty of complicity whether by omission or commission.

Rosa's room and personal appearance reflect her unhealed trauma. She lives temporarily in a sparsely furnished unkempt hotel room described as “a dark hole” (13). The bed is unmade, “covers knotted together like an umbilical cord” (30) and the room smells of fish. A disconnected telephone attests to her alienation. Rather than taking meals at the oak table, she eats in bed or standing at the sink. Her diet, visually unappetizing and far from nutritious, is emblematic of self-imposed deprivation motivated by survivor guilt or remembrance of those who perished from starvation. Rosa's physical appearance complements her room and signifies her diminished interest in life. Hair askew, button missing from her dress, she is “the reflection of a ragged old bird with worn feathers. Skinny, a stork” (22). Ozick dramatically contrasts Rosa's usually slovenly room and disheveled personal appearance to her frenzied, yet deliberate, cleaning of the room and donning of freshly laundered clothing in anticipation of a package from Stella containing Magda's shawl, behavior evocative of the sacred attitude she assumes toward her martyred child. That Rosa exists in the present but lives in the past is conveyed in letters to Magda and rare conversations with living acquaintances. “Without a life,” Rosa says, “a person lives where they can. If all they got is thoughts, that's where they live” (27-28). Rosa's suffering may be related to Robert Jay Lifton's connection between survivor guilt and “death guilt.” He argues that the guilt is a response to the question “Why did I survive, while others died?” Lifton contends: “Part of the survivors' sense of horror is the memory of their own inactivation—helplessness—within the death imagery, of their inability to act in a way they would ordinarily have thought appropriate (save people, resist the victimizers, etc.) or even feel the appropriate emotions. … Death guilt begins, then, in the gap between that physical and psychic inactivation and what one feels called upon to do and feel. That is one reason why the imagery keeps recurring, in dreams and in waking life.”9 Ozick's survivor portrait also embodies the findings of Jack Terry, who identifies unresolved mourning as a characteristic of traumatic Holocaust experience: “In concentration camps, mourning would have been impossible even if it had been permitted. Grief in itself threatens the integrity of the ego, and under circumstances in which the intensity of the affect is too great or the ego has been so weakened—both of which were the case in the Holocaust—mourning cannot take place. Thus, the attachment to the lost object remains unresolved.”10

Henry Krystal's explanation of survivors engaging in “various forms of denial, idealization, and … ‘walling off’” in response to inability to mourn the loss of a child finds expression in Ozick's Rosa.11 Self-preservation demanded silence at the time of Magda's murder, and Rosa suffers the trauma of her infant's death decades later. Her denial of Magda's death and her invention of a mature Magda with a prosperous adult life epitomize the behavior chronicled in the psychiatric literature. In letters addressing Magda as “snow queen,” “yellow blossom,” “cup of sun,” and “soul's blessing,” vibrant language negating her child's terrible death, Rosa supplants reality with imagination. Three such restoration reveries reveal her desire for the life that should have been. She imagines Magda as a lovely young girl of sixteen at the threshold of adulthood; at thirty-one, a physician married to another physician with a large house in a New York suburb; and as a professor of Greek philosophy at a prestigious university. Because Magda's imagined lives are more real to Rosa than her death, Stella's insistence on Magda's death seems aberrant. But to placate Stella, Rosa “pretends” that Magda is dead. Her imagined constructions simultaneously address her need to deny Magda's murder and provide herself, in the imagined living daughter, with a nonjudgmental confidante to whom she can express post-Holocaust despair.

Psychological and psychiatric literature identify paranoia, suspicion, and emotional isolation and distance manifested by unwillingness to forge emotional connections as symptoms of survivor syndrome. Ozick dramatizes these responses by contrasting her survivor with a pre-Holocaust immigrant foil, Mr. Persky, whom Rosa meets in a Miami laundromat. Mr. Persky is socially engaged, trusting, at ease with his peers. Rosa has felt separate from Miami Jews, historically and socially alienated, convinced that, “Everything stayed the same for them: intentions, actions, even expectations” (28). Painfully aware of the gulf separating her from Persky, who emigrated from Warsaw decades before the Holocaust, she tells him, “‘My Warsaw isn't your Warsaw’” (19). Not having known Poland in wartime, he cannot share Holocaust memories. Moreover, because his experience is limited to escape from nongenocidal Polish anti-Semitism and a circumscribed standard of living, he fails to understand the magnitude of Rosa's trauma. He exclaims: “‘You ain't in a camp. It's finished. Long ago it's finished’” (58). But for Rosa it is not finished. Her pain endures. Profound lack of understanding, like Persky's, leads some survivors to fashion their own psychological prison, isolating themselves among their own kind, suspicious and distrusting of nonsurvivors.

Ozick, who believes in t'shuva, the redemptive Judaic faith in the individual's capacity to change, dramatizes in Rosa a dawning sense of this regenerative possibility. Herein lies our hope for Rosa. When Rosa discovers that she has wrongly suspected Persky of stealing her underpants in the laundromat, she forgoes detachment in favor of communication and begins to tell him her Holocaust history. Emblematic of Rosa's new trust is her order to reconnect her telephone, her call to Stella about returning to New York, and her reception of Persky as her guest. These small gestures suggest a turning point. More certain signs that healing is under way are Rosa's diminished interest in the shawl when it finally comes, and her realization that she is perpetuating a fantasy. When Persky arrives at her hotel, “Magda was not there. Shy, she ran from Persky. Magda was away” (70). Earlier in the novella, Rosa would have dismissed Persky rather than delay her imagined encounter with Magda. By the narrative's end, although she invites Magda's return, she responds to the immediate presence of the living. And in her willing social association with a person she had earlier disdained, she is on the road to a more complete recovery.

Jean, Norma Rosen's protagonist, is a survivor of a different sort, a psychological survivor who discovers that her life is radically altered by Holocaust knowledge: “Nothing of her life would, after she learned of the existence of the death camps, be as before.”12 For a considerable time, the mere mention of the words “concentration camps” was, Jean testifies, occasion for desolation. “My body and soul emptied out. I was ready to faint, to fall down. I marveled at anyone who remained standing” (77). At the end of the war, when others sought to return to prewar pursuits, Jean elected sacrifice: refusal to generate life in a universe of death. Marriage and motherhood no longer had meaning for her. That Jean's Holocaust epiphany occurred while making love and that her response is refusal to bear children is illustrative of her feminist political rebuttal to Holocaust history. Confronted by the reality of human evil, by the millions of gassed and burned bodies, the American woman shares the position of some survivors who refused to bring children into a Holocaust-corrupted world. In rejecting the maternal role for herself, Jean allies herself with her European sisters who lost their children and testifies to humanity's loss of Jewish progeny. Through this politically symbolic act, Jean makes the catastrophe her own.

The Eichmann trial serves as catalyst for Jean's reevaluation of her acceptance of the Holocaust as her own personal catastrophe. Despite considerable temporal distance from the event, she discovers that, contrary to expectations of release from Holocaust obsession, she is forcefully reclaimed by history. Sharing the trial with Hattie is for Jean a reiteration of her initial Holocaust despair. Her mind and heart are violated once more. Almost two decades after the initial trauma, Jean still feels surrounded by corpses. The horrors reappear, not instantaneously in a unified photographic composition, but piecemeal in daily doses of devastation: “machine guns punching bullet holes,” “clubs beating against bone” (209), visions of the starving and screaming, bodies forever falling, piercing the psyches of heretofore immune Americans.

The Holocaust's continuing effect on future generations is conveyed through the fact that Hattie, too, becomes absorbed in the trial. As the trial progresses, the pregnant Hattie is at once physical foil and emotional double to the intentionally childless Jean. Astonished by the trial revelations, Hattie concurs with Jean's judgment that the Nazis defiled life itself, and she too expresses reservations about propagating the species. The trial is Hattie's initial Holocaust exposure, Jean's second exposure, and the author's affirmation that the Holocaust must not be conveniently put to rest for any of us.

An early title for this novel, Heart's Witness, reflects the importance Rosen assigns to the attestor role of the women. They are witnesses observing other witnesses who have come forward to testify in the Eichmann trial. Hattie's response to the television coverage of the trial echoes Jean's earlier reaction to postwar newspaper pictures of the camps. The younger woman absorbs the Holocaust experience, takes it thoroughly into her consciousness, into her body. “Hattie drinks in the words … sucks up the images … Her shoulders watch, her knees watch. Her fetus thrusts forward to watch” (68). For the Hatties and Jeans of the world, suffering will not heal with time; the dead will not depart from their thoughts, but burrow in.

Repudiation of God or, at the very least, anger for divine passivity in the face of absolute evil, is a characteristic response in Holocaust literature. Like the protesting Jews in the works of Elie Wiesel and I. B. Singer, Rosen's non-Jews agonize over God's responsibility for the six million. Jean Lamb offers vitriolic denunciation of the merciless God of Auschwitz: “God of the medical-experiment cell block … God of the common lime pit grave … God of chopped fingers … of blinded eyes, God of electrodes attached at one end to a jeep battery and at the other to the genitals of political prisoners” (233). Countercommentary is used by Jewish writers to parallel liturgical and Holocaust disruption. Rosen echoes this technique with a prayer parody that replaces the traditional divine attributes of mercy and justice with diction connoting divine passivity in the face of Holocaust crimes. Hattie's transformation to nonbeliever is charted in her reactions in response to the trial: first personal relief, then an expression of doubt, and finally her identification with Holocaust horror: “There but for the grace of God and there is no grace of God, we see that there is none—so I go sideslipping into the life of that woman who gave birth in the typhus-infected straw” (131). And when Hattie asks whether God sees us, the older initiate responds, “It seems irrelevant … Isn't it enough that we see each other? Witnessing and being witnessed without end?” (238).

Both Ozick and Rosen are concerned with the problems related to Holocaust remembrance and transmission. Expression of Holocaust memories and thoughts is difficult not only for its physical victims but also for those who choose to examine its relevance to the human condition. Sidney Bolkosky says that one problem that interviewers regularly encounter is the survivor's inability to find “proper words to express unimaginable and exhausting memories”; they describe the “paralyzing, dumbfounding difficulty: the poverty of language to convey emotion and unreal reality”: “At the semantic … level lurk deeply hidden or repressed meanings; at the narrative level, the tone and style conceal complex emotions, memories, and associations. In the end, we must be resigned to the human inability to duplicate or assimilate those meanings and memories.”13 Sensitive to these difficulties, Cynthia Ozick dramatizes Rosa's reluctance and incapacity to communicate her Holocaust experience to strangers. The survivor knows that even those who invite her to speak are without the frame of reference to understand what she says. People sympathetic to survivors distress Rosa, for she believes that they perceive her one-dimensionally, as a refugee, “like a number—counted apart from the ordinary swarm. Blue digits on the arm” (36). Rosa's initial response to an American Jew's invitation to unburden herself is silence. She cannot communicate the incommunicable. Poverty of language is at the heart of Rosa's inexpressiveness. No satisfactory analogy exists. Driven inward, Rosa's authentic voice emerges in her Polish letters to her daughter conveying pre-Holocaust pleasure and plenty, Holocaust era deprivation and degradation, and post-Holocaust angst and anger.

Convinced that writers should make moral judgments, Ozick asserts the continuity of immorality by linking Polish disregard for Jewish suffering during the Holocaust with postwar American Holocaust amnesia. Rosa remembers, “The most ordinary citizens going from one section of Warsaw to another, ran straight into the place of our misery. Every day, and several times a day, we had these witnesses” (68). Similarly, American indifference to Holocaust history prompts Rosa to observe: “I wanted to tell everybody … Nobody knew anything. This amazed me, that nobody remembered what happened only a little while ago” (66).

That the Holocaust legacy continues is evidenced in Rosen's portrayal of characters immersed in the Eichmann trial two decades after the atrocities were committed, and in Hattie's bequeathing of this inheritance to her daughter and to her readers. In the scenario for the play she is writing, Hattie casts her daughter as the reincarnation of an infant victim among other young victims: “New children. … New births. … New joys. … Centuries and centuries and centuries of joyful births and terrible deaths” (237). Thus, the pattern of transmission is established for another generation; as it has been passed down from Jean to Hattie, so it will be from Hattie to her daughter. Each woman bears witness creatively, Jean in her diary-letters and Hattie in manuscripts for a play, a memoir, a novel. Hattie's writing, incorporated as long italicized interludes in Jean's letters, becomes the life force of Jean's childless existence.

Holocaust images and references permeate the lives of Jean and Hattie, and Holocaust associations inform their thinking and their speech. Contemporary events, people, and conditions are correlated with Holocaust categories and definitions. A personal betrayal is “like telling the police where Anne Frank is hiding” (60); a person of ignoble behavior is described as “a gold tooth salvager” (60), or “an informer” (60). A skeletal Chinese laundryman is likened to “the near-corpses of last evening's televised trial” (43), and seen, in the mind's eye, stretched out on the freezing shelves with camp inmates whose will to live had been destroyed. Characteristic of Rosen's powerful merging of present experience with Holocaust perception is Jean's walk through the urban renewal project. As she stumbles over broken pavement, the trial legacy floods her consciousness and the walker through rubble becomes the digger through corpses. In this fleeting moment of free association, Rosen portrays the pervasive impact of the Holocaust on post-Holocaust sensibility. Jean, for whom the 1944 image of American soldiers evacuating “stick bodies, two and three to an armful” (78) initiated new consciousness, is the woman for whom the Vietnam era confirms that the evil of Nazism continues as an ever present specter.

That the Holocaust alarms so few people profoundly distresses Jean and her author as it does Ozick's Rosa. Jean had expected the Holocaust to evoke general horror comparable to that expressed in Picasso's Guernica. Instead, she discovered that there was virtual indifference to the destruction of European Jewry on her college campus, when the school president spoke of “troubled times,” and campus life proceeded as usual. Representative of the larger world's apathy are the attitudes of the men most closely associated with Jean and Hattie. Hattie's husband, Ezra, is a photographer aesthetically distanced from flesh and blood, devoted instead to pleasing patterns. Jean's absent lover, Loftus, is (as his name suggests) above these concerns. When Hattie turns to him for an explanation of evil in the world, he brings the two women together to enable Hattie to get through the trial. Loftus, like most people who had lived through the Holocaust era, does not comprehend it any better as it is reiterated in the course of the Eichmann trial. His anxiety is not for the victims but for the sensibilities of a student who just might lose her joie de vivre if she succumbs to “the horrors of the monster's cave” (28). Yet it is, of course, through the clouded lens of the Holocaust that Ozick and Rosen insist we now must view human existence and measure radical evil.

Rosen forces her readers to consider the implications of the Holocaust for all of us. Like Jean before her, Hattie refuses to be lulled to indifference, to dismiss the Holocaust from her mind because it happened to other people. For Hattie, and others like her, the philosophical implications of the Holocaust remain. One cannot simply curse the Nazis and forget them: “Their possibilities are always with us” (84). Rosen poses the crucial question of our time: since the Nazis “passed for human beings, what does that say about human beings?” (84). Rosen's charge to her readers is that succeeding generations must encounter the consequences of Germany's legacy of shame: “A poison went into the atmosphere. Just as when an atomic bomb explodes. Each generation in turn will be sickened, poisoned with disgust for the human race” (84).

The moral injunction to remember collective history, central to Jewish thinking, is also central to Ozick's Rosa. She not only confirms appropriate memory in Rosa's legitimate anger and healing sequences, but extends her commentary on Holocaust transmission and scholarship to condemn inappropriate transmittal. To convey the latter, she constructs a scathing satiric portrait of an unethical scholar who wants “to observe survivor syndroming within the natural setting” (38). In a jargon-strewn letter to Rosa, void of any sympathetic sensibility, Dr. Tree describes his interest in Rosa's camp experience for use in his study on repressed animation. Rosa sees him as a parasite and is offended at being addressed as a lab specimen. She is fully aware that Dr. Tree views her merely as a figure with “blue digits on the arm,” and she condemns his intent to exploit her pain and is outraged by his assertion that he plans to write the definitive work on the subject, “to close the books so to speak on this lamentable subject” (36, 37). Tree's letter shows him to be insufferably arrogant, intellectually misguided, and insensitive. Although Rosa clearly wished to have an audience for her testimony, she refuses to dishonor that testimony by offering it to an inappropriate recorder whose misappropriation of Holocaust memory would be a disservice to history and Holocaust victims.

Holocaust transmission is a secondary theme in Rosa, but it is of primary importance in Touching Evil. Rosen's narrative gives voice to Holocaust victims through survivor trial testimony and writing by American surrogate witnesses, Jean's letters and diary entries, and Hattie's journals, plays, and novel. The passage between receiving the news and making it one's own, between listening and telling, is traversed as Jean's memory is sparked by trial testimony. Acting both as Jean's foil and as her double, Hattie formally assumes the task of Holocaust transmission to the next generation. Transferal of the appalling tale leads to Rosen's narrative design of manuscript within manuscript within manuscript as readers experience Hattie's diary entries and writing strategies through the medium of Jean's letters.

A generation after the Holocaust, we possess a body of imaginative literature that struggles to comprehend an unparalleled evil. Cynthia Ozick and Norma Rosen have made significant contributions to that endeavor by demonstrating how lives are changed by the knowledge of Holocaust evil: Ozick through the survivor's voice and Rosen through the creation of American women who choose to bear “witness through the imagination.”14


  1. Cynthia Ozick, “Toward a New Yiddish,” 174.

  2. For a full analysis of Ozick's Holocaust works, aside from The Shawl, see S. Lillian Kremer, “The Dybbuk of All the Lost Dead.”

  3. Norma Rosen, “The Holocaust and the American-Jewish Novelist,” 58.

  4. Ibid., 57, 59. The Rosen sections of this essay are derived from S. Lillian Kremer, “The Holocaust in Our Time: Norma Rosen's Touching Evil.

  5. Cynthia Ozick, “The Shawl,” The Shawl (New York: Knopf, 1989), 4. Subsequent references to the two works in this collection will be given in parentheses in the text.

  6. Norma Rosen, Touching Evil (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1969, rpt. Wayne State Univ. Press, 1990), 224. Subsequent references in the text are to the 1969 edition. This passage has much in common with a description of young French Jewish orphans being prepared for deportation from Drancy to Auschwitz in the historic account of the fate of French Jewry under Nazi occupation. See Claude Levy and Paul Tillard, Betrayal at the Vel d'Hiv, 157.

  7. Edward Alexander, The Resonance of Dust, 132.

  8. Nora Sayre, review of Touching Evil, 26.

  9. Robert Jay Lifton, “The Concept of the Survivor,” quoted in George Kren, “The Holocaust Survivor and Psychoanalysis,” 70.

  10. Jack Terry, “The Damaging Effects of the ‘Survivor Syndrome,’” 145.

  11. Henry Krystal, “Integration and Self-Healing in Post-traumatic States,” 125.

  12. Rosen, “The Holocaust,” 58.

  13. Sidney M. Bolkosky, “Interviewing Victims Who Survived,” 34.

  14. Rosen, “The Holocaust,” 58.

Joseph Alkana (essay date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Alkana, Joseph. “‘Do We Not Know the Meaning of Aesthetic Gratification?’: Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl, The Akedah, and the Ethics of Holocaust Literary Aesthetics.” Modern Fiction Studies 43, no. 4 (winter 1997): 963-90.

[In the following essay, Alkana argues that Ozick presents a “more complex post-Holocaust literary aesthetic” than previous authors writing of the Holocaust have offered.]

For American Jewish writers, the Holocaust remains a compelling subject for fiction; and their work constitutes an ongoing reply to Theodor Adorno's famous claim “that it is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz” (87). The task of telling Holocaust stories has involved a recognition that beyond the fundamental value of presenting witness and survivor accounts, whether in nonfictional or fictional forms, there is value in telling more stories, particularly stories of life after Auschwitz. A work such as Art Spiegelman's Maus features a self-conscious narrative style that addresses this as an imperative while highlighting the sense that conventional literary forms may be inadequate to the task. Such anxiety is evident in the trajectory of American Jewish literary attitudes toward the Holocaust, and the career of Philip Roth exemplifies changing literary responses to the Holocaust.

The characteristic American Jewish response during the years following the Holocaust, when not omission, took the form of allusion in place of direct commentary.1 This strategy is evident in one of Roth's better known early pieces, “Defender of the Faith.” In this story, the problematic status of allegiances and cohesion within a group of American Jewish soldiers is given added dramatic and moral weight by the Holocaust, the one principal event that is cited only obliquely and, at that, by a self-serving Jewish soldier in a manipulative plea for ethnic unity. Roth's work since that time has displayed more explicit and sustained interest in the Holocaust and its consequences. For example, he facilitated the American publication of Bruno Schulz and Jcirí Weil, Jewish writers who remained in Europe during the Holocaust. And more recently, in Operation Shylock, Roth centered his reflections on identity around such related things as the Holocaust crimes trial of John Demjanjuk, an interview with Aharon Appelfeld, the Israeli writer of Holocaust novels, and the notion of “Diasporism,” a bitterly comic reflection on the possibility of a Jewish return to post-Holocaust Europe. Between the silences of “Defenders” and the articulations of Shylock, Roth offered a serious questioning of Holocaust literature in The Ghost Writer, which critiqued the American Jewish reception of Anne Frank's Diary, particularly its adaptation for the stage. The elevation to iconic status of Anne Frank by American Jews during the 1950s led Roth to suggest that through excessive sentimentality and a lack of historical consciousness, Jews of that era not only failed to come to terms with the Holocaust—to the extent that such a thing is possible—but too often were relying on successes in the United States to justify their complacency after the Holocaust. Roth emblematically transforms Anne Frank into Anne Franklin as part of his satire on upper-middle-class materialism and a concomitant American exceptionalist ideology that reinforced the sense of the foreignness of the Holocaust.

Roth's satire of sentimentality about victimization and his insistence on the historical specificity of Holocaust suffering are two characteristics of much recent work on the Holocaust. The clearest attempt by an American fiction writer to move beyond these negative, though necessary, steps of rejecting sentimentalism and universalism and toward the development of a more complex post-Holocaust literary aesthetic is offered by Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl.2

The Shawl is neither Ozick's first nor her most recent fictional reflection on the Holocaust. Earlier short pieces, such as “Bloodshed” and “The Pagan Rabbi,” and her lengthy first novel, Trust, dramatize predicaments posed by the Holocaust and its consequences. Her most recent novels, The Cannibal Galaxy and The Messiah of Stockholm, directly treat the Holocaust as the central event in twentieth-century Jewish consciousness. The Shawl, a pair of related stories that appeared individually in 1980 and 1983 and were published together in 1989, resembles Ozick's other fiction insofar as it deals with a theme Ozick's critics agree is one of her primary concerns, the tension between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures.3 But unlike her other writings on the Holocaust, the very form of the two stories that constitute The Shawl issues a challenge to conventional aesthetics, a challenge that also touches upon questions of history and of theology.

The two stories of The Shawl, “The Shawl” and “Rosa,” are presented in historical sequence: “The Shawl” describes in an elliptical, impressionistic manner the concentration camp captivity of Rosa, her perceptions of her niece, Stella, and the death of her infant daughter, Magda; “Rosa,” set approximately four decades later in Miami Beach, tells of how Rosa feels radically isolated and remains preoccupied with her murdered daughter. The historical circumstances these two stories describe, the moments of crisis faced by the protagonist, and the language used to convey Rosa's character in the two stories are deeply interrelated, each feature serving to expand on and to complicate the others.

In the lengthier “Rosa,” the reader is furnished with a character portrait that reveals the protagonist to be both alienated and alienating, someone who through bizarre and self-righteous judgments globally repels the sympathies of others. The early action of the story unfolds as a reflection of her character: we are introduced to Rosa Lublin, described in the first sentence as a “madwoman and a scavenger” (13), a woman who for no apparent reason had destroyed her small used-furniture shop and moved from New York to Miami, thus becoming financially dependent on her niece. In a rare venture from her filthy room, which is cluttered with letters written in Polish to her dead daughter, whom she imagines “a professor of Greek philosophy at Columbia University” (39), Rosa goes to a laundromat, where she meets a garrulous retired button manufacturer, Simon Persky. Rebuffing with sarcasm Persky's advances, Rosa indicates her alienation from Jewish culture and from humanity in general. Her wholesale rejection of people, even those who might be inclined to commiserate with her, may well be an understandable result of her Holocaust experiences, but it also marks her as someone with whom most people would prefer to sympathize from a distance.

By sculpting such a sharply edged protagonist, Ozick does more than create the premise for a story; she also takes a stance against a tendency that she along with other Jewish writers have found vexatious—universalism, the tendency to level human suffering under the general heading of an all-inclusive existential or theological quandary. As Ozick herself noted in an essay, when distinguishing between death camp victims,

Those who suffered at Auschwitz suffered with an absolute equality, and the suffering of no one victimized group or individual weighs more in human anguish than that of any other victimized group or individual. But note: Catholic Poland, for instance (language, culture, land), continues, while European Jewish civilization (language, culture, institutions) was wiped out utterly—and that, for Jewish history, is the different and still more central meaning of Auschwitz.

(Metaphor 43)

Ozick here takes issue with the approach to Holocaust suffering that focuses on personal experience, an approach that all too readily can feed into a universalist interpretation, by choosing to highlight distinctions based on group histories. Ozick's own focus on group identity is inverted by Rosa, who continues to evade any self-definition that groups her with other Jews. Rosa thus rejects Persky's overtures, attempting to spoil his excitement at discovering that they both came from the same city by insisting, “‘My Warsaw isn't your Warsaw’” (19). And Rosa substantiates this by proudly claiming that she knows no Yiddish, preferring instead the “most excellent literary Polish” (14) with which she composes her letters to Magda. Rosa thereby sets herself apart as one who rejects a Yiddish-speaking Jewish identity in favor of kinship with a secularized Polish-Jewish community which “was wiped out utterly.”

The remainder of “Rosa” dramatizes the difficulties created by her rejection of the living in favor of both a dead daughter and an inhospitable pre-Holocaust Polish culture. She spends her time holding off the persistent and pesky Persky, searching through the streets and the beach in a grotesquely comic manner for a pair of underwear she suspects him of stealing from her laundry and, finally, succumbing to his insistent sociality by inviting him up to her room over her newly reconnected telephone. Rosa's obsession with her underwear parallels her obsession with another garment, the shawl in which she had wrapped the infant Magda. Through much of “Rosa,” she awaits the arrival of the shawl, promised to her by Stella, who accuses her of acting crazily: “You're like those people in the Middle Ages who worshiped a piece of the True Cross” (31-32). Rosa's worshipful stance mirrors a fundamental predicament within Ozick's work, a dilemma she believes inevitably confronts the Jewish artist. Janet Handler Burstein summarizes the critical consensus when she observes, “Ozick's conviction that art is idolatrous for Jews announces itself in essay after essay” (85).4 Ozick's vision of the Jewish artist's conflicted state parallels Rosa's obsession with her past, as indicated by the epithet with which Stella labels Rosa, “parable-maker” (41). It is as a parable maker, one who keeps recalling the past but recalling it in an altered manner, that Rosa undertakes the problematic yet necessary task of Jewish authors who write about the Holocaust.

Although Rosa's rejection of her Jewish contemporaries and her strangely anachronistic assimilationist attitude may be troublesome from Ozick's perspective, Rosa's refusal to forget the past signifies her importance. Unlike the niece whom she ridicules for forgetfulness (“‘Stella is self-indulgent. She wants to wipe out memory’” [58]) and American exceptionalism (“Stella Columbus! She thinks there's such a thing as the New World” [42]), Rosa continually finds reminders in her surroundings: the stripes of a dress summon forth a camp uniform, and the clinically detached language of a midwestern professor researching Holocaust victims resembles dehumanizing Nazi rhetoric. When the environment fails to trigger associations, she deliberately sets out to remember. In a letter to Magda, she tells of physical privations in the Warsaw Ghetto and the loss of her secularized, urban Polish-Jewish identity, as expressed in the outrage of her family, who had affirmed Enlightenment ideals, at being treated like “these old Jew peasants worn out from their rituals and superstitions” (67). But Rosa also fashions a new past for herself and Magda, one with which she rejects Stella's seemingly more accurate memory: “Your father was not a German. I was forced by a German, it's true, and more than once, but I was too sick to conceive. Stella has a naturally pornographic mind, she can't resist dreaming up a dirty sire for you, an S.S. man!” (43). Rosa recalls being raped in a Nazi brothel, yet she detaches Magda from these memories, instead substituting the image of a Polish Gentile husband and father to Magda, “respectable, gentle, cultivated” (43).5

Rosa's invented lineage for Magda coupled with her monologues directed toward a fictive adult daughter denote her madness, yet they also link her to the writer's work. A writer's tendency toward obsession and madness motivates “Envy,” and a more general connection between madness and the imagination may be found in “The Pagan Rabbi”; but, unlike these early Ozick stories, The Shawl specifies the Holocaust as the source of a disruptive yet recuperative imagination. Rosa's obstinate inventiveness certainly reflects a Holocaust survivor mentality insofar as it manifests an amalgam of guilt, shame, fear of not being believed, and an inability to accept powerlessness in the face of deadly force. As if to compensate for this powerlessness, Rosa invents, and this outrages Stella and elicits the label “parable-maker.” It is the making of parables about the Holocaust, the rules to guide or limit a post-Holocaust aesthetic, that The Shawl dramatizes and questions.

Ozick's critics have offered commentaries and insights on the symbolism and the ethical import of The Shawl, but they generally have displayed only passing interest in the aesthetic implications of juxtaposing its two stylistically dissimilar component pieces.6 In part this no doubt reflects the tendency in Ozick's own essays to diminish the significance of aesthetic issues in favor of the ethical. Critics have followed Ozick's lead when tracing the progress of her career from the Jamesian convolutions of her first novel, Trust, to her most recent works, which, despite Jamesian overtones (such as the similarly compulsive searches for manuscripts in The Messiah of Stockholm and “The Aspern Papers”), assert the primacy of the ethical. Alone among scholars writing on The Shawl, Joseph Lowin has focused on the relationship between the utterly disparate styles of its two stories, suggesting that the elaboration in “Rosa” on the sparse language of “The Shawl,” which fills a mere seven pages, amounts to a midrashic commentary. Lowin's observation, however, would seem to contradict Ozick's own assertion, regarding the need to negotiate between traditional Jewish and Western Enlightenment aesthetic forms, that “Such a project cannot be answered with a proposal to ‘compose midrashim,’ by which is usually meant a literature of parable” (Metaphor 238). Midrashic parable, though perhaps not constitutive of The Shawl in the straightforward manner that Lowin suggests, does furnish the basis from which Ozick attempts to elaborate a way of telling post-Holocaust stories, of exploring the relationship between dominant Western fictional forms and this traditionally Jewish one.

The inclusion within the past decade of midrash among the arsenal of terms available to literary theorists has brought to the foreground the debate over definitions and descriptions of the methodologies of midrash. This debate, which like midrash itself does not lend itself to summary without loss, nevertheless yields several points useful to a discussion of the aesthetics and argument of The Shawl. Although it primarily concerns itself with the exegesis of sacred texts, midrashic activity frequently takes the form of fiction, especially didactic fiction. These fictions focus on textual gaps, which may be regarded in two ways. Midrash as textual exegesis attempts to render comprehensible fissured or otherwise perplexing biblical passages. A second, related function of midrash is that which brings about interpretations consistent with contemporary religious beliefs and circumstances. Thus the didactic or moralistic aspects of midrash work to cast contemporary intellectual and ethical dilemmas as extensions of tradition. This process of mediating the intellectual distances between sacred scripture and a present largely constituted by relationships with non-Jewish cultures locates for itself space within an otherwise canonically foreclosed past by identifying interpretive problems in sacred texts.7

It is with the first sense of midrash in mind, the act of filling textual gaps, that Lowin discovers a midrashic quality in “Rosa,” which elaborates and explains much of the earlier story. “The Shawl” provides little more than the most essential information for the construction of a narrative: the names of the three characters, descriptions without explanations of their deprivations, sketchy accounts of their journey on foot to a camp, Rosa's act of hiding the silent Magda in her shawl, and, finally, a depiction of how Magda, deprived of the shawl by Stella, comes out crying into the roll call area where a helmeted guard throws her against an electrified fence. The only dialogue reported is Stella's response to her study of Magda's face (“Aryan” [5]) and her explanation of why she took Magda's shawl (“I was cold” [6]). The lack of explanation, the omissions in this brief story, recalls Daniel Boyarin's succinct description of midrashic exegesis: “The biblical narrative is gapped and dialogical. The role of the midrash is to fill in the gaps” (17).

“Rosa” might be considered the equivalent of a supplementary or exegetic commentary on “The Shawl” were it not for the complexity of their relationship: “Rosa” delivers an account of a survivor's life that ultimately refutes the lesson learned from “The Shawl,” seeking to displace it rather than merely elaborate on it. From the perspective suggested by the later story, “The Shawl” resembles less a primary and sacred text that needs to be interpreted than it does a potential obstacle to understanding. “The Shawl” describes how Rosa is brutalized, and to these events she reacts with a tangled set of inconsistent beliefs that include the importance of remembering history, the distortions of her own and Magda's histories, and a sense of alienation from others in her community. Rosa's feeling of alienation from other Jews did not begin with the Holocaust—“Her father, like her mother, mocked at Yiddish; there was not a particle of the ghetto left in him, not a grain of rot” (21)—but her experiences would appear to have reinforced it. By the conclusion of the second story, however, a shift in her attitude has appeared, one that induces Rosa to become more social and to diminish the imaginary role of her daughter in her life. The need for this final change in attitude, for this reconfiguration of “The Shawl” by “Rosa,” becomes apparent when we observe that “The Shawl” itself appears to be a midrashic commentary on a biblical story, a midrashic commentary of the second type, one that seeks to reconcile the Bible with recent history.

The midrashic dimensions of “The Shawl” emerge upon a comparison with what Jewish commentators typically treat as the preeminent episode in Genesis, Abraham's binding of Isaac, an episode referred to among midrashic writers by the Hebrew word for binding, Akedah.8 The Akedah features a series of basic plot elements and symbols that are refracted through Ozick's reconfiguration in “The Shawl.” The sparsely worded biblical account begins with God calling to Abraham and summoning him to travel to Moriah and, once there, to prepare Isaac for a burnt sacrifice. In contrast to, for example, his extended debate with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham responds without question to the instructions, and, accompanied by Isaac and two others, he travels for three days. He then takes Isaac alone to prepare an altar, and he binds Isaac as for a sacrifice. At this point, an angel intercedes, commanding Abraham to not harm Isaac. After Abraham sacrifices a ram, the story concludes with God's final iteration of the promise to Abraham that his descendants will be plentiful and have strength against their enemies.

The parallels between the two stories are sufficiently striking to make “The Shawl” seem like a female version of the Akedah.9 Each story features a parent of the same gender as the imperiled child traveling through unnamed territories, the biblical wilderness and the ironically equivalent wilderness of World War II Europe. And the children resemble each other in that both were conceived in unlikely circumstances: Isaac is born to the postmenopausal Sarah, and, as Rosa states in the second story, she thought she was “too sick to conceive.” The children are greatly loved by their parents; the prominence of parental love is indicated in the Akedah by God's initial words to Abraham, in which Isaac is identified as the son “whom you love” (Genesis 22: 2), coincidentally the first biblical use of the word love.10 Correspondingly, Rosa makes clear her devotion to Magda throughout both “Rosa,” as her ongoing conversation with her daughter suggests, and “The Shawl,” in which she hides the fifteen-month old at obvious peril to herself.11 In their journeys to the places where their children are threatened with death and burning, the protagonists are accompanied by companions of the same gender who are not actually present when the final actions occur. The protagonists' minimal speech is balanced against the surveillance over both sets of actors by largely silent powers with control over life and death. The binding of the two children, of Isaac in preparation for a sacrifice and of Magda with the shawl to keep her hidden and silent, furnishes each story with its name and serves as the single most prominent symbolic point at which the two stories converge.

But why should Ozick have chosen the Akedah as the occasion for a midrash? An answer to this question needs to take into account the attitude of God as it frequently has been explained by Jewish commentators. The Akedah typically has been understood to display God's abhorrence of human sacrifice and preference for spiritual dedication. In a direct commentary on the Akedah, Ozick uses this reading as the grounds for her interpretation of the episode, citing its insistence on “Judaism's first social task, so to speak. The story of Abraham and Isaac announces, in the voice of divinity itself, the end of human sacrifice forever. The binding of Isaac represents and introduces the supreme scriptural valuation of innocent life” (Metaphor 274).12

Ozick thus interprets the Akedah as God's unambiguous rejection of human sacrifice, a rejection that reveals not merely some distinction from other deities—Ozick characteristically juxtaposes the Jewish deity against those of the Greeks—but an imperative that helps make the Akedah a defining episode. Her view of the ethical centrality of the Akedah harmonizes with the midrashic understanding that the Akedah refers not merely to Abraham but to the entire nation of Israel as well. In his remarks on the midrashic commentary Genesis Rabbah, Jacob Neusner summarizes the traditional attitude, asserting that “the testing of Abraham stands for the trials of Israel” (269). Abraham thus proves himself worthy of God's blessing, the promise to protect Abraham's descendants: “I will make your seed many, yes, many, like the stars of the heavens and like the sand that is on the shore at the sea; your seed shall inherit the gate of their enemies” (Genesis 22: 17).

This final point creates the need for a midrash—not an exegetical midrash that seeks to bridge scriptural gaps but an attempt to resolve the tension between a biblical story and human history. The circumstances of death camp victims test God's promise to Abraham, and the deaths of children pose some of the most intense psychological and theological problems to writers on the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel's Night, itself largely organized around the relationship between a son and his father, presents perhaps the paradigmatic dramatic enactment of this situation when it tells of how three inmates implicated in an act of sabotage were publicly hanged. The two adult victims shouted, “‘Long live liberty’” (61), and they quickly died, but the one child among them died slowly and silently. Wiesel recounts that he heard a man behind him repeatedly asking,

“Where is God now?”

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

“Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging there on this gallows. …”


The question asked by Wiesel's fellow inmate is one implied by Ozick in “The Shawl.” This question is accusatory, as is so much Holocaust writing, and in Ozick's story, which ultimately offers a different response than the one supplied by Wiesel, it takes the form of a midrashic problem because of the dramatic link between her story and that of Abraham and Isaac.

The differences between the Akedah and “The Shawl” signal Ozick's attempt to make salient the tension between sacred scripture and human history. The most consequential difference between the two stories is the nature of supreme power: in the Akedah, the power over life and death ultimately resides in God, while in the camps a human power prevails, and from this all other distinctions devolve. The sites are themselves infused with the characters of each type of power: Rosa marches to a slave labor camp, whereas Genesis identifies Abraham's destination as Mount Moriah, the future location of the Temple.13 The way by which the protagonists submit themselves to power reflects basic differences: although Rosa has the most limited range of choice, which she exercises in her attempt to preserve Magda, Abraham and, according to midrashic tradition, Isaac voluntarily submit to God's command. Moreover, the vastly differing conclusions characterize the two types of power: Abraham elicits words of blessing and the promise of life, while by contrast Magda dies, and Rosa, to maintain the secret of her motherhood and thus her own life, smothers a scream by stuffing the shawl into her mouth. The words of an angel direct Abraham to spare Isaac's life, but the only sound accompanying Magda's murder by a silent guard is the incomprehensible chatter of the electric wires.

Despite the differing relationships between speech and silences (or incomprehensibility) in the two stories, silences structure the actions in both, the lapses of speech, not surprisingly, also denoting distinctive moral responses and responsibilities. Unlike Rosa's silence and secretive preservation of Magda, an enactment of her maternal devotion, Abraham's wordless acceptance of God's command signals a detachment from both his paternal bond and his relationship with Sarah, who presumably would challenge his intention. Abraham's withdrawal from his family leads Jacques Derrida to speculate that silence and secrecy are essential to our understanding of Abraham's action and inaction: “He doesn't speak, he doesn't tell his secret to his loved ones. … Abraham is a witness of the absolute faith that cannot and must not witness before men. He must keep his secret” (73). Abraham's commitment to secrecy and his silence most tellingly elides the “paradox, scandal and aporia” that Derrida locates between an ethics that would prioritize Abraham's ordinary allegiances to family and his devotion to a transcendent deity. From Derrida's perspective, the eruption of the paradoxical and the scandalous in the Akedah, which calls into question the function of morality and moral judgment, would seemingly highlight by contrast Rosa's silent preservation of Magda; for despite the question of Magda's paternity, Rosa's silence and actions coalesce in an unambiguous devotion to family that on its face comports with normative ethics. Yet when we juxtapose the silences of “The Shawl” against the speech of “Rosa,” we may find, if not the aporia of the Akedah, both paradox and scandal; once again we encounter the unseemliness and impropriety of Holocaust fiction, particularly that which attempts to restore speech to the camps, a realm that its creators treated as secret.

The speech of “Rosa” fills many textual gaps left by “The Shawl,” but speech also functions in its own right as an obsessional focus for Rosa, one that ultimately and ironically isolates her. Rosa treats her language as essential to her being. When she tells Persky, “My Warsaw isn't your Warsaw” (19) and, again, “Your Warsaw isn't my Warsaw” (22), her point is obviously less geographical or temporal than it is linguistic, cultural, and, in the final instance, constitutive of her identity. She took her cue from her parents, who eschewed Yiddish and instead “enunciated Polish in soft calm voices with the most precise articulation” (68). It is this memory of language that anchors Rosa in a family network, as she rhapsodizes in one of her letters to Magda: “A pleasure, the deepest pleasure, home bliss, to speak in our own language” (40; emphasis added). Now that her immediate family is gone and she lives in the United States, her Polish language remains as her home.

Rosa's sense of a linguistic home is challenged by the instrumentalist vision of language Persky reveals when conversing with Rosa in her room:

“… this is very nice, cozy. You got a cozy place, Lublin.”

“Cramped,” Rosa said.

“I work from a different theory. For everything there's a bad way of describing, also a good way. You pick the good way, you get along better.”

“I don't like to give myself lies,” Rosa said.

“Life is short, we all got to lie.”


To Persky's conventional sensibilities, what matters is getting along, and any epistemological or aesthetic orientation in language-use should at most be secondary. Hence, when describing his “loiterer” son, who is what Rosa wishes Magda to be, a philosopher, he bluntly opines, “Too much education makes fools” (25). But Rosa the parable maker labels Persky's use of language “lies,” and she resists the notion that one can find a “good way” to describe her experiences, metaphorically speaking to Persky of her three lives, “The life before, the life during, the life after” (58). Persky, with the embarrassment of a Jew who had spent the Holocaust years in the United States, nevertheless echoes the ordinary advice given to one who has experienced loss: “it's over. … You went through it, now you owe yourself something” (58). Persky here professes the wisdom of a button manufacturer, his belief that gaps exist to be spanned and veiled with cloth, an outlook he initially displays when professionally observing a missing button at Rosa's waist: “A shame. That kind's hard to match, as far as I'm concerned we stopped making them around a dozen years ago” (25).

Despite his commonplace advice to the obsessed Rosa, Persky seems attracted to Rosa's display of a loss for which no compensation is available; if Persky cannot answer Rosa's demand for a wisdom or a language commensurate with her loss, then what he offers is relationship. Relationship is paramount to Rosa's idea of a “mother tongue” (57) that connects her to a literary tradition (“For literature you need a mother tongue” [57]) and that also, and more significantly, forms the basis of her “home bliss,” her bond not only to her parents but to the language that constitutes her own ongoing sense of motherhood and being. Her roomful of letters to Magda in a “lost and kidnapped Polish” (20) would bond her with Stella as well, “but her niece had forgotten Polish” (14). Rosa's fervor for her language isolates her and structures the devotional posture Stella criticizes as idolatrous; yet her fantasy of Magda as a professor at Columbia University, which approximates the epithet “Stella Columbus,” brings these two relatives into at least a lexical relationship. The tension between Magda and Stella, a competition that began even before Stella took Magda's shawl in the camp, is suggestive of Rosa's inevitably fractured worldview.

The most basic of Rosa's contradictions is between her private idolatry and her public role as an idol breaker. Rosa's foremost public act, her moment of American fame, was, according to newspaper headlines, as the destroyer of her second-hand furniture store: “WOMAN AXES OWN BIZ” (18). Rosa's bizarre action remains unexplained until late in the narrative when she recalls in a letter to Magda some of the humiliations and privations of everyday ghetto life, experiences she had tried to relate to uncomprehending or unsympathetic customers. As she ruefully remarks, even when she tried to pare down the enormity of her loss to some particular item, “no one understood” (67). The customers “were in a hurry” (67), too great a hurry to hear of her history and, presumably, too averse to the painful stories of an obsessed woman. Her destruction of the items within her shop would serve to enact her criticism of their misplaced attention; more pointedly yet, her destruction of her own store is a mute critique of the American iconization of business.

In her role as a destroyer of American icons, Rosa once more recalls Abraham, specifically the Abraham of midrashic stories who had to depart his homeland after smashing the idols in his father's shop.14 Rosa's rescue and subsequent emigration to the United States may not quite parallel Abraham's leave-taking from home nor his destination, but her willingness to mark herself as an outcast by wrecking things and images that others prize, but which she considers meaningless diversions, complicates Stella's accusation that Rosa is an idol worshipper. This complication serves to thematize a pair of related problems entailed by the worship of lifeless things (whether physical objects or language itself). First, the silence of idols demands explanatory speech, such as Abraham's provocative story to his father that the idols had destroyed one another or Rosa's own provocations, her making of parables. And second, an isolating engagement with something that cannot reply, like the shawl, may displace dialogue with those who can. The dramatizations and structurings of silences, unanswered speech, and interpretive elaborations in The Shawl link it to another text that considers the Akedah: Erich Auerbach's comparison of Hebraic with Hellenic modes of literary representation in the opening chapter of Mimesis.

The relationship between the need for textual interpretation and the Akedah has been prominent to literary theorists since Auerbach chose the Akedah as his representative biblical text, a choice that seems as deliberate as Ozick's when we recall that he wrote Mimesis between 1942 and 1945 while at the Turkish State University at Istanbul. (In 1935 Auerbach had been forced to leave his professorship at the University of Marburg as a result of Aryanization policies and the Nuremberg laws.) Most relevant to the coincidental choice of biblical texts are questions about interpretation and the Akedah, and the relationship of Ozick's ideas about aesthetics with Auerbach's. In his comparison between the relative clarity of the Homeric and the biblical, which in its textual sparseness relies on a dense background of motivation and history, Auerbach insists that radically differing modes of interpretation, and thus cognition, are both assumed and demanded; and this insistence entails for Auerbach—as for Ozick—extensive ethical and political consequences.

These consequences result from the particular method by which the biblical works to intrude on its readers' lives: it attempts to propel itself, through mediating interpretive processes, into the historical realm. By contrast, the Homeric, characterized by a “procession of phenomena [that] takes place in the foreground” (7), a “legendary” style (18), and static, unvarying characters, assumes a uniformity of explicative strategies and an ideal of hierarchical social stasis, the latter understood to reflect an immutable underlying order resistant to historical change. When confronted with the Homeric, the job of the critic is to analyze, for Homer presents “no teaching”; and because there is no underlying stratum, “he cannot be interpreted” (13). The danger of the Homeric, with its implied rejection of historical complexity, leads Auerbach to ask his reader to “think of the history which we ourselves are witnessing; anyone who, for example, evaluates the behavior of individual men and groups of men at the time of the rise of National Socialism in Germany” (19) will understand how ahistorical legend defies the complexities of history; Auerbach feels no need to elaborate on the problems that such simplifications entail. Although the more historically oriented Hebrew writings also lend themselves at times to such simplification, for the most part they demand a more complex interpretive mode, one outlined in Auerbach's essay “Figura.”

In “Figura,” first published in 1944, Auerbach conveys the sense of crisis over National Socialism that pervades Mimesis. “Figura” elaborates on the interpretive processes briefly described in the opening of Mimesis, and Auerbach here identifies interpretation as a site where history, ethics, and aesthetics intersect. Figural interpretation, unlike the “symbolic” interpretations he associates with “magic power,” “must always be historical” (57). The historical dimension of figural interpretation derives from its method: “Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons, the first of which signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second encompasses or fulfills the first. The two poles of the figure are separate in time, but both, being real events or figures, are within time, within the stream of historical life” (53). As Geoffrey Green points out, Auerbach's insistence on historically oriented interpretation serves his refutation of Nazi mysticism and aestheticism in both a direct manner and in an indirect one as well. Auerbach painstakingly describes in “Figura” the development of the historicized figural method as a foundation for Christian interpretation and theology. Without commenting on the analogies with certain midrashic interpretative methods, he effectively tethers the Christian to the Jewish as he attempts to drive a theoretical wedge between Nazism and Christianity.15

When Auerbach affixes Christian to Jewish interpretive traditions, we confront the distance of four decades that separates his from Ozick's work; the crisis of survival facing Auerbach, and thus the need to cultivate potential allies by stressing the cultural affinities of Christians and Jews while casting Nazism as essentially anti-Christian, no longer has relevance. Contemporary American Jewish writers accordingly tend to stress the complicity of Christianity with Nazism rather than seek distinctions.16 This sort of pointed assessment may be found in one of Ozick's essays, “Of Christian Heroism,” which distinguishes between heroic rescuers of Holocaust victims, victimizers, the victims themselves, and the bystanders who, “taken together,” she judges to be “culpable” (Fame and Folly 201). Attention to such distinctions is typical of Ozick as an essayist who prizes clarity and moral judgment, yet Ozick's fiction reveals greater tension and ambiguity, as in her presentation of Rosa as simultaneously an idolater and an iconoclast. This kind of ambiguity, which suggests a continuity between her reasoning and Auerbach's coupling of the Christian with the Jewish, pervades The Shawl from its opening pages.

The Shawl begins with an epigraph taken from Paul Celan's “Todesfuge”: “dein goldenes Haar Margarete / dein aschenes Haar Sulamith.” Celan's Holocaust poem uses these two phrases as a kind of refrain; he routinely returns to the distinction between the Jews and the Germans with his apostrophic lines, “your golden hair Margarete” and “your ashen hair Shulamith” (Celan 63). The distinction between Margarete and Shulamith, between the golden and the ashen, appears to be an odd one for Ozick to emphasize, for, while both Celan's poem and her story respond to the Holocaust, she blurs Celan's distinction. Blue-eyed Magda, whom Rosa addresses in her letters as “my gold” (66), “my yellow lioness” (39), is the subject of Rosa's and Stella's scrutiny during their forced march in “The Shawl”; and Stella, with an observation that sets Magda apart, calls her “Aryan” (5), adjudicating Magda's status based on her presumptive paternity.17 Rosa obviously rejects Stella's desire to make the kind of exclusionary racial appraisal that replicates those of the Nazis, and her own steadfastness toward Magda points out a different irony, the fact that Judaic matrilineal law would lead both Jews and Nazis to recognize the golden, blue-eyed Magda as a Jew. Thus Celan's distinction between the golden and the ashen is effaced by Ozick in a move that suggests her valuing of categorical purity or distinctions operates, like Auerbach's, as a secondary element of some larger strategy.18

Ozick's stories may offer a greater degree of aesthetic complexity than the stark dichotomy outlined in Celan's brief poem, yet this should not obscure her skepticism toward aestheticist demands, a skepticism as profound as Auerbach's. Auerbach's distrust of aestheticism pervades his historicist, philological methodology, while Ozick's repeatedly emerges in her essays. Her position is apparent, for example, in her 1970 criticism of contemporary fictional trends, as opposed to the tradition of the densely historical nineteenth-century novel whose ethical concerns she more clearly values: “Now it is the novel that has been aestheticized, poeticized, and thereby paganized. … The most flagrant point is this: the nineteenth-century novel has been declared dead” (Art 164). For both Ozick and Auerbach, the turn toward historical understanding is primary, and the story of the binding of Isaac provides the two with an occasion to raise questions about interpretation and to affirm an ethical imperative: a rejection of appeals to higher authorities and causes that diminish the quotidian world of human sociality and history. In a discussion of the Holocaust, Ozick declared “that Nazism was an aesthetic idea. … Let us have a beautiful and harmonious society, said the aesthetics of Nazism; let us get rid of this ugly dark spot, the Jew, the smear on the surface of our glorious dream. Do we not know the meaning of aesthetic gratification?” (“Roundtable” 280). The price of aesthetic consistency that Ozick raises in this question is the issue central to The Shawl and Ozick's Holocaust literary aesthetics.

Ozick's Holocaust literature has thematized invariably unsuccessful attempts at accommodating cultural fissures. Joseph Brill's “dual curriculum” in The Cannibal Galaxy, a juxtaposition of Jewish and European classics, and Lars Andemening's attempt in The Messiah of Stockholm to retrieve a manuscript lost during the Holocaust—gestures aimed at relieving the historical and cultural tensions either deepened or precipitated by the Holocaust—are, in Ozick's fictions, doomed. The midrashic dimensions of The Shawl, by contrast, convey inescapable and irreconcilable tensions. “The Shawl,” with its retelling of the Akedah in a world where no angel arrives to save the child, presents a story understood by its protagonist as a model for human relations, a story that overshadows the original biblical promise of rescue and life. Rosa is left with nothing but contempt and anger toward the living, an alienation that by the conclusion of the second story begins to yield. “Rosa” thus attempts a midrashic displacement of “The Shawl,” just as “The Shawl” had rewritten the Akedah; and, in so doing, “Rosa” restores the primacy of the Akedah. But this restoration does not blot out the memories of “The Shawl.” Rather, as Rosa's mental image of Magda recedes yet does not disappear when she accepts Persky's visit at the conclusion, the memories of Holocaust deaths do not disappear, nor can they simply be assimilated into life afterwards.

This failure to assimilate Holocaust experiences into the everyday serves as a defense against Adorno's challenge to a post-Holocaust literary aesthetic. If fiction may properly operate in a kind of productive tension with history, then the central fantasy of “Rosa,” her ongoing relationship with her dead daughter, may be understood to preserve the memory and experience that history or the well-meaning, therapeutic sociality of a Simon Persky could well occlude. The ending of The Shawl sees Rosa reunited with the magical shawl that brings with it the memory of Magda, allowing Magda briefly to live again within Rosa's altered memory. Rosa's defiance of her own history is hardly unique to Holocaust literature. In Jcirí Weil's Life With a Star, the narrator routinely addresses his lover, a woman whose death was triumphantly announced over loudspeakers in Prague. And still more similar to The Shawl is Sandra Brand's account of survival that concludes, after her arrival in the United States, “For me, my child has remained alive. He is with me whenever I want him. … ‘Bruno, you are the only child I have ever had,’ I murmur fiercely to a little boy that only I can see. ‘Nothing can come between us any more!’” (204). The line of demarcation between the living and the dead appears in such accounts to soften momentarily, but the limits of language and literature to compensate for loss remain intact. In Primo Levi's words, “the injury cannot be healed” (24).

If the promise of healing is compromised by the almost inevitable accompaniment of sentimentality—“to give myself lies,” as Rosa might put it—nevertheless a nonremedial intervention may plausibly constitute a central feature of a post-Holocaust aesthetic. In The Shawl, the preservation of invention and parable is maintained despite a wariness toward universalizing myth and the dangers of emotional appeals. Notwithstanding the ways that personal experience might be sacrificed by attention to common history, the most efficacious gesture remains the return to the historical and social realm advised by Auerbach and enacted with difficulty by Rosa. The return to the social and historical as well as the desire to preserve personal experience may furnish the clearest intellectual response to the Holocaust, but it is Rosa's posture of wariness that may prove most telling. Derrida's discussion of the Akedah, a discussion that more than once slides into the topic of the Holocaust, begins by referring to Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling; Derrida observes that the trembling associated with the Akedah “suggests that violence is going to break out again” (54). The unpredictability of the Akedah is its salient feature here: the fantastic and unprecedented directive to Abraham with its implied threat comes against all rational expectation and without warning (as does the timely angelic intercession and appearance of the ram); similarly, it is not unreasonable to adduce from experience that the more general threat of political, possibly genocidal, violence may apparently diminish but persists in the world. For the traumatized Rosa, who, when faced with an uncooperative hotel manager, summons forth the accusation, “Finkelstein, you S. S., admit it!” (52), the Holocaust remains a paradigmatic experience. Yet the excesses of her interpretations and responses to the world, her avoidances and distortions of reality, call into question the uses of rather than the need for her Holocaust remembrances.

The issue facing Rosa is one that, in a somewhat attenuated form, faces those in the United States who attempt to memorialize the Holocaust: how does one build museums, commemorative structures, or archives without turning away from the present moment? In the case of narrative structures, a turning away from the present generally devolves into the kind of sentimentality and universalist interpretations that have accompanied Anne Frank's story. Obverse to these evasions are such moments as the confrontation in Operation Shylock between Roth's ghostly cousin Apter, a Holocaust survivor with an extraordinarily difficult person: “Cousin Philip, I understood what I was up against. I said to her, ‘Madam, which camp?’ ‘All of them!’ she cried, and then she spat in my face” (58). The fury she broadcasts, like Rosa's, may be understandable, but her unsocial behavior renders her less than the ideal victim, one who should be ennobled by suffering. The “useless violence” of the Holocaust analyzed by Primo Levi or what Emmanuel Levinas has termed “the paradigm of gratuitous suffering” (162) may not generate sympathetic victims receptive to Persky's prescription of conventionality; yet it is interesting to note how Persky's intercession dramatizes the interpersonal focus of Levinas, for whom the interpersonal in ethics has a philosophical and metaphysical priority.

The measured advocacy of the interpersonal realm offered in The Shawl comports with Ozick's characterization elsewhere of the Jewish “Lord of History” (Metaphor 253), yet it presents less a developed ethical or theological position than it does the grounds for an aesthetic tension. While Ozick the essayist is quite ready to argue forcefully in favor of or against artistic and social agendas, her fiction, particularly The Shawl, maintains greater equanimity. Such balance is, of course, not suggested by Rosa's definitions of her life in terms of dichotomies: either Magda or Stella, either the assimilationist view of her parents or the separatism of Yiddish speaking or Zionist Jews, either full speech in her language or a partial, circumscribed, inadequate English. Like the logic of God's initial directive in the Akedah, which presents Abraham with a stark choice of allegiances, Rosa's logic has remained exclusionary, reminiscent of those times the Holocaust has been sentimentalized or memorialized in opposition to a present historical moment. But Rosa's uneasy acquiescence to sociality, as suggested by her concluding decisions to restore her telephone and to invite Persky to her room in which the ghostly presence of Magda remains, reveals a departure from her either/or mentality, a departure for which fidelity to Holocaust experience does not necessarily overwhelm sociality. Like the angelic intercession of the Akedah, which preserves Abraham's metaphysical and familial allegiances, The Shawl maintains the two basic categories as defined by the moments of the two constituent stories. Yet the irreconcilable tensions of The Shawl reinforce Primo Levi's insistence that there are wounds without the promise of healing, experiences without the offer of positive significance. Those who seek such a positive significance reveal their own desire for a happy ending more than anything else, for unlike acts of martyrdom or victimizing, either of which reveals moral choice, there is no moral stance implicit in being a victim.


  1. As recently as 1974, Norma Rosen deplored the fact that although “the Holocaust is the central occurrence of the twentieth century … by and large, American Jewish writers have omitted it from their work” (8-9). S. Lillian Kremer speaks of the Eichmann trial and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War as events that spurred American Jewish writers to examine the Holocaust (“Post-Alienation” 576). To this I would add that increasing attention to the importance of recording the testimony of aging survivors may have enhanced Jewish writers' sense of urgency about the topic during the past decade.

  2. Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi describes the problem dramatized by Roth: “In America a kind of sentimentality has covered the victims with a thick haze dispelled only by the pious formulas of popular culture, while a certain indulgent fascination with the potential for evil in Everyman has largely replaced the outrage and empathy that suffering traditionally commands. All the facts of human behavior are admissible in a kind of neutral effort to classify all the news that's fit to print” (217-18). Elaine Kauver expresses a similar concern about the translation of the Holocaust into a figure for general human suffering (“Some Reflections” 344-47), but James E. Young warns that the alternative “is to risk excluding it altogether from public consciousness. And this seems to be too high a price to pay for saving it from those who would abuse its memory in inequitable metaphor” (133). S. Lillian Kremer distinguishes between Jewish American Holocaust literature and that of Europeans and Israelis, noting that American writers focus less on survival experiences and are more enclined to attend to post-Holocaust survivor trauma (Witness 19-20). This may represent an unspoken recognition of what Naomi Diamont has described as the “cruel paradox facing the survivor—the inadequacy of language to bear witness as against the imperative of testimony” (97). Along similar lines, Lawrence L. Langer has expressed the concern that literary structure “can deflect our attention from the ‘dreadful familiarity’ of the event itself” (Holocaust Testimonies xii-xiii). A similar desire for experiential immediacy informs Patterson's and Roskies's studies, though they also explore potential relationships to older Jewish traditions.

  3. Elaine Kauver describes “the themes that obsess Ozick's fiction—the battle between Hebraism and Hellenism, the lure of paganism and the dangers of idolatry, the implications and consequences of assimilation, the perplexities of the artist and the besetting dangers of art” (Ozick's Fiction xii). Victor Strandberg's study of Ozick concentrates on these and other bifurcations in Ozick's writings (as the title of his book indicates). Lawrence Friedman similarly describes the underlying tension in Ozick's work as the struggle between a Jewish-historical consciousness versus romantic-ahistorical religions (11-12). Sarah Blacher Cohen approaches this tension in Ozick's work through form, finding in the comic genre a means for Ozick to explore moral questions. Michael Greenstein calls Ozick's actuating tension a postmodern combination of polemical essay and fiction. In an interview, Ozick bluntly identifies her own position: “Pagans excel at art; Hebrews (as Matthew Arnold and George Eliot understood) engage themselves in deed” (Rainwater and Scheick 260).

  4. Louis Harap describes this conflict between morality and art: “She interprets the Mosaic commandment against idolatry to mean not only to reject worship of material objects or images, but also not to pursue anything for its own sake apart from moral or religious status. Thus literature enjoyed for its own sake as an aesthetic object is ‘idolatry’” (167). Sanford Pinsker similarly poses Ozick's question: “In what way—sometimes subtle, sometimes not—was the writer a usurper of God, a maker of idols?” (2).

  5. Joel Shatzky, discussing The Pawnbroker's image of a Jewish woman in an S. S. brothel, claims that because the Nuremberg laws illegalized sexual relations between German officers and Jewish women, such contact could not have been institutionalized. Chaim A. Kaplan's Warsaw Ghetto diary recounts an incident that seems to support Shatzky: “When the Nazis confiscated our apartment, they permitted our Christian maid to remain. Since she is exempt from the Nuremberg Laws, they raped her” (46). Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's Anya accordingly features a Jewish woman who fears her non-Jewish appearance creates the threat of enslavement in a German army brothel. Yet it seems difficult to rule out the possibility that camp brothel administrators failed to scrupulously avoid potential violations of the Nuremberg laws, particularly when the enslaved women were as highly assimilated as Rosa Lublin. For a discussion of sexual abuses in Holocaust literature, see Heinemann, 27-33.

  6. In her meticulous reading of The Shawl, which treats the pairing of the two stories as a reflection of the antitheses and tensions that inform Ozick's writings, Elaine Kauver comments on the significance of doubling; she perceives the dislocated style of the first story to reflect the understanding that to its victims the Holocaust does not end (Ozick's Fiction 185). Lawrence Langer insightfully observes that the second story challenges easy notions of recovery from the loss and trauma outlined in “The Shawl” (“Myth and Truth”). Lawrence Friedman finds in the temporal relation of the two stories a progression from death to rebirth.

  7. A concise, lucid introduction to midrash is presented by Barry Holtz, who notes that the rabbis believed “God would foresee the need for new interpretations; all interpretations, therefore, are already in the Torah text” (185). From this assumption, it logically follows that midrashic writers felt justified in bridging gaps between history and Torah. The relationship between midrash and contemporary literary theory necessarily must take into account the goals of midrash; accordingly, Daniel Boyarin frames his densely theoretical discussion of midrash by attempting to mediate between the positions that midrash manifests the desire “to take a position on the burning questions of the day” and interpretive impulses that are less ideological and more concerned with textual problems in scripture (3-5). On the relationship between contemporary theory and midrash, also see Stern and Kermode. For differing understandings of the history and goals of rabbinic midrash, see Kugel and Neusner (What Is Midrash? 43-51).

  8. The liturgy for the Jewish New Year reflects the centrality of the Akedah: the traditional Torah reading for the first day of the New Year, from Genesis 21, recounts the birth of Isaac; the reading for the second day is from Genesis 22, the Akedah. The authoritative scholarly work on the midrashic literature associated with the Akedah is Shalom Spiegel's The Last Trial.

  9. Ozick earlier had transformed a traditional Jewish story though gender exchange: in “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” Ruth Puttermesser, a lawyer working in New York's municipal government, substitutes for Rabbi Judah Loew of sixteenth-century Prague as one who brings to life a golem. A provocative feminist interpretation of the Akedah is offered by Nancy Jay, who understands the retraction of Abraham's knife as a patriarchal displacement according to which Isaac “received his life not by birth from his mother but from the hand of his father as directed by God” (102).

  10. Everett Fox's translation of Genesis is used in this essay.

  11. Barbara Scrafford centers her discussion of “The Shawl” on Rosa's heroic affirmation of motherhood as a contrast to the reality of the death camps.

  12. Ozick offers her traditional interpretation as a conscious repudiation of what she describes as “current anthropology” (Metaphor 273), which suggests that since human sacrifice was not customary in ancient times her traditional interpretation of the episode, as a rejection of religions that practiced such sacrifice, has no basis. Nahum Sarna offers a brief exposition of the view with which Ozick is in accord, claiming that “Such an understanding of the narrative [of the Akedah] cannot be supported either by history or by biblical tradition” (392-93).

  13. The one other biblical reference to Mount Moriah may be found in 2 Chronicles 3.1, in which the building of the temple under Solomon is described.

  14. In response to the silence of the biblical account with respect to Abraham's early life, midrash supplies motivation for his sudden departure from the land of Terah, Abraham's father, as well as the initial blessing conveyed in Genesis 12. According to legend, Abraham destroyed Terah's smaller idols, placed a hatchet in the hand of the largest, and then told his distressed father that the largest idol had broken the others while fighting for the food set before them. When Terah insisted this was not possible, Abraham responded by asking how one could worship a powerless idol, and, the legend continues, Abraham was brought before the Babylonian ruler, Nimrod, who had him imprisoned and then sentenced to death. Abraham's miraculous rescue from the fire by an angel rewards him for his faith, a faith that brought about his departure from home and elicited the initial, seemingly arbitrary, blessing in Genesis. For traditional stories of Abraham's iconoclasm, see Ginzberg, 193-217.

  15. Auerbach emphasizes this by asserting. “We may say roughly that the figural method in Europe goes back to Christian influences, while the allegorical method derives from ancient pagan sources, and also that the one is applied primarily to Christian, the other to pagan materials” (63). Green regards “Figura” as Auerbach's attempt to restore Jewish scripture within a Judeo-Christian tradition, thus foregrounding Nazi discomfort with the Jewish sections of the Christian Bible (26-35). Interestingly, the difference between Jewish midrashic and Christian figural interpretations of the Akedah may have affected the English translation of Mimesis, which renders the German word “Opfer” as “sacrifice” (e.g., “the sacrifice of Isaac” [8]). This translation implies a typological understanding of the Akedah as a prefiguration of Christ's death. Had “Opfer” been translated as “offering,” the more traditionally Jewish understanding of the Akedah that the incomplete nature of the act signified God's rejection of such sacrifice would have been connoted.

  16. See, for example, Kremer's Witness, 17-18.

  17. Distinctions are blurred still further when Rosa ironically opens a letter to her niece with the words, “Golden and beautiful Stella” (14).

  18. In a midrash on the Book of Ruth, Ozick considers the situation of Ruth, a Moabite—against whom stood a biblical proscription against intermarriage, for her people had been among the most abhorred of the Israelites' enemies (see Deuteronomy 23: 4-5). Ozick clearly is fascinated with the integration of historical enemies in this story, albeit one based on Ruth's acceptance of the Hebrew god, for which Ozick offers the highest commendation: “one can almost imagine her a kind of Abraham” (Metaphor 259). Ozick asks a question that resonates with the situation she outlines in The Shawl: “The Book of Ruth … is sown in desertion, bereavement, barrenness, death, loss, displacement, destitution. What can sprout from such ash?” (Metaphor 264). For Ozick, the answer will lie in a covenantal theology.

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Hana Wirth-Nesher (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Wirth-Nesher, Hana. “The Languages of Memory: Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl.” In Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature, edited by Werner Sollors, pp. 313-26. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Wirth-Nesher examines how fiction acts as collective memory and the specific instance in The Shawl of the fictional account of a Holocaust survivor's remembrance.]

There is One God, and the Muses are not Jewish but Greek.

—Cynthia Ozick

Since the coming forth from Egypt five millenia ago, mine is the first generation to think and speak and write wholly in English.

—Cynthia Ozick

The first of Cynthia Ozick's epigraphic assertions concerns the relationship between Judaism and artistic representation; the second concerns the means of representation and of communication within Jewish civilization. The first concerns what Jews may say; the second, how they say it. It is clear in the first statement that there is an ethical imperative, that certain forms of representation are antithetical to Judaism. Ozick has repeatedly argued that invented fictional worlds are forms of idolatry, reenactments of paganism. Ozick's only recourse out of the paradox of inventing fictions that defy her own dictum is to seek forms that will require continuity, that will make literature liturgical in that it evokes the texts of Jewish civilization. What this means is that “liturgy” becomes a dynamic concept, one that requires reexamination within Jewish culture, and that English as a monolingual rupture with the past must be recontextualized within the many languages that have made up that Jewish culture for millenia.

To test her ideas within her own represented and invented worlds, Ozick sets up the most extreme case imaginable: she writes a novella about the Holocaust, one in which a mother is witness to the murder of her own child. The main character's loss and her subsequent idolizing and fetishizing of the child's shawl is at the center of a text that is itself a weaving together of texts in many languages that constitute one version of the fabric of Jewish civilization. The Shawl as a work of literature tests its readers both in terms of the idolatry of placing Holocaust representation at the center of Jewish civilization and in terms of recognizing the strands of textuality, beyond English, that comprise Jewish history and culture and that defy translation. It is as if the injunction not to create idols is ameliorated by the presence of many languages and many texts. One of the lessons of Babel so appealing to modern readers is its denial of the rational transparency of monolingualism.1 If the idolized shawl at the center of the text is the temptation of idolatry, then the text of The Shawl itself, crosshatched with the languages of Jewish civilization, requires historicity and collective memory, thereby making Ozick's work a continuous part of that civilization. “When a Jew in Diaspora leaves liturgy … literary history drops him and he does not last.”2 Intertextuality restores Jewish fiction to its Aggadic role.3

In this chapter, I will be concerning myself with fiction as a means of collective memory, and more specifically with an American Jewish writer's invented account of a Holocaust survivor's act of remembrance. In choosing Cynthia Ozick's work “The Shawl,” I am interested in two aspects of this act of remembering: (1) the role played by different languages in both the invented world of the characters and the historical context of the writer, and (2) the role of language itself in the representation of mother-child bonding. Although The Shawl evokes and partially reproduces a multilingual world, it is written almost entirely in English. And like other works of minority discourse, it appears to be alienated from the language of which it is constituted, estranged from its own linguistic matrix. In The Shawl this is compounded by its subject matter, for it is the story of the murder of a child at the very moment that she is making her entry into the world of language and the prolonged grieving of the surviving mother, who denies the loss by addressing and enveloping her phantom daughter in lost languages.

I am reading Ozick's work, then, from two main points of departure: as an example of Holocaust literature in America, and as an example of Jewish-American ethnic literature to the extent that such a literature “remembers” a pre-American and non-English Jewish past. These categories dovetail in The Shawl in that the main character is depicted first in a concentration camp and then as an immigrant to the United States. Here, the Old World is not simply lost through the act of emigrating; it is completely annihilated physically but is present as a phantom for the survivor.

Since the early part of the century, Jewish-American writing has often located itself between languages, primarily because it was an immigrant literature.4 The writers who actually had some knowledge of an alternative Jewish literary tradition, in Hebrew or in Yiddish, located their own works between two traditions, the English and the Yiddish, the Christian and the Jewish. This has expressed itself not only in linguistic borrowings by incorporation of phrases from the other language but also by allusions to the other traditions, or to the borrowing of models and types from the other canon.5 Just as Yiddish poets in America placed themselves in the line of Whitman and Emerson, so writers like Henry Roth, Abraham Cahan, Saul Bellow, and Delmore Schwartz, composing in the English language, often drew on quotations from Jewish sources, interspersed Yiddish words, and turned their characters into types between two different frames of reference.6 The extent to which Cynthia Ozick engages with such material is evident in her story “Envy—or Yiddish in America,” in which the imminent extinction of Yiddish language and culture is the very subject of the story because the Yiddish writer is left wholly dependent on translation to ensure some precarious survival.

As for the category of Holocaust literature, Jewish-American writers have felt the need to incorporate the subject of the Holocaust into their fiction, often with results that reflect their discomfort in presuming to give voice to survivors.7 Philip Roth, for example, has abstained from even taking that step as he focuses, instead, on the Jewish-American response to the Holocaust, and not the historical trauma itself. His character Zuckerman is haunted by his mother's deathbed legacy to him, a scrap of paper with the word Holocaust on it, a legacy that paralyzes him as an artist. Earlier, Roth gave us the fantasy of Anne Frank as Holocaust survivor in The Ghost Writer and the Holocaust survivor as the last remaining embodiment of authentic Jewishness for the Jewish-American community in “Eli the Fanatic.” It is precisely this collapse of Jewish identity into Holocaust remembrance, with its dangers of mystification and sanctification, that has produced Bellow's antisentimental character Sammler, who shares many traits with Ozick's Rosa. Products of the Polish-Jewish upper class, of an assimilated and urbane world, Sammler and Rosa find themselves in an American urban nightmare that has embittered them further.

Let me turn to the work itself. The acknowledgment page of The Shawl refers to the “two stories that comprise this work” as having been previously published in the New Yorker.8 It is a deceptively simple statement, for it suggests that these two separate stories are now two parts of one artistic whole, and the relation between them is left for the reader to determine. The only connecting devices offered by the author are the title, which gives preference to the first story in the sequence, “The Shawl,” and the German epigraph from Paul Celan's “Todesfuge”: “Dein goldenes Haar Margarete / dein aschenes Haar Sulamith,” to which I shall return. What connects these two narratives remains the central question before the reader not merely as a problem in aesthetics but as a moral problem in the representation of the Holocaust by an American author for an American audience. I believe that in this work Ozick has to date provided the most self-conscious and challenging fictional work in the Jewish-American repertoire on the subject of Holocaust representation in language.

Tying the two stories together is the assumption that there is continuity in biography, and that the narrative of two episodes in the life of one individual is sufficient to insure coherence and unity. In this particular case, the individual is a Holocaust survivor by the name of Rosa Lublin. The first story is an account of the death of her baby daughter at the hands of the Nazis in a concentration camp; the second story is a series of incidents in her life more than forty years later in Florida. The former records the child's first utterance; the latter is a fall into a babel of languages, as Rosa belatedly and compulsively communicates with her dead child. To what extent the second story can be understood only in the context of the first is Ozick's main concern and eventually ours. And if we hastily conclude that it is “necessary” to read “The Shawl” first, what does that mean? and what exactly does it explain?

In a failed attempt to protect her infant daughter from detection by Nazi guards in “The Shawl,” Rosa Lublin also denies her child's entrance into speech, into the symbolic order. The sound uttered by the one-year-old Magda that betrays her to the Nazis, “Maaaa,” is a cry provoked by the loss of her shawl, but within Ozick's text as filtered through the mind of the mother, it is the first syllable of “maamaa,” later hummed wildly by the electric wires against which the girl is hurled. Having retrieved the shawl too late to quiet her daughter's wail, Rosa stuffs it into her own mouth to prevent her outcry and detection by the Nazis after they have already murdered her child. Swallowing the “wolf's screech” and tasting the “cinnamon and almond depth of Magda's saliva,” she internalizes both the child's cry and the child's muteness. In “Rosa,” the sequel “The Shawl,” and the second part of the divided text—The Shawl—Rosa Lublin writes letters in Polish to her imaginary adult daughter in an attempt to connect the two parts of her life, before and after the Holocaust, and to give her daughter a life in her own fantasies. The first part of the combined work, then, as an American author's account of a Holocaust experience, is the context for reading the multilingual narrative that follows.

What distinguishes Ozick's treatment of this issue from those of her fellow Jewish-American authors is the degree of her self-consciousness about the inadequacy of language to render these experiences and her choice of a female character so that the narrative circles around maternity and the woman's relation to language and loss.9 Let me return to that moment in “The Shawl” when the one-year-old child whom Rosa has been successfully hiding from the Nazis wanders into the open square of the concentration camp and screams as soon as she discovers that she has lost the shawl that has hidden, enveloped, and nurtured her from birth. Up to that point,

Magda had been devoid of any syllable; Magda was mute. Even the laugh that came when the ash stippled wind made a clown out of Magda's shawl was only the air-blown showing of her teeth. … But now Magda's mouth was spilling a long viscous rope of clamor.


It was the first noise Magda had ever sent out from her throat since the drying of Rosa's nipples.

“Maaaa … aaa!”

… She saw that Magda was grieving for the loss of her shawl, she saw that Magda was going to die. A tide of commands hammered in Rosa's nipples: Fetch, get, bring! But she did not know which to go after first, Magda or the shawl. If she jumped out into the arena to snatch Magda up, the howling would not stop, because Magda would still not have the shawl; but if she ran back into the barracks to find the shawl, and if she found it, and if she came after Magda holding it and shaking it, then she would get Magda back, Magda would put the shawl in her mouth and turn dumb again.


Rosa at first chooses to hear the one syllable cry “Maaa” as an expression of pain for the baby's separation from the shawl. But when she fails to save the child from death, Rosa hears the electric voices of the fence chatter wildly, “Maamaa, maaamaaa,” a reproach to her—for if the outcry was the girl's first act of communication rather than merely a wail, if she called out to her mother, then her mother failed her.

The verbal development of the infant, according to Lacan, begins as “a demand addressed to the mother, out of which the entire verbal universe is spun.”10 This moment in “The Shawl” is left suspended between sound and language, between undirected pain and an appeal to the mother, the beginning of a dialogue the price of which is death. Rosa's response to that cry for the rest of her life is to answer it obsessively in the most articulate language known to her, to write eloquent letters to her dead daughter in Polish.

Her letter writing is both a repeated recognition of her child's tragic entry into language and a denial of the war that murdered her, for Rosa's letters to a daughter whom she imagines as a professor of classics, specifically a professor of Greek—a dead language (and an indecipherable one for Rosa)—are primarily elegies for the lost world before the war, a world of elegant turns of phrase, of literature and art. Magda becomes for her the self that has been stolen from her, the self that she might have become. Rosa grieves as much for herself as lost daughter as she does for herself as lost mother.

Before I take a closer look at the languages that serve as various substitutes for the shawl, I want to turn to the shawl itself. What sort of language is it? For Rosa it signifies the preverbal bond between mother and daughter, as it becomes an extension of the mother's body for the infant Magda, a miracle of maternity that appears to nurture the sucking child after the mother's breasts are dry, “it could nourish an infant three days and three nights.” Yet it also seems to serve as a denial of maternity, the means whereby Magda's presence is denied to the rest of the world.11 Denial of Magda's birth is Rosa's way of protecting her and herself. After Magda's death, Rosa stuffs the shawl into her own mouth, an act that muffles her cries and that, metonymically, devours her daughter and returns her to the womb. Thus, the shawl is both mother to the child and child to the mother, their prenatal inseparability. The choice before Rosa when she spies her unprotected daughter whose cries are bound to reveal her presence to the Nazi guards is to retrieve the child or retrieve the shawl for the child. Rosa does not do the first because she believes that Magda cannot be comforted by her actual mother, that her only comfort is the shawl, metonym for womb and breast. Yet when the girl is murdered, Rosa believes that the child had actually cried out to her, that the pause between the utterances was not the interval of a repeated and meaningless wail but, rather, Magda's first word, “Maamaa.”

Attempting to swallow that sign of maternity while also becoming that lost child in the act of sucking it—this image marks the end of the account of Magda's death and the end of the first text, “The Shawl.” The second text, “Rosa,” is made up of a series of discourses and languages that are responses to the traumatic events of “The Shawl”: the responses of Rosa to her past and the responses of the American community of which Ozick is a part.

First, there is English, the language of the novella The Shawl, the language that Rosa shuns, “Why should I learn English? I didn't ask for it, I got nothing to do with it.” Much of the English expression that surrounds Rosa seems to mock her and her past, primarily the lingo of advertising, journalism, and psychology. Kollins Kosher Cameo in Miami appeals to nostalgia to lure clients into the restaurant. “Remembrances of New York and the Paradise of your Maternal Kitchen.” Aimed at an American-born clientele, the sign is read by Rosa knowing that she left New York because it drove her mad and that her own daughter never experienced the “paradise of a maternal kitchen.” The accumulated grief and despair that drove her to destroy her own livelihood in New York is recorded in the newspaper as “Woman Axes Own Biz,” an account of her action that never refers to her traumatic past. This is “Rosa” without “The Shawl.” The most humiliating English discourse for Rosa, however, is that of clinical psychology's language of disease for Holocaust victims. The letters that she receives from Dr. Tree, who is applying a model of “Repressed Animation” to his study of “Survivor Syndrome,” offer a catalogue of terms—“survivor,” “refugee,” “derangement,” “neurological residue”—but never, Rosa is quick to observe, the term “human being.” In short, English in this novella is represented as a language of parody, a fall from some authentic primary language. It is the place of Rosa's exile, a maimed language that distorts and perverts her experiences.

Rosa seeks her protection in languages that are never represented mimetically in the text but are there either in translation, as is the case for Polish, or by allusion, as in Latin and Greek. They represent oases of cultivation. Her father, she recalls, “knew nearly the whole first half of the Aeneid by heart”; her imaginary adult daughter Magda is a professor of Greek philosophy.12 She writes to her daughter “in the most excellent literary Polish.” If Magda is killed in the moment of her entry into speech, then she will be forever associated with eloquence, language cut off from the flow of life around Rosa. “A pleasure, the deepest pleasure, home bliss, to speak in our own language. Only to you.” Just as the shawl signifies the prespeech bond between mother and child, these languages cut off from community—Polish, Latin, and Greek—become the medium of intimacy between Rosa and her Magda, as if they envelope Rosa in a world of her wishing. But they are not the languages of dialogue; they are the languages of the dead.

Rosa's letters to her imaginary daughter are conveyed in apostrophe, which always “calls up and animates the absent, the lost, and the dead.”13 Addressing her child as “Butterfly,” she continues, “I am not ashamed of your presence; only come to me, come to me again, if no longer now, then later, always come” or elsewhere, “in me the strength of your being consumes my joy.” Magda's imaginary future in America, as projected by Rosa, is an extension of Rosa's past—a non-Jewish world of intellect and aesthetics. The apostrophe to a Polish-speaking daughter who is a professor of classics is a denial of the Jewish identity that marked both mother and daughter as enemies of that European civilization by Polish and German anti-Semites responsible for her murder.

The only other language actually represented in the novella apart from English is Yiddish, much despised by Rosa and her assimilated family. “Her father, like her mother, mocked at Yiddish: there was not a particle of ghetto left in him, not a grain of rot” (21). In The Shawl, Yiddish is associated in the past with Rosa's grandmother, and in the present with Simon Persky, the Eastern European immigrant to America, former manufacturer, and retired widower in Miami who takes a romantic interest in her and gently admonishes her, “You can't live in the past.” Rosa looks condescendingly at his Yiddish newspaper in the laundromat where he makes his first move.

“Excuse me, I notice you speak with an accent.”

Rosa flushed. “I was born somewhere else, not here.”

“I was also born somewhere else. You're a refugee? Berlin?”


“I'm also from Warsaw! 1920 I left. 1906 I was born.”

“Happy birthday,” Rosa said.”


“Imagine this,” he said. “Two people from Warsaw meet in Miami, Florida.”

“My Warsaw isn't your Warsaw,” Rosa said.


Rosa is intent on distinguishing her Warsaw from Persky's on two grounds, one prewar and one postwar:

The prewar difference is based on rank, for Rosa's denial of any knowledge of Yiddish is her badge of honor in terms of social class. Rosa stems from an affluent assimilated Warsaw home, where the family spoke eloquent Polish and was steeped in Polish culture. Her parents, she recalls, enunciated Polish “in soft calm voices with the most precise articulation, so that every syllable struck its target” (68). Considering the fate of these parents, the trope of Polish syllables striking their target works against Rosa's intense nostalgia. In America, she is deeply offended by the homogenizing of the Old World that places her in the same category with Persky. “The Americans couldn't tell her apart from this fellow with his false teeth and his dewlaps and his rakehell reddish toupee bought God knows when and where—Delancey Street, the Lower East Side. A dandy.” Rosa's continuing denial of her Jewishness and her romanticizing of her Polishness results in this peculiar misplaced rage. The American tendency to ignore differences among Jews seems to her a benign repetition of European racism. “Warsaw!” Rosa argues in her mind. “What did he know? In school she had read Tuwim: such delicacy, such loftiness, such Polishness” (20).

The irony of Rosa's evocation of pure Polishness in the poetry of Julian Tuwim is that he was a Polish-Jewish poet who wrote in New York in 1944, “So it is with mourning pride that we shall wear this rank, exceeding all others—the rank of the Polish Jew—we, the survivors by miracle or chance. With pride? shall we say, rather, with pangs of conscience and biting shame.” The man who served Rosa as the embodiment of quintessential Polishness eventually reached the conclusion that “I shall deem it the highest prize if a few of my Polish poems survive me, and their memory shall be tied to my name—the name of a Polish Jew.”14

The postwar difference dividing them is that Persky, who left well before the Second World War, has no firsthand experience of the ghetto, the transports, the death camps. As she says to the hotel manager whom she accosts for the presence of barbed wire on the Florida beaches, “Where were you when we was there?”

When asked her name by Persky, Ozick's character replies, “Lublin, Rosa.” “A pleasure,” he said. “Only why backwards? I'm an application form? Very good. You apply, I accept.” Despite Persky's amusement at her self-naming, we recognize that this is not backwards at all, that Rosa first associates herself with Lublin, with her Polishness, and only secondly with Rosa, her Jewishness.15 In her last letter to Magda she reminds her daughter of their aristocratic background, injured by the social leveling of the Warsaw Ghetto: “[I]magine confining us with teeming Mockowiczes and Rabinowiczes and Perskys and Finkelsteins, with all their bad-smelling grandfathers and their hordes of feeble children!” But it is only Persky with his Yiddish paper and his garbled English who has the power to separate her from her Polish phantom child and bring her back to the land of the living.

Despite Rosa's rebuff, Persky persists in his attempt to engage her in conversation:

“You read Yiddish?” the old man said.


“You can speak a few words, maybe?”

“No.” My Warsaw isn't your Warsaw.

At the very moment that she denies any knowledge of Yiddish, in her mind she recalls her grandmother's “cradle-croonings,” and Ozick adds the Yiddish words in transliteration, a rupture in the text because it is the only instance of a language other than English actually represented in the work. “Unter Reyzls vigele shteyt a klorvays tsigele,” the first words of the popular Yiddish lullabye “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” (Raisins and almonds). In this lullabye a little goat sets out on a journey from which it will bring raisins and almonds to the sleeping child who is destined to be a merchant of raisins and almonds himself but is now urged to sleep in his cradle. The cradle rhymes with the little goat; it rocks the child to sleep while the goat under his cradle is an ambassador of far-off lands of sweets, the Eastern European Jewish equivalent of sugar-plum fairies. In the story “Rosa,” the almonds hark back to the previous text, “The Shawl,” and to the “cinnamon and almond depth of Magda's saliva” that Rosa drank from the shawl after her child's death.16 The clear little white goat under Rosa's cradle is merged in her own mind with the little innocent child, uncradled, to whom she writes in Polish to keep her pure of the Yiddish world that marked her as a Jew, but whom she also links with her grandmother, cradle-crooner in that tongue.

The choice of “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” as the only Yiddish intertext in The Shawl adds further to both the gender and historical dimensions of the work. The first stanza of the lullabye, taken from the 1880 operetta by Abraham Goldfaden entitled Shulamis (Shulamith), frames the account of the baby and the goat by depicting the following scene:

In a corner of a room in the Holy Temple [in Jerusalem],

a widow named Daughter of Zion sits all alone

—and as she rocks her only son to sleep,

she sings him a little song.17

Within the masculine setting of the Holy Temple itself, a small corner has been domesticated, appropriated by mother and child. And in this woman's space the kid that is traditionally offered for sacrifice, or that takes the community's sins upon itself, has been transformed into the sustaining and nurturing creature who provides raisins and almonds. During the Second World War, the lullabye was adapted to conditions under the Nazis—one ghetto version being “In the Slobodka yeshiva an old sexton is reading his will. … When you will be free, tell your children of our suffering and murder, show them the graves and inscriptions of our extermination.”18

While Rosa reminisces about a home comprising only Polish, Latin, and Greek, she shies away from any image of home that contains Yiddish. But in Miami decades later it is Persky, the Yiddish speaker, who tells her in fractured English, “Wherever is your home is my direction that I'm going anyhow.”

Perhaps American-Jewish authors writing in English have invented cultivated and assimilated Holocaust survivors like Rosa and Mr. Artur Sammler as their main protagonists for in their prewar lives these characters inhabited a linguistic world as far removed from the Jewish languages of Hebrew and Yiddish as the authors themselves. Beauty, cultivation—civilization itself appears to be synonymous with the languages of their assimilation. For many American-Jewish authors and readers, such as Philip Roth, Yiddish is a language frozen socially and historically, embedded forever in a milieu of poverty, parochialism, and salty vernacular. Regardless of the historical facts that testify to a variegated Yiddish cultural and literary world before the Second World War, for the American-Jewish writer, product of immigrant parents or grandparents, Yiddish has tended to signify a maternal embrace, a home long since outgrown. For her or him, the lure of Yiddish seems to lie in its inarticulateness, in the rusty and homespun English of its translation.19 In The Shawl the route to Rosa's grandmother's lullabye and to her own cradle is through social decline, through dialogue with the likes of a Persky. It is as if the well-crafted English of the Jewish-American fictional text is kept in its place by the admonition of the lost mother culture evident only in the scrappy sentences of non-English speakers.

No surprise then that the epigraph is in German, taken from a poem entitled “Death Fugue” by Paul Celan, a Rumanian-Jewish Holocaust survivor who chose to write in the language of his people's murderers. For most well-educated or assimilated Jews in Europe, Yiddish was scorned as a corrupt form of German, frequently dubbed a bastard or stepchild born of writers unfaithful to the legitimate language, Hebrew.20 Because Yiddish did evolve from Middle German, while retaining the Hebrew alphabet, it is indeed a joining of these two languages. The Yiddish words of a lullabye in a book recounting the murder of a Jewish child constitute the opposite pole to the words of the epigraph, which also connect German and Hebrew. That Magda herself may be the product of rape by a Nazi adds a further grotesque dimension to the linguistic and historic analogues in The Shawl.

Death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air,
he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a
          master from Germany
          your golden hair Margarete
          your ashen hair Shulamith(21)

Margarete's golden hair is close enough to be that of Magda's, child of a romanticized (for Rosa) non-Jewish world that aimed to be Judenrein; as the object of desire of Goethe's Faust, Margarete is the incarnation of German romantic love. Shulamith, a “female emblem of beauty and desire celebrated in The Song of Songs, is an incarnation of Jewish biblical and literary yearnings. But there is a bitter difference and shocking irony in the echoing resemblance.”22 One is the fair-haired maiden of the Aryan ideal, the other the darker, ashen features of the Semitic woman. Moreover, the figurative ashen hair is brutally undercut by its literal allusion to Shulamith's burnt hair reduced to ashes. In fact, this may be the source for the ash-stippled wind that encircles Magda in the concentration camp. Shulamith is associated with the “Rose of Sharon” in the biblical text, in Hebrew “Shoshana,” and hence with Rosa.23 Just as Rosa's series of letters to her dead daughter are apostrophic, so too these lines in the poem are apostrophic, animating what is lost and dead, both the language of Goethe, contaminated by Nazi Germany, and Jewish civilization in Europe. But it also implicates Goethe's language, implying that the idealization of Margarete's golden hair leads inevitably to the ashes of Shulamith's hair. To add a tragic ironic twist to this entanglement of languages and texts, Goethe translated the Song of Songs from Hebrew into German, and in the Walpurgis Night scene in Faust, the young witch's lewd remarks to Faust echo some of the most sensuous lines of the biblical text. Earlier, Mephistopheles mocks Faust's love of Margarete by his sexual jests about her body that allude to the Songs of Songs as well, particularly to the often-quoted lines likening Shulamith's breasts to two fawns feeding among the lilies (4:5), which Goethe translated more accurately as among the roses (“shoshanim”). Margarete's being identified with Shulamith as mediated through Geothe's romanticism makes her signification as the antithesis of all that is Judaic particularly striking. Celan's poem severs Shulamith from Margarete, recovering the former for Semitic civilization and implicating the latter in anti-Semitic atrocity. He sunders the German-Jewish symbiosis that yielded rich cultural products, among them the first German-language periodical for Jews, significantly called Sulamith.24 Clean explained his own loyalty to the German language by insisting that “only in one's mother tongue can one express one's own truth. In a foreign language, the poet lies.”25 Bonded then to the language of the murderers of his own parents, Celan seeks “to annihilate his own annihilation in it.”26

As the work of a Holocaust survivor poet, Celan's epigraph lends the authority of testimony to Ozick's novella, as well as the legitimacy of rendering this subject matter in art. The link to Celan, and through Celan to Goethe, is striking in two other respects. (1) In 1943 while a prisoner in a labor camp, Celan wrote a poem originally entitled “Mutter” and then retitled “Black Flakes” (“Schwarze Flocken”) in which his mother addresses him: “Oh for a cloth, child / to wrap myself when it's flashing with helmets / … hooves crushing the Song of Cedar / … [sic] A shawl, just a thin shawl.” In his reply to her envisioned plea a few lines later, he offers her his poem as shawl: “I sought out my heart so it might weep, I found—oh the summer's breath, / it was like you. / Then came my tears. I wove the shawl.” Ozick's Shawl is a response and continuation of the one woven by Celan. An apostrophe to his dead mother, who instilled in him the love of Goethe, his poem mirrors the apostrophic letters of Ozick's Rosa to her daughter and her fixation on her shawl. (2) In Faust, the imprisoned near-insane Margarete raves about her dead child as if it were alive and pleads to be allowed to nurse it. Margarete is thus not only the incarnation of German romantic love, she is also a female victim of male brutality and a child murderer haunted by her deed. Associated with the Song of Songs, victimized by forces of evil, and finally reduced to infanticide and madness, Margarete could appear to be a parallel of Rosa as well as her antithesis, were it not for the decisive and colossal difference dividing myth from history, metaphor from victim.

The medium for the coexistence of Margaret and Shulamith, Magda and Rosa, is Paul Celan's German, the medium for the story of The Shawl is English, and the medium for Rosa's reentry into the world of the living is Yiddish, through Perksy's gentle insistence and her grandmother's voice. And the medium for prespeech bonding is the shawl itself, not the masculine prayer shawl that it evokes by association but the feminine wimple of the cradle, the swaddling clothes that, like the tallit, also serve as a shroud. As a Jewish-American woman writer, Ozick creates a common ground in her book for her audience and her subjects, for the American readers and the Holocaust survivor protagonists, through a barely remembered mother tongue, Yiddish, and woman's translation of the tallit into the maternal wimple. Stemming from the same Persian root, the word “shawl” is used in German, English, and Yiddish for the same garment. Moreover, the word “shawlgoat,” occasionally used interchangeably for “shawl” in earlier periods, refers to a goat that furnishes the wool for shawls. The “tsigele,” then, the pure-white little goat in the Yiddish lullabye, can be the source of “the shawl,” mother for both Rosa and Magda, and finally, not a child merchant, after all, but a provider of shawls as well as of milk.

And this brings me to my final observation about Ozick's work, namely, the dimension that she brings to this material as a woman writer. Although by now the literature of the Holocaust is voluminous, Elie Wiesel's testimony in Night of the murder of a child in Auschwitz remains central in any discussion of this subject, in part because it is witnessed by a child and in part because the adult who remembers interprets this atrocity as the equivalent of the death of God. No image conveys the unspeakable horror more than the murder of children. Wiesel speaks with the authority of the eyewitness; Ozick, moved to write literature about the Holocaust, must do what every fiction writer does—act the ventriloquist for characters of her own making. Faced with an ethical dilemma, the fiction writer must choose either to abstain from all fictional portrayals of the Holocaust (as Philip Roth does repeatedly by invoking the subject and then backing off), or to find a means of conveying Holocaust experience that at the same time conveys awareness of the debate on the subject. D. M. Thomas's deliberate retreat from fictionality in the Babi Yar scene of his novel The White Hotel, in which he substitutes the testimony of a survivor of the massacre recorded in Kuznetzov's documentary report, is, according to Thomas, his reluctance to place his own words in the mouth of a character.27 Ozick's The Shawl is clearly a work informed by this debate, and by the indictment of poetic language in Adorno's by now declaration-turned-axiom “After Auschwitz, it is no longer possible to write poems.”28

Ozick begins by placing before the reader that searing moment of the death of a child: the death of a daughter witnessed by the mother. The reader is positioned with the mother, sharing the mother's excruciating decision as to which strategy will offer more protection, and then witnessing the failure to protect. The mother, and reader, are left with the first wail of a mute child, that demand addressed to the mother from which the entire verbal universe is spun, the demand for a presence that stems from the first sensibility of absence. The silence preceding the wail, the silence of mother-child preverbal inseparability is transformed, by that one utterance of pain, into the self-inflicted silence of Adorno's dictum, as Rosa muffles her own voice and attempts to swallow her daughter back into her own body by taking the child's muteness into herself. The babel of languages in the second part, the weaving together of a text that offers a variety of languages, each with its own claim to solace or heal, does not displace the wail in Part I. Rosa's spinning out of the letters to Magda stems from her guilt-ridden decision to hear Magda's cry as the moment of her entry into language, thereby intensifying the pain of her failure to save her, and also treating that moment as the first verbal communication of her child addressed to her, which requires a lifetime of reply and denial. The Yiddish lullabye, the maternal legacy denied to Magda, is the melody (and it is as much song as it is lyrics) of the mother tongue that cannot soothe away Magda's wail. By placing us within ear's range of the child's cry and with the shattered mother, Ozick insists on demetaphorizing the language of Holocaust literature. If her subsequent evocation of a Yiddish lullabye, in what is by now nearly a dead language, in a work of Holocaust literature written by an American seems sentimental, it is also a means for that community of readers, two or three generations removed from Eastern Europe, to identify with the Old World culture that was destroyed. And if her evocation of European Jewry's entanglement in the languages and cultures of their annihilators appears to blur the lines dividing Jewish from non-Jewish culture (as in Celan's poetry), it also provides American Jewish readers with another face of that community that is no more. “Then came my tears. I wove the shawl.”


  1. For the paradoxes inherent in the Babel story and the double-edged effects of multilingualism, see Jacques Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” in Difference in Translation, ed. Joseph F. Graham (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).

  2. Cynthia Ozick, “America: Toward Yavne,” Judaism (Summer, 1970), reprinted in What Is Jewish Literature?, ed. Hana Wirth-Nesher (Philadelphia: Jewish PubIcation Society, 1994), p. 28.

  3. For a discussion of Ozick's struggle for historicity and her relation to Jewish memory, see Norman Finkelstein, The Ritual of New Creation: Jewish Tradition and Contemporary Literature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).

  4. Both Baal-Makhshoves (Isidore Elyashev) and Shmuel Niger have argued that bi- and multilingualism have been intrinsic features of Jewish literature in all periods. See Baal-Makhshoves, “One Literature in Two Languages,” trans. Hana Wirth-Nesher and reprinted in What Is Jewish Literature? and Niger, Bilingualism in the History of Jewish Literature, trans. Joshua Fogel (New York: University Press of America, 1990).

  5. For an analysis of poetic strategies of translation within narrative, see Meir Sternberg, “Polylingualism as Reality and Translation as Mimesis,” Poetics Today 2 (1981), pp. 225-232.

  6. Benjamin Harshav has argued that the work of many Yiddish poets in America should be considered a branch of American literature in the introduction to American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, ed. Benjamin and Barbara Harshav (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986). For discussions of the multilingual aspects of the writings of Henry Roth and of Saul Bellow, see Hana Wirth-Nesher, “Between Mother Tongue and Native Language: Multilingualism in Call It Sleep,Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History 10 (1990), pp. 297-312, and Hana Wirth-Nesher, “‘Who's he when he's at home?’: Saul Bellow's Translations,” in New Essays on Seize the Day, ed. Michael Kramer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

  7. Among the many works on this subject, the following have had a significant influence on my own writing: Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Lawrence Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975); Alan Mintz, Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984); Alvin Rosenfeld, A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980); David Roskies, Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).

  8. Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl (New York: Random House, 1990), copyright page. All further page numbers will be cited in the text.

  9. Ozick's sensitivity about representing the sufferings of Holocaust victims is evident in her letter to a survivor reprinted in Sarah Blacher Cohen, Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 148.

    Every Jew should feel as if he himself came out of Egypt … The Exodus took place 4000 years ago, and yet the Haggadah enjoins me to incorporate it into my own mind and flesh, to so act as if it happened directly and intensely to me, not as mere witness but as participant. Well, if I am enjoined to belong to an event that occurred 4000 years ago, how much more strongly am I obliged to belong to an event that occurred only 40 years ago.

  10. Barbara Johnson, “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion,” in A World of Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), p. 198.

  11. Sarah Blacher Cohen traces the source of this to the account of a devastating narrative of the denial of the maternal instinct in Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, trans. Barbara Vedder (New York: Penguin, 1976), p. 43.

  12. For a detailed analysis of the Aeneid as a central intertext in The Shawl, see Elaine Kauver, “The Magic Shawl,” in Cynthia Ozick's Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), pp. 197-199.

  13. Johnson, p. 187.

  14. Julian Tuwim, “We, the Polish Jews …” (Fragments) in Poems of the Ghetto: A Testament of Lost Men, ed. and with introduction by Adam Gillon (New York: Twayne, 1969), p. 83.

  15. Kauver notes that the choice of the name Lublin stresses the fate of Rosa's assimilation. “Originally planned as a reservation for the concentration of Jews by the Nazis, Lublin became one of the centers for mass extermination and was the site of a prisoner of war camp for Jews who had served in the Polish army. The Nazis made no distinction between Jews who abandoned their Jewishness and Jews who celebrated it” (187).

  16. Berger suggests that the cinnamon-and-almond flavor evokes the scent of the spices in the decorative box used for the Havdalah service marking the end of the Sabbath; it thereby signifies liturgy as spiritually invigorating. Kauver associates cinnamon and almond with the sacred anointing oil in Scripture and a biblical symbol of divine approval, so that Magda becomes a holy babe for Rosa. I believe that two intertexts are evoked in these two scents: the almonds are obviously an allusion to the Yiddish lullabye “Raisins and Almonds”; the cinnamon is a reference to “The Cinnamon Shops” by the Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Shultz, murdered by the Nazis and the inspiration for Ozick's novel Messiah of Stockholm.

  17. Abraham Goldfaden, Shulamis: oder Bat Yerushalayim (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company), p. 10 (my translation).

  18. Introductory notes for “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen,” in Mir Trogn A Gezang: The New Book of Yiddish Songs, 4th ed. (New York: Workmen's Circle Education Department, 1982).

  19. While Ozick is aware of this tendency in American-Jewish culture generally, her excellent translations of the works of Jacob Glatstein, Chaim Grade, and Dovid Einhorn are proof of her knowledge of and commitment to Yiddish literature. See also her essays on Yiddish literature and on the problems of translation, “Sholem Aleichem's Revolution” and “A Translator's Monologue,” in Metaphor and Memory (New York: Knopf, 1989), pp. 173-198; 199-208.

  20. For an excellent discussion of Celan's multilingual upbringing and its cultural resonances see, “Loss and the Mother Tongue,” in John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 3-22. The cultural significance of linguistic choice in Eastern European Jewish civilization is explored at length in Dan Miron, A Traveler Disguised: A Study in the Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction (New York: Schocken, 1973).

  21. Paul Celan, “Death Fugue,” Michael Hamburger's translation, in Paul Celan, Poems, selected, translated and introduced by Michael Hamburger (New York: Persea Books, 1980), p. 53.

  22. Shoshana Felman, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 32.

  23. Cynthia Ozick's Hebrew name is Shoshana. The Hebrew original of “I am the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valleys” is “Ani havazellet hasharon, shoshonat ha'amakim.”

  24. Felstiner, p. 298.

  25. Israel Chalfen, Einer Biographie seiner Jugend, 1979, quoted in Katherine Washburn's introduction to Paul Celan: Last Poems (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), p. vii.

  26. Felman, p. 27.

  27. For a discussion of this issue, see Hana Wirth-Nesher, “The Ethics of Narration in D. M. Thomas's White Hotel,Journal of Narrative Technique (Winter 1985).

  28. Theodor Adorno, “After Auschwitz,” in Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), p. 362. As Langer has noted, “Adorno never intended it to be taken literally as his own elaborations of the principle demonstrate” (see pp. 1-3).

Meisha Rosenberg (essay date spring 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5968

SOURCE: Rosenberg, Meisha. “Cynthia Ozick's Post-Holocaust Fiction: Narration and Morality in the Midrashic Mode.” Journal of the Short Story in English 32 (spring 1999): 113-27.

[In the following essay, Rosenberg investigates how Ozick's use of the midrashic mode, which finds its origins in “to search” or “to inquire,” allows her to approach the topic of the Holocaust.]

Cynthia Ozick's writings can be viewed in light of a midrashic mode by virtue of her need to sustain Jewish tradition in the wake of great devastation—the Holocaust. What is the proper mode of representation for an event that is arguably unprecedented, not only in the history of the Jews, but in the history of humankind? Figurative discourse about the Holocaust has experienced considerable objections,1 haunted as it still is by Theodor Adorno's famous pronouncement that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. This despite the fact that Adorno later qualified his statement.2 Writers and artists today are still wary about approaching the subject, for fear that works classified as fiction about the Holocaust will only fuel the arguments of the all-too-prevalent Holocaust deniers.3 Fiction and art that is not rooted to historical reality can create distortion, saccharin morality tales about the “triumph of the human spirit”, and at the worst, obfuscation and denial. One has to be suspect of, for example, a film about the Holocaust titled Life Is Beautiful. Life was distinctly not beautiful for the great majority of Jewish children that were gassed immediately as they arrived in the concentration camps, if they even made it that far.

However, extreme insistence on historicization is dangerous because it blocks imaginative entry into the event. This insistence privileges survivor testimony over the unwritten works of the dead; this can lead to another, more subtle kind of distortion in which all the stories we hear are from the perspective of those who miraculously lived through the horrors.4 It is easy to be shuttled emotionally between wanting to stay true to the reality of the Holocaust on the one hand—perhaps limiting one's intake of Holocaust representation to only a select few works of a documentary nature, for example those by Primo Levi, Anne Frank, and Elie Wiesel—and to desire on the other hand departures from the strictures of conventional narrative that confront us with the extreme disjuncture of the Holocaust, for example the highly creative and disturbing cartoon Maus by Art Spiegelman.

Arguments on the side of artistic freedom do not necessarily oppose faithfulness to historicity, and it is my goal to point out how the two can and should dovetail. Furthermore, as the number of survivors dwindles, figurative representation becomes an even more important way of continuing to “bear witness”5. Fiction about the Holocaust can fill a void in the Jewish literary community left by the millions of stories completely lost to the genocide. Fiction about the Holocaust can go where history cannot, paying tribute to the personal experiences that have been silenced by mass murder.

However, narratives of any kind about the Holocaust—both fiction and nonfiction are susceptible—must not become blind to the realities of the genocide. Ozick's use of the midrashic mode allows her in The Shawl, a short book that consists of two linked stories, to fictionally approach the subject of the Holocaust while never forgetting its historical reality.

Ozick's works, in their blending of literature and law, return to a traditional form of Jewish literary and religious inquiry known as midrash. The meaning of the root for the word midrash is “to search” or “to inquire”6. Midrash encompasses a vast body of text of distinct periods, beginning about the first to second centuries C.E., when it was transmitted orally by the rabbis in sermons or public teachings. It was only later written down, compiled at different periods and by different editors.7 Some writings are halakhic (having to do with Jewish civil law and ritual) and others aggadic (meaning allegory, exhortation, legend—in short, figurative expression).8 Midrash is usually in some way interpretation of Torah, whether it is direct exegesis, homily, or the more creative narrative. The midrashists' project was to create a body of text that could guide the Diaspora after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.

What was created, however, was not a didactic reinscription of Torah, but rather a chorus of rabbinical voices debating, raising questions, and delighting in linguistic play. Because the midrashists could read Torah in Hebrew,9 they could create linguistically based interpretations in ways that later Christians—because they were dealing with once- or twice-translated text—could not. This allows for, beyond multiplicity of meaning, an almost infinite universe of interpretive departures, all stemming from the intimate interstices of words, letters, even the musical and numerical values of text. In addition, midrash is a practice in which fantasy and figuration are inseparable from context, history, and morality, and it is this nonoppositional approach that is essential in narrating the Holocaust. Daniel Boyarin has done much to argue that midrash simultaneously breaks and reinscribes tradition through strategies such as quotation—which both interrupts and bridges the source text—and a self-conscious intertextuality10 that stems from the interpretive philosophy that no text, including the Torah, is created ex nihilo by a “self-identical” subject.

In her essay “Bialik's Hint” Ozick explicitly entertains midrash as a way to create a new Jewish literature. She interprets a statement of Chaim Bialik's to mean that aggadah and halachah, the two components of midrash, are fused together,

The value of Aggadah,” he asserts, “is that it issues in Halachah. Aggadah that does not bring Halachah in its train is ineffective.” If we pause to translate Aggadah as tale and lore, and Halachah as consensus and law, or Aggadah as the realm of the fancy, and Halachah as the court of duty, then what Bialik proposes next is astonishing. Contrariwise, he says, Halachah can bring Aggadah in its train. Restraint the begetter of poetry? “Is she not”—and now Bialik is speaking of the Sabbath—“a source of life and holiness to a whole nation, and a fountain of inspiration to its singers and poets?11

This statement is central to an understanding of Ozick. She believes that law and morality inspire the imagination. Normally, one would think of “restraint” and law as antithetical to the anomie of creativity, but Ozick asserts the opposite. Like the rabbis who composed midrashim, Ozick allows for what might seem paradoxes to the contemporary mind to flourish.

Some scholars have proposed that The Shawl be considered literally as midrash. Joseph Lowin reads “Rosa” as a midrashic commentary or gloss on “The Shawl”12. Joseph Alkana, in an enlightening paper, argues that The Shawl is actually a midrash on the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac.13 These readings are insightful and important in adding to our understanding of Ozick's text and the possibilities of post-Holocaust fiction. However, Ozick herself has said that, when it comes to creating a contemporary Jewish literature, midrash alone is not enough, because of its “dependence on a single form.” Midrash, she says, usually means “a literature of parable”.14 However, I'd like to propose that we look at midrash not as a single limiting form that demands we read texts as literal midrashim or as parables, but rather as a mode, a way in to a Jewish literature that thrives on dialectics and multiple interpretations.

Midrash is unique in its all-encompassing array of topics—from what one is to do when Pesach falls on the Sabbath and how many goats one man might owe another, to profound questions about suffering. Midrash, in its ability to take in minutiae as well as epistemology, is especially useful as an approach to thinking and writing about the Holocaust, which must be regarded as a historical as well as a philosophical and a personal cataclysm.

The Shawl was actually written in 1977—Ozick said it was her fear of making art out of the Holocaust that prevented her from publishing it.15The Shawl is a slender book that contains two stories, one titled “The Shawl,” the other, “Rosa,” both concerning the same character, Rosa Lublin. Already in the fact that the two stories present two different views of the same life we have a midrashic mode of writing.

Ozick tackles the challenge of representing the Holocaust in several ways characteristic of midrash. (1) She uses a compressed narrative voice in “The Shawl,” the first of the two stories, that invites the reader, as an active participant, into the text; (2) she draws inspiration from the uncovering of neglected historical perspectives, a move characteristic of midrash, which fuses history and lore; (3) she draws attention to silence as a metaphor, thus allowing for the alternate, radical discourse possibilities that reside outside of her narrative; (4) she creates a symbol, the shawl, that stands for figuration itself and provides a vehicle for the question of how one can figuratively represent the Holocaust; and (5) she narrates the moment of horror in “The Shawl”, the first story, from the very human point of view of Rosa, the main character, as a way of simultaneously showing the necessity and the impossibility of portraying the terrors of the Holocaust.

First, as part of her midrashic, liturgical approach16 Ozick collapses narrative distance in “The Shawl,” the first story of the pair, placing the reader inside the experience. Scholar Berel Lang has called for “intransitive writing”, a concept of Roland Barthes, in the representation of the Holocaust, a modernist form that attempts to close up the distance between reader, writer, and characters. Lang uses the Passover Haggadah—large parts of which are actually midrash—as an example of intransitive writing. In the Haggadah Jews are called upon to retell the events of the Exodus as though they had been there themselves.

As with the intransitive voice, in “The Shawl” the reader finds herself plunged into the very real, harsh world of the camps without a friendly interpreter. This is how it should be. The lack of verbs and severely elliptical structure17 creates an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. The first sentences of the story are not complete sentences and are posed as an unasked question:

Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell. How they walked on the roads together, Rosa with Magda curled up between sore breasts, Magda wound up in the shawl.18

The asyndeton of the first sentence is followed by the periodic phrase “how they walked on”, which, contrary to expectation, does not end with a question mark. The question of how they walked on—and how they suffered—can barely be asked and cannot be answered. The midrash Lamentations Rabbah relates that three important prophets began prophesies with the word “how”: Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.19 This is a very important word used to address the people of Israel in times of crisis. The very first word of the book of Lamentations is “how,” in Hebrew, Eikhah, which Chaim Raphael points out has a “mournful ring, like ‘alack,’ or ‘woe.’”20 The first line of the book of Lamentations reads, “How lonely sits the city that was full of people!” (Lam. 1:1.) Raphael also notes that the first word of a book of Torah is often referred to by its first word, so in this case, “How” stands in synechdochally for the entire book of Lamentations. In the Midrash on Lamentations, it is written that “R. Eleazar said, ‘The word is made up of two syllables, which read individually mean ‘where is the ‘thus’?’”21 If we pause at R. Eleazar's contribution, we gain considerable insight into Ozick's use of the word. It mourns and asks the ultimate question, “where is the ‘thus?’”; in other words, where is the meaning to this horror? Simply: Why did this happen?

The rhetorical device of periodicity in “The Shawl” causes the reader to anticipate this unanswerable question. “The Shawl” is marked by incomplete sentences, as in “One mite of a tooth tip sticking up in the bottom gum, how shining, an elfin tombstone of white marble gleaming there” and “The little round head. Such a good child, she gave up screaming, and sucked now only for the taste of the drying nipple itself”.22 The narrative of “The Shawl” is also marked by a verbless poetic rhythm punctuated by the occasional exclamation.23 “Staccato phrases”24 are joined by semicolons in a chainlike construction that is more like constriction, as in the line “There was not enough milk; sometimes Magda sucked air; then she screamed.”25

“The Shawl” may well approximate Lang's definition of the “intransitive voice”; however, there are problems with this approach. Even assuming “The Shawl” is an example of the intransitive voice, how does this, or a midrashically informed literature for that matter, ensure a moral, non-mythopoeticizing26 literature of the Holocaust? One can't help thinking that, while Jews in America were reciting Haggadah—an example of Midrash and of intransitive writing—in Europe the very kind of thing this recitation admonishes against was occurring. Intransitive writing, indeed any prescribed literary form, is no guarantee that the reader will avoid the mistakes of “mytho-poeticization” and immorality. Many writers and critics have expressed dismay at the fact that the Holocaust occurred in one of the most literate cultures of the time.27

Rather than adhering to a formula for representation, one must, as a writer of Holocaust literature, insist on bringing to light the contradictions of language itself. What comes close to describing how Ozick does this in “The Shawl” is Jean-François Lyotard's description of the warping of language that occurred as a result of the concentration camps' denial of the pronoun “we.” The command given by the Nazis to the Jews “to die”, he says, did not allow for any comprehensible relationship between addressee and addressor. The assumptions of discourse have been challenged at their foundations.

Indeed: “where is the ‘thus’?” Therefore, as we grapple with the Holocaust we must struggle in the realm of language and representation. Lyotard defends the position that the Holocaust, in addition to being a historical reality, must be considered an “experience of language.” One cannot write about the Holocaust adequately without addressing the instabilities of language.

In “The Shawl,” to use Lyotard's phrase, “Auschwitz has no name.” There are no last names in the story, no direct references to the Holocaust as such, nor mentions of German or Jew. But, as Lyotard also says, “One must … speak”28, and this is the tragic paradox of victims of the Holocaust, for whom it often feels impossible to speak of their experience at the same time that it is essential.29

The second, and a crucial tactic Ozick uses to represent the Holocaust without mytho-poeticizing is to stay true to the historical facts.30 She wrote The Shawl upon reading a historical work: William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which described the Nazi practice of throwing babies against electrical fences. Another source was a conversation with Jerzy Kozinski, in which the two writers discussed the reality of those assimilated Jews who were not “shtetl Jews” yet suffered the same fate. In this way, the genesis of the pair of stories results from bringing to light historical reality.

Further, Ozick places the two stories chronologically—first is “The Shawl” and World War II, and then “Rosa” in contemporary Miami. This is a choice that emphasizes historicity and creates tension with Rosa's need, in “Rosa” for the creation of an elaborate fantasy life in which she imagines Magda still alive. One might argue that the two stories stand dialectically opposed, because while “The Shawl,” with its spare narrative style and minimalist use of language and detail might stand for historical representation, “Rosa”, with its more colorful array of characters, place, fantasy, and allusions, could stand for figurative representation.

However the two stories are too intertwined for such a simplistic assignment. One could also argue, conversely, that because the story “Rosa” takes place in an identifiable time and culture, it stands for historicity, while “The Shawl”, with its abbreviated structure and poetically informed disruptive tropes stands for figuration.

In actuality, each story contains within its center—like a mother with child—the other story. Rosa does not admit to herself the story of “The Shawl” until the end of “Rosa”, the second story. In this way, we as readers are left, not with “Rosa”, but with the first story, “The Shawl”, and the Holocaust. So it is not a linear, evolutionary history we are left with. The two stories inform one another in a narrative circle, and thus emphasize that the Holocaust, while it must first and foremost be remembered as history, must also allow for figuration.

In a third midrashic strategy, Ozick uses silence and muteness to symbolize the unspeakability of the crimes of the Holocaust. By pointing a textual arrow to silence, Ozick allows for the radical unspeakability of suffering that lies outside her text.31 The matter of silence and speech is a leitmotif in The Shawl, as in midrash, where rabbis confront the silences to Torah. Rosa is preoccupied by her baby Magda's muteness, and the child's expression when she can't find her shawl is a primal scream. Her wail is the ultimate, prelingual expression of the horrors of the Holocaust. Ozick makes this inarticulate cry Magda's only direct speech by way of entertaining the possibility that this is the only true way to represent the horror of the premeditated genocide. At the end of the story, Rosa stifles her own scream using Magda's shawl, leaving us with a deafening silence.

The shawl itself is, as a physical object for stifling cries, a chronic reminder of silence in both its harmful and its comforting manifestations. Using the shawl as her central symbol is the fourth, and most straightforwardly midrashic, strategy, because the object of the shawl comes to resemble the signifiers of so many Jewish traditions.

For Rosa the shawl is a “magic” shawl, reminiscent of the miraculous oil of the hannukiah, because it could “nourish an infant for three days and three nights.” It smells of Magda's “cinnamon and almond” saliva, perhaps a reference to “the besamim which Jews sniff at the end of the Sabbath”32. The “cinnamon and almond” smell is also a midrashic link to a famous Yiddish song, Rozhinkes mit Mandlen (Raisins and Almonds) that in referenced in the story “Rosa”33. The shawl additionally represents the Jewish prayer shawl, or tallis. So in this way, the shawl now also takes on the extra-heavy weight of signifying belief in God, or at least a wish to believe in God. As Magda's transitional object, it represents the child's first attempt to project self onto the world outside the mother. As such, the shawl represents the child's first imaginative act.34 The shawl is additionally a fake shroud for Magda, and a symbol for the death all around them. Because the shawl is a conduit for so many, contradictory symbols, it begins to stand for figuration itself. It is through her creation of a symbol for figuration that Ozick is able to engage the question of how to represent the Holocaust.

Magda is hidden underneath the shawl and doubly hidden under Rosa's clothing. She is additionally hidden in her “Aryan” features. When Rosa stops lactating, Magda turns to the shawl, also a symbol for the breast, which she “milks”35. The shawl is like the placenta, a powerful image of motherhood's sole creative power. Rosa, distancing herself from fellow Jews, begins to see herself as a kind of Virgin Mary and Magda as the child of an immaculate conception, although as we learn later Rosa was raped by a Nazi.

Because of the illogical and inflated symbolism enforced by the Nazis, the shawl obtains a too-powerful control over Magda's fate. It is at this point that Ozick deals with the most difficult task of representing the Holocaust: that of directly showing her readers the horror of the genocide. In my argument, her fifth strategy is to narrate this charged moment through Rosa's point of view, and thereby show us two alternate pictures of the atrocity. Ozick deliberately problematizes this moment. For a Holocaust representation not to become a soothing story of the “triumph of the human spirit” the artist must, within the work itself, raise and confront the question of how one can represent unimaginable atrocity.

When Magda runs out to find the shawl that Stella, Rosa's neice, has stolen, Rosa is faced with an impossible decision. Rosa decides to do the only thing she can do; she tries to retrieve the shawl and then find Magda. When Magda totters out in search of her stolen shawl, she is seen by an SS guard, who is described only in metonyms:

But the shoulder that carried Magda was not coming toward Rosa and the shawl, it was drifting away, the speak of Magda was moving more and more into the smoky distance. Above the shoulder a helmet glinted. The light tapped the helmet and sparkled it into a goblet. Below the helmet a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots hurled themselves in the direction of the electrified fence. The electric voices began to chatter wildly.36

Magda's actual moment of death is described in the passive voice. The Nazi is signified by a helmet. The sun turns the helmet into a goblet—a primitive drinking vessel. A goblet is also a religious item, and here we see Rosa begin to aestheticize this horrifying moment. The black boots “hurled themselves.” German agency in the Holocaust is a medusa, impossible to look directly in the face. The most disturbing and powerful element of the story is the following description of Magda's death:

All at once Magda was swimming through the air. The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness. She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine.37

This is the moment of horror in “The Shawl.” Is the description “a butterfly”an aestheticization of the Holocaust? Or does it describe an ascension to heaven? This moment is suspended in the text as Magda is suspended above ground. Human comprehension cannot pass beyond this moment of suspension. We know that Magda cannot possibly fit into this image because of the consciously mixed metaphor, “swimming” through “air.” Rosa, as we begin to see, is flawed, that is to say, she is a human being, who imagines, instead of death, that her daughter has become a butterfly.38 It is this emphasis on the failure of human comprehension that returns us to a midrashic mode in which Jews are constantly striving and yet never succeeding at apprehending God.39

We do not find out in “The Shawl” whether or not Rosa will die, and this is an important omission. As at least one possible “ending” for the story cycle, “The Shawl” leaves us with the possibility of death or worse than death for its main character, and this—as well as the undeniable presence of silence as a force in the story—makes a strong argument for fiction that represents the experiences of those who didn't survive, or those who survived too damaged to tell their own stories.40

Although I do not have the space here to discuss “Rosa”, the second story of the volume, in full, I will say that it continues to operate in the midrashic mode, yet by way of entirely differing narrative strategies. Departing from the elliptical style of “The Shawl”, Rosa is given, to borrow a phrase from Isaac Bashevis Singer, an “address”—a place in time and culture. “Rosa” operates midrashically by constructing a dialogue between Rosa and Simon Persky, who take the sides of alternately, “truth” and “lying,” or “history”, and “fiction.”

In conclusion, Ozick uses many midrashic techniques in order to tackle the task of representing the Holocaust figuratively. The Holocaust presents a radical loss and disjunction from Judaic theology, culture, traditions, and language itself. Attempting to rebuild a shattered culture, writers like Ozick and others must reach back to traditions like midrash, which, because it is open-ended, invites us into its infinite world of interpretations, profound questionings, and paradox.


  1. Lawrence Langer's book Preempting the Holocaust still maintains a position of strict adherence to “literalist,” unsentimentalized treatments of the Holocaust. As well he should, he argues vociferously against the works of Judy Chicago and Tzvetan Todorov, among others, who attempt to draw out of the Holocaust a watered-down moral lesson that caters to a contemporary American fad of victimization. Langer insists that, to try to comprehend the Holocaust, one must “start with an unbuffered collision with its starkest crimes.” Langer, Lawrence, Preempting the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) 1. Langer's tactic is to present the reader with the most horrific details told by survivors, in order to strike home his point that no “ideals” can be supported by atrocities such as a German ripping a baby in half in front of its mother, or Jews being boiled alive in acid.

    I fully support Langer's criticism of those who use the Holocaust to support an agenda of political correctness or universalism that departicularizes suffering. However, there is a danger in insisting, so forcefully as Langer does, decontextualized narratives of atrocity on the reader. Such a tactic threatens to 1) rob documentary narratives of their full implications and context and 2) duplicate the cruelty of the Nazis without providing a foundation of morality from which to condemn their crimes. As Jurek Becker, a survivor and fiction writer says, “What is the reason for meeting and remembering that fifty years ago the Nazis burned books? Just for remembrance? That's not enough for me. I am not interested in these memories; they are not so great—I can imagine better memories. … The only important and good reason to remember is to ask ourselves what attitude was behind that happening, and where do we find that attitude today?” From Art out of Agony, Lewis, Stephen (Toronto: CBC Enterprises, 1984) 101-102.

    Berel Lang, another scholar wary of figurative representation, insists on “deference to the conventions of historical discourse as a literary means” (Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) 135) in representation of the Holocaust. He posits that historical chronology is the “point zero” of narrative, both historical and figurative, recognizing that in most all historical representations—even chronologies—lie elements of figuration and narrative. “The Representation of Limits,” in Probing the Limits of Representation, ed. Saul Friedlander (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992) 307.

    Hayden White modifies Lang's position, arguing that “What all this suggests is that modernist modes of representation may offer possiblities of representing the reality of both the Holocaust and the experience of it that no other version of realism could do.” From “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth,” in Probing the Limits of Representation, ed. Saul Friedlander. While I agree with White that to construct an artificial opposition between history and figuration is problematic, I find his solution (that is, modernist writing in the “intransitive” or “middle” voice) equally troubling, because insisting on modernism, a particularly secular, Western creation, still limits Holocaust representation. I start from the other end of the argument—why begin with the assumption that limitations on representation are necessary? I take White's inclusion of fiction into Lang's model further to suggest that figurative language fulfills a particular task in representation unfulfilled by “objective” historical representation.

  2. Lang, “The Representation of Limits,” 317.

  3. Sara R. Horowitz notes that “To protect their respective projects from the kind of assaults mounted by historical deniers, and to assert the truth claims of their work to an uninitiated readership, [Art] Spiegelman [author of the cartoon/documentary Maus] and [Claude] Lanzmann [filmmaker of Shoah] insist upon the “nonfictionality” of Holocaust art.” Horowitz, Sara R., Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997) 12.

  4. Of course, there also exist works that somehow survived that were authored by those who did not, in the most obvious example, the Diary of Anne Frank. However the fact remains that once she was deported her voice was silenced. As I later suggest, perhaps this loud silence is the most powerful tribute to the dead.

  5. Alan L. Berger makes an important distinction between “witnessing” and “bearing witness”: “[Elie] Wiesel, the best known and most widely read witnessing writer, now emphasizes that the next generation must bear witness.” “Bearing Witness: Theological Implications of Second-Generation Literature in America,” in Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory after Auschwitz, ed. Efraim Sicher (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998) 259.

  6. Hartman, Geoffrey H., and Budick, Sanford, eds., Midrash and Literature, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986) 363.

  7. Midrash, as Barry W. Holtz points out, is usually seen as falling under three categories: the exegetical (interpretive), the homiletical (based on sermons), and the narratival (the most creative category, often stories or “re-written” Torah). There is no one “Midrash,” as Holtz relates, but rather collections of midrashim compiled over the centuries, beginning as early as the second century C.E. The “flowering” of midrash is considered to have been from 400 to 1200 C.E. From Holtz, Barry W., “Midrash,” in Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, ed. Barry W. Holtz (New York: Summit Books, 1984) 177-211.

  8. Hartman and Budick, 363.

  9. Dan, Joseph, “Midrash and the Dawn of Kabbalah,” Midrash and Literature, ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986) 128. Joseph Dan points out that the rabbis used, as tools for interpretation, the shapes, sounds, musical signs, decorative flourishes, frequency, and the numerical values of letters and words, among many other non-ideonic exegetical techniques.

  10. Boyarin, Daniel, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).

  11. Ozick, Cynthia, “Bialik's Hint,” Metaphor and Memory (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989) 228.

  12. Lowin, Joseph, Cynthia Ozick (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988) 109.

  13. Alkana, Joseph, “‘Do We Not Know the Meaning of Aesthetic Gratification?’: Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl, The Akedah, and the Ethics of Holocaust Literary Aesthetics,” Modern Fiction Studies 43:4 (1997) 963-990.

  14. Ozick, “Bialik's Hint,” 238.

  15. Heron, Kim, “‘I Required a Dawning,’” New York Times Book Review, 1989.

  16. For discussions of the liturgical nature of Ozick's writing, see Gottfried, Amy, “Fragmented Art and the Liturgical Community of the Dead in Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl,Studies in American Jewish Literature, 13 (1994) 39-51; Rose, Elisabeth, “Cynthia Ozick's Liturgical Postmodernism: The Messiah of Stockholm,Studies in American Jewish Literature, 9:1 (1990) 93-107; and by Ozick herself, “Toward a New Yiddish,” in Art and Ardor, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1983) 151-177.

  17. Kauvar, Elaine, Cynthia Ozick's Fiction: Tradition and Invention (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) 180.

  18. Ozick, Cynthia, “The Shawl,” The Shawl (New York: Random House, Inc., 1990) 1.

  19. Lamentations Rabbah: An Analytical Translation, ed. Neusner, Jacob (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989) Lamentations I:1, Parashah XXXV.i. A, p. 108.

  20. Raphael, Chaim, The Walls of Jerusalem: An Excursion into Jewish History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968) 92.

  21. Lamentations Rabbah, ed. Neusner, Parashah XXXV.ii.B, p. 109.

  22. Ozick, “The Shawl,” 4. Later in the text is another example of a period phrase, or sentence, prefaced by the word “how”: “How far Magda was from Rosa now, across the whole square, past a dozen barracks, all the way on the other side!” In this case, the question mark has been replaced by an exclamation mark, meant to denote the extremity of her distance and her situation.

  23. Examples of these exclamations are “Again!” (8); also Magda's utterance, “‘Maaaa … aaa!’” (8) Ozick, The Shawl.

  24. Klingenstein, Susanne, “Destructive Intimacy: The Shoah between Mother and Daughter in Fictions by Cynthia Ozick, Norma Rosen, and Rebecca Goldstein,” Studies in American Jewish Literature 11:2 (1992) 162-173. Klingenstein points out how the incomplete sentences and thought fragments in “Rosa,” when Rosa receives the shawl and recalls her dead daughter, taken together, form a poem.

  25. Ozick, “The Shawl,” 1. For another example of these asyndetonic, chainlike sentences, see especially Rosa's interior monologue when she comes close to what might almost be hope as Magda utters her first sound in a long time: “Rosa believed that something had gone wrong with her vocal cords, her windpipe, with the cave of her larynx; Magda was defective, without a voice; perhaps she was deaf; there might be something amiss with her intelligence; Magda was dumb.” Ozick, “The Shawl,” 7.

  26. Kim Heron.

  27. Sara Horowitz points out that “The flourishing of atrocity among a highly literate people particularly disturbs [George] Steiner, undermining his trust altogether in the literary endeavor.” Voicing the Void, 19.

  28. Lyotard, Jean-François, “Discussions, or Phrasing, After Auschwitz,” The Lyotard Reader, ed. Andrew Benjamin (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1989) 1.

  29. Primo Levi has spoken of this; and Elie Wiesel, despite his dedication to bearing witness, has expressed its impossibility. See A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature, Alvin H. Rosenfeld (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980) 14, 28. Sara Horowitz sums it up well: “At the heart of Holocaust narrative resides an essential contradiction: an impossibility to express the experience, coupled with a psychological and moral obligation to do so.” Horowitz, 16.

  30. That Ozick draws on historical references is not to say that she privileges historicity, as Berel Lang does (interpreting it to mean realism and therefore morality), over figuration. “For me,” says Ozick, deconstructing this opposition between morality and imagination, “with certain rapturous exceptions, literature is the moral life.” “Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means,” Art and Ardor, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1983) 245.

  31. Horowitz writes that Holocaust fiction has been marked by a “tropological muteness.” (29) She is also one of the few critical voices to argue outright for the necessity of fiction about the Holocaust, saying “For it is the absent story made present by radical imagining that confronts the mass murder.” (14) She also notes that in some ways, fictional representation is ahead of critical discourse when it comes to apprehending issues of Holocaust representation. (29)

  32. Berger, Alan, Crisis and Covenant: The Holocaust in American Jewish Fiction, quoted in Gottfried, Amy, “Fragmented Art and the Liturgical Community of the Dead in Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl,” Studies in American Jewish Literature 13 (1994) 46.

  33. Wirth-Nesher, Hana, “The Languages of Memory: Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl,” in Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature, ed. Werner Sollors (New York: New York University Press, 1998) 320. Wirth-Nesher points out a fascinating link between, among other texts, “Todesfuge,” by Paul Celan (the epigraph of The Shawl) and Rozhinkes mit Mandlen. This would further suggest that there exists an intertextual and therefore midrashic relationship between Ozick's The Shawl and many other, primarily Jewish-centered narratives. One might posit that the lines of Celan's poem that appear as epigraph serve as the prooftext for Ozick's midrash.

  34. Drawing on theories of Lacan, Wirth-Nesher has pointed out that Magda's first words, “”Maaaa—” constitute the ultimate demand the child makes to the mother “out of which the entire verbal universe is spun.” Lacan as quoted by Wirth-Nesher, “The Languages of Memory,” 317.

  35. Wirth-Nesher among others identifies the shawl as shroud (323), and by extension, death. The shawl stands for both life and death.

  36. Ozick, “The Shawl,” 9.

  37. Ozick, “The Shawl,” 9.

  38. Ozick, “The Shawl,” 8.

  39. This is arguably the central tenet of the Jewish religion, i.e., that human beings cannot apprehend God in any direct manner; hence the need for an infinity of interpretation.

  40. Documentary testimonies are crucial, and in fact there would be little fictional representation worth mentioning without them. Some liken documentary testimonies to Torah and, by extension, “second-generation” literature, to midrash. To be sure, the story “The Shawl” is midrashically linked to documentary narratives like those of Primo Levi and Aharon Appelfeld. However, to ascribe sacredness to texts that document atrocity is to invite sacralization of the Holocaust itself, a dangerous proposition indeed. Instead of sacralizing Rosa's experience in the camp, The Shawl points to the flawed humanness of Rosa as a character, and thereby negates our ability to mythologize her or commit idolatry. Humanizing her also prevents the dangerous opposition we might pose between “strong” survivor and “weak” victim, an ideological system too closely linked with Nazi hierarchies. Any figurative representation that does not somehow pay tribute to documentary narratives and/or problematize the relationship between documentary and artistic representation is liable to stumble into the murky waters of denial.

Darryl Hattenhauer, Shay McCool, and P. K. McMahon (essay date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Hattenhauer, Darryl, Shay McCool, and P. K. McMahon. “Ozick's The Shawl.The Explicator 57, no. 4 (summer 1999): 238-9.

[In the following essay, Hattenhauer, McCool, and McMahon, in a close reading of the “The Shawl”'s conclusion, suggest that a complex reading is more appropriate than a simplistic one.]

Critics have pondered the indeterminate plot resolution of Cynthia Ozick's “The Shawl,” which ends with a Nazi throwing an infant onto an electrified fence. Many critics contend that the murder is affirmative because the infant's death somehow surmounts the suffering of the Holocaust—that her death saves the infant Magda from further suffering, or that her death delivers others from suffering. For example Amy Gottfried claims that Ozick “grants the most powerless of victims a final moment of transcendence […]” (42).

Indeed, some of the air imagery suggests transcendence. Rosa, Magda's mother, seems like an angel. She feels “light, like someone in a faint […] someone who is already a floating angel […] in the air” (33). When Rosa chases after the wandering Magda, Rosa is so light that she can fly: “Rosa […] flew—she could fly, she was only air—into the arena” (34). Magda is even more angelic. With her blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, she is the typical image of an angel. Her hair is like feathers, and her breath smells like almonds and cinnamon. The narrator repeatedly compares Magda to a butterfly and a moth.

But all of this imagery is bitterly ironic. A butterfly has already gone through its metamorphosis. And like a moth, she is headed for a flame. Much of the air imagery indicates that the prisoners will end up in a crematorium. For example, the air of the camp is an “ash-stippled wind” carrying “a bitter fatty floating smoke.” But more important, the air imagery symbolizes starvation. Women and children are drying up and floating away. Rosa and Stella are “slowly turning into air” (33). The starving Magda's belly is “balloonish,” “air-fed,” and “fat with air” (33-34). Because of malnutrition—or rather no nutrition at all—Magda's laugh is silent, “only the air-blown showing of her teeth” (33).

The arguments in favor of the murder as transcendent simply deflect its horror. For example, Margot Martin claims that “as Magda hits the fence, in a sense the soldier has freed her from her bondage to enjoy immortality […] and possibly to cross into that beautiful world beyond the fence” (35). But to speak of Magda as immortal or transformed is to subscribe to an extreme idealism in both the philosophical and ordinary sense. Whereas in Flannery O'Connor's fiction the murdered are not victims because their killers inadvertently transform their victims and thereby save them for everlasting life, Magda may go to heaven, but not because of her victimization. In an argument similar to Martin's, Gottfried claims that Ozick “centers her text upon a transformative motif […]” (42) and wonders if “Magda's metaphoric transformation into a butterfly [is] a gift of redemption for those who suffered in the Holocaust” (43). Perhaps some of those who survived the Holocaust can, in some sense, be redeemed. But in what sense could the death of one more infant redeem the others? Gottfried goes on to say, “This graceful death signifies an instant of transcendence.” But the gracefulness is in Ozick's prose. The scene is hideous, with no gracefulness to be found. How can an infant be graceful when being electrocuted? Gottfried adds that “Ozick creates a character who refuses to be ‘assimilated’ into the role of Holocaust victim […]” (43). But to imply that anyone, much less an infant, can refuse to be victimized by the Holocaust is to vaporize the Holocaust into thin air.

Elsewhere Ozick writes, “The so-called ‘affirmative’ is simpleminded, single-minded, crudely explicit; it belongs either to journalism or to piety or to ‘uplift.’ It is the enemy of literature and the friend of coercion” (“Lesson” 295). Ozick's statement characterizes her story's attitude toward anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and infanticide.

Works Cited

Gottfried, Amy. “Fragmented Art and the Liturgical Community of the Dead in Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl.Studies in American Jewish Literature 13 (1994): 39-51.

Martin, Margot L. “The Themes of Survival in Cynthia Ozick's ‘The Shawl.’” Re Artes: Liberales 14 (1988): 31-36.

Ozick, Cynthia. “The Lesson of the Master.” Art and Ardor: Essays. 1983. New York: Dutton, 1984.

———. “The Shawl.” The New Yorker 26 (May 1980): 33-34.

Further Reading

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Friedman, Lawrence S. “Bloodshed and Three Novellas and The Shawl: A Story and a Novella.” In Understanding Cynthia Ozick, pp. 88-121. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Investigates Holocaust imagery and representations of Holocaust survivors.

Rosen, Alan. “The Specter of Eloquence: Reading the Survivor's Voice.” In Celebrating Elie Wiesel: Stories, Essays, Reflections, edited by Alan Rosen, pp. 41-56. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.

Rosen compares the use of early and late testimony in Art Spiegelman's Maus to Ozick's Rosa.

Yalom, Marilyn. “Cynthia Ozick's Paradoxical Wisdom.” In People of the Book: Thirty Scholars Reflect on Their Jewish Identity, edited by Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, pp. 427-38. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Yalom examines the complexity of Ozick's representation of the Jewish experience.

Additional coverage of Ozick's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Bestsellers, 1990:1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 23, 58; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 7, 28, 62, 155; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 28, 152; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1982; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0;Exploring Short Stories; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 12; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 15.

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