What is the symbolism in "The Shawl" by Cynthia Ozick?

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It is hard to believe that Rosa Lubin was able to keep her baby Magda secluded in the concentration camp for almost a year.  Magda was dehydrated and starving despite Rosa giving her most of her own food. The poignant story “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick relates one day in the life of  Rosa, Magda, and Stella [Rosa’s fourteen year old niece] who are trying survive the Nazi’s concentration camp.

The shawl seems to have magical qualities because it satisfied Magda when she had no food or drink.  Where Magda went, the shawl went also. Magda watched over her shawl like a hawk; and she would let no one touch it. The shawl had comforted, entertained, and satisfied Magda, particularly when she stuck the corner in her mouth and sucked on it.  

Mysteriously, Magda, about fifteen months old, does not talk or make any sounds.  Rosa has taught her daughter to walk, but Magda is obviously not well with widening eyes and a bloated stomach. It is obvious that she probably will not last much longer.

Stella, jealous of Magda, steals the shawl away. Stella claimed that she was cold and needed the shawl for warmth. Rosa could see that Stella’s heart was cold as well.

When Magda could not find her shawl, she began to hunt for it. Before Rosa knew what was happening, Magda was out in the yard where the soldiers could see her.  For the first time, the baby began to cry out.  Rosa hurried to get the shawl from Stella to get Magda to come back.  When she returned to the door of the barracks, Rosa saw she was too late.

“Magda was high up, elevated riding someone’s shoulder. Above her shoulder, a helmet glinted. Below the helmet a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots hurled themselves in the direction of the electrified fence…”


Before she could think what to do, Magda was flung into the air and her body splayed against the fence instantly electrocuting her and burning her body black.  As her body traveled through the air, it reminded Rosa of a beautiful butterfly that lands on a silver vine.  The beauty was brief, and the horror was lasting.

The time that passed was seconds, but it was life altering. What had Rosa seen in that time? As she looked to find where Magda had gone, Rosa saw the other side of the fence.  Symbolically, the view represented another time and place.  Through the electrified, deadly fence, there was a green meadow with beautiful flowers of assorted colors growing innocently.  In contrast, the barracks held flowers of excrement and the aroma of greasy smoke that covered everything.  Rosa saw butterflies representative of lost summer days.  Where were those happy times?

Rosa could near the hum of the fence.  It was like voices whispering to one another.  When Magda’s body hit the barrier, the voices “chattered wildly.” They sounded like the last sound that Magda made out in the yard…”Maamaaa, maaaamaaa.” This is a sound that would haunt a mother forever.

What were Rosa’s choices? If she went to Magda’s body, the soldiers would kill her. If Magda ran away, they would shoot her. There was screaming welling up through her spine. She took Magda’s shawl and stuffed it in her mouth and sucked up Magda till it dried.

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