The Shawl: A Story and a Novella, Cynthia Ozick - Essay

Cynthia Ozick


(Short Story Criticism)

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

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 13321 words.)

S. Lillian Kremer (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6807 words.)

Joseph Alkana (essay date winter 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10325 words.)

Hana Wirth-Nesher (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7598 words.)

Meisha Rosenberg (essay date spring 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 5968 words.)

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

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 224 words.)