31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 31: “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick

May 31, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Shawl

Commenting on her reluctance to make art out of the Holocaust, Cynthia Ozick told the Paris Review, “I don’t want to tamper or invent or imagine, and yet I have done it. I can’t not do it. It comes. It invades.” According to Joyce Carol Oates, Ozick’s “visionary conviction that the ‘Hebrew contribution to civilization’ is the effort of bearing witness to the Holocaust, thereby making it a part of the human experience, lies at the center of her work in all its diversity.” The short, impressionistic story “The Shawl” faces down the Holocaust and its almost unimaginable human toll directly and without blinking. In its complete lack of sentiment or gloss, it provides, in a scant five pages, a snapshot of unutterable horror, of inconceivable suffering.

The story focuses on three females, Jewish prisoners of the Germans during the Second World War. As the story opens, the three – Rosa, her infant daughter Magda, and 14-year-old Stella, are being marched through the streets of their village, en route to the concentration camp where they are to be imprisoned. Magda is bundled up in a shawl that Rosa clutches tightly to her breast; she knows that if the baby is discovered, it will be killed.

From the outset, Ozick elucidates the hideous details of the experience and milieu, in particular the cold, which is described in the opening sentence as “the coldness of hell.” Rosa’s breasts are sore and cracked, and have long since dried up, so that when Magda suckles at them there is no milk for her to feed on. “The duct crevice extinct, a dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole, so Magda took the corner of the shawl and milked it instead.” Indeed, the shawl becomes a life-giving force for the infant, providing her with the sustenance that Rosa is unable to give.

Through the early stages of the story, Magda’s health and relative robustness is contrasted vividly with Stella’s emaciation. The 14-year-old has knees like “tumors on sticks” and elbows like “chicken bones.” Magda, by contrast, has a round “pocket mirror of a face,” eyes that are “blue as air,” and “smooth feathers of hair nearly as yellow as the Star sewn into Rosa’s coat.” The reference to the Star of David is bleak; it is followed up by an assertion that is excoriating in its bluntness and bitter implication: “You could think she was one of their babies.” Stella takes this even further, identifying the child with her oppressors directly and explicitly:

On the road they raised one burden of a leg after another and studied Magda’s face. “Aryan,” Stella said, in a voice grown as thin as string; and Rosa thought how Stella gazed at Magda like a young cannibal. And the time that Stella said “Aryan,” it sounded to Rosa as if Stella had really said “Let us devour her.”

The equation of Hitler’s master race with notions of cannibalism and devouring is not surprising, except perhaps for its source. Rosa imagines Stella “waiting for Magda to die so she could put her teeth into the little thighs”; whether they are devoured by the German war machine on the one hand, or their own deprivation on the other, the result is the same. Rosa is under no illusions about this. “They were in a place without pity,” we are told, “all pity was annihilated in Rosa, she looked at Stella’s bones without pity.”

Magda is the only one of the three who manages to find any kind of succour, assiduously guarding the shawl that keeps her hidden and alive. The shawl is a kind of talisman, a magic cloth that protects the thing it guards from harm at the hands of the outside world.

Magda’s eyes were always clear and tearless. She watched like a tiger. She guarded her shawl. 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. She tangled herself up in it and sucked on one of the corners when she wanted to be very still.

Here again, there is the recognition that Stella poses a threat to the young child. Rosa is allowed to touch the shawl, but Stella is not, as though Magda understands the lengths to which the teenager’s suffering might push her. The bond of trust between mother and daughter remains sacrosanct, but Magda refuses to extend that trust elsewhere.

Magda’s preternatural comprehension of her situation is borne out when Stella steals the shawl away from her. “I was cold,” she tells Rosa simply, and in those three small words there are whole universes of agony and horror. Without her shawl as protection, Magda wanders outside the barracks of the concentration camp where the three have wound up and is brutally killed by a German guard.

The child’s death is rendered in language that is precise and ironically lyrical: as the guard tosses her tiny body onto the electrified fence that surrounds the camp, Magda is described as “swimming through the air.” As she hits the fence, she is likened to “a butterfly touching a silver vine.” The images highlight the hideousness of the scene and underscore the barrier between the “excrement, thick turd-braids, and the slow stinking maroon waterfall that slunk down from the upper bunks” inside the camp and the “green meadows speckled with dandelions and deep-colored violets” beyond. Magda, an innocent, can only be described in terms of beauty, even at the moment of her execution.

Ozick’s lyricism paradoxically renders her subject matter more horrifying: this is not the banality of evil that has become a cliché in much writing about the Holocaust. The evil here is florid, verbose, excessive. The author’s reluctance to deal with the Holocaust in her writing is as understandable as her ultimate inability to ignore it. By concentrating her dense, poetic sensibility into a few brief, coruscating scenes, she brings readers face to face with one of the most terrible chapters in human history.