National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
The Shawl

The Shawl

by Cynthia Ozick

Just as you can’t grasp anything without an opposable thumb, you can’t write anything without the aid of metaphor. Metaphor is the mind’s opposable thumb.


Cynthia Ozick (Copyright Nancy Crampton)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

Marion Ross reads from The Shawl...

It was a magic shawl, it could nourish an infant for three days and three nights. Magda did not die, she stayed alive, although very quiet. A peculiar smell, of cinnamon and almonds, lifted out of her mouth. She held her eyes open every moment, forgetting how to blink or nap, and Rosa and sometimes Stella studied their blueness. On the road they raised one burden of a leg after another and studied Magda's face.

Reed: That's Marion Ross reading from Cynthia Ozick's novella, The Shawl, a haunting portrayal of a Holocaust survivor who struggles to regain her dignity, her sanity, and a new sense of life.

Ruth Wisse: This is a story of motherhood.

Diane Thiel: It is a story about the Holocaust, but it is told in such terms that we really feel incredibly moved by it, incredibly, you know, connected to the story.

Peter Black: The Shawl is also about the difficulty of the survivor in letting all that was lost go.

Reed: Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature. Here's your host, poet and former chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Gioia: During World War II, Adolf Hitler ordered the confinement and execution of millions of European Jews. In his murderous plan to purify the Aryan race, those who didn't fit into his vision were violently removed from their homes and imprisoned in concentration camps.

When the war ended in 1945, more than six million Jews and other ethnic minorities had been killed, an atrocity known as the Holocaust.

Elie Wiesel, author of the memoir Night, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Elie Wiesel: The main story is about really a survivor, how she lives with her memories. How can the past live in the present when the past is so terrifying?

Gioia: Some victims of the Holocaust, like Wiesel, survived to tell their story. Cynthia Ozick's book, The Shawl, follows the life of Rosa Lublin, another survivor.

Writer Anne Fadiman.

Anne Fadiman: We meet Rosa, who is a young Polish woman walking with her baby, Magda, and her niece, Stella, toward a concentration camp.

Peter Black: Marching forward, step after step with a child who's dying in her arms, in front of her eyes.

Gioia: Senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Peter Black.

Black: The evacuation marches essentially were forced marches. So many people died on them that they are often referred to by the survivors as death marches.

Fadiman: Rosa is all mother, her entire essence is her motherhood of Magda, her attempt to protect Magda.

Black: And during the whole course of the forced evacuation, marchers were persecuted by SS guards who had strict instructions to shoot and kill those who could not keep up.

Gioia: Writer and scholar, Ruth Wisse.

Wisse: The first story takes place in cold, frigid cold. And you feel the cold in the coldness of the language itself. The first sentence has no verbs in it at all.

Marion Ross reads from The Shawl...

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. Sometimes Stella carried Magda. But she was jealous of Magda. A thin girl of fourteen, too small, with thin breasts of her own, Stella wanted to be wrapped in a shawl, hidden away, asleep, rocked by the march, a baby, a round infant in arms. Magda took Rosa's nipple, and Rosa never stopped walking, a walking cradle. There was not enough milk; sometimes Magda sucked air; then she screamed. Stella was ravenous. Her knees were tumors on sticks, her elbows chicken bones.

Gioia: Rosa, her baby Magda, and her teenaged niece Stella are marched to a concentration camp outside Warsaw.

Author of The Shawl, Cynthia Ozick.

Cynthia Ozick: Everyone in the camps was desperate to survive and a piece of bread was worth more than a ton of gold.

Gioia: Peter Black.

Black: So, lack of proper food, lack of rest, lack of proper shelter against the elements in both cold weather and hot weather and back breaking manual work led to mass death in your typical concentration camp, tens of thousands of deaths.

Gioia: Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman: The shawl is what keeps Magda alive. It's a substitute breast.

Gioia: Poet Diane Thiel.

Thiel: She finds a kind of solace in the, in the shawl.

Fadiman: It hides her from the Nazi guards and it's stuffed into her mouth and she sucks it because her mother's milk has dried up.

Gioia: Rosa's fourteen-year-old niece, Stella, is also weak and starving. She becomes jealous of the attention given to the infant Magda, and covetous of the shawl that keeps Magda warm.

Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: So Stella strives to survive and with less maturity because she's so reduced to animal, being so young.

Thiel: But Stella, who is Rosa's niece, she is cold and takes the shawl from Magda.

Fadiman: And Magda toddles out into the open and starts to cry loudly and is thus found.

Gioia: The young Magda disappears from the barracks looking for her shawl. In a panic, Rosa searches for her daughter.

Marion Ross reads from The Shawl...

She stood for an instant at the margin of the arena. Sometimes the elec­tricity inside the fence would seem to hum; even Stella said it was only an imagining, but Rosa heard real sounds in the wire: grainy sad voices. The farther she was from the fence, the more clearly the voices crowded at her. The lamenting voices strummed so convincingly, so passionately, it was impossible to suspect them of being phantoms. The voices told her to hold up the shawl, high; the voices told her to shake it, to whip with it, to unfurl it like a flag. Rosa lifted, shook, whipped, unfurled. Far off, very far, Magda leaned across her air-fed belly, reaching out with the rods of her arms. She was high up, elevated, riding someone's shoulder. But the shoulder that carried Magda was not coming toward Rosa and the shawl, it was drifting away, the speck 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 them­ selves in the direction of the electrified fence. The electric voices began to chatter wildly. “Maamaa, maaamaaa,” they all hummed together. How far Magda was from Rosa now, across the whole square, past a dozen barracks, all the way on the other side! She was no bigger than a moth.

Gioia: Peter Black and Ruth Wisse.

Black: After having suffered horribly for the fifteen months of this child's short life...

Wisse: ...just at the point when she has found her voice, the infant, Magda, is hurled against a fence.

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick describes the origin of the story that begins The Shawl.

Ozick: It began with a line, one sentence, in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and it was about a baby being thrown against an electrified fence. And that stayed with me and stayed with me.

Wisse: What you get in that is the silenced potential of that child and of everything that that child is.

Gioia: Ruth Wisse.

Wisse: How frightful that just at that glorious moment when an infant first begins to speak, she is silenced, and what you get instead is the horrible reverberation of the electric wires.

Gioia: Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman: When Rosa sees Magda thrown against the electric fence, knows she cannot save her, knows that if she runs out to grab the little body she will herself be shot.

Marion Ross reads from The Shawl...

...so she took Magda's shawl and filled her own mouth with it, stuffed it in and stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up the wolf's screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda's saliva; and Rosa drank Magda's shawl until it dried.

Ozick: When did the Holocaust come into anybody's consciousness?

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: In the newsreels in the late '40s we saw that unforgettable film of the British bulldozer pushing away a huge heap, a mound, a mountain, of naked bodies, dead naked bodies. And that was the first impact.

We were saturated then, at the time I wrote this. But I did have the sense that I was suddenly extraordinary fluent, and I'm never fluent, in that I wrote that small passage, those five, six pages as if I heard a voice.

Gioia: A short story titled “The Shawl” first appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1977. It was later selected as one of the best American stories of the century.

As a child growing up in New York City, Ozick loved to read. She was especially drawn to fairy tales and fables. These stories planted a seed that would later inform the universal reach of her own writing.

Ozick: They gave me the idea that when one wrote, one should not always address the present and the future, which was accessible, but that what you wrote had to be in some way consonant with, resonant with, accessible to, the past. So I had this idea that if you wrote, then the ancient Greeks would be able to understand.

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read, from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we're discussing The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick.

The Shawl is a book made up of two very different parts. The first section set during the Holocaust is called The Shawl. It is followed by a longer novella titled “Rosa.”

In this surprising second section, we revisit Rosa Lublin, now a refugee in America, nearly four decades after World War II. Having destroyed her New York City antique store in a moment of madness, Rosa moved south to Miami, Florida, where she struggles to live day by day as a survivor of the Holocaust.

Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: I wanted to know what happened to Rosa afterward. And I was curious to enter the mind of such a person and see how that person would cope with the time afterward—rescued, saved, safe; and yet not rescued, not safe, not... not normal, abnormal.

Gioia: Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman: Rosa, when we meet her the second time around, is a strange, somewhat deranged, miserably unhappy woman with very few human connections.

Gioia: Ruth Wisse.

Wisse: She's a very unpleasant woman. In her own being, she's unpleasant.

Gioia: Elie Wiesel.

Wiesel: Rosa tries to live and not to live at the same time. She's afraid, and yet she overcomes fear with more fear.

Gioia: Peter Black.

Black: And this is totally understandable, why someone would have terrible difficulties putting that absolute and total destruction behind them.

Thiel: Rosa, she's described as a madwoman and a scavenger.

Gioia: Diane Thiel.

Thiel: Again, a very real depiction, in a very surreal way, of what it is like to carry that kind of weight of being a survivor of such atrocity and carry that with you all of your life.

Marion Ross reads from The Shawl...

Rosa Lublin, a madwoman and a scavenger, gave up her store—she smashed it up herself—and moved to Miami. It was a mad thing to do. In Florida she became a dependent. Her niece in New York sent her money and she lived among the elderly, in a dark hole, a single room in a “hotel.” [...] The streets were a furnace, the sun an executioner. Every day without fail it blazed and blazed, so she stayed in her room and ate two bites of a hard-boiled egg in bed, with a writing board on her knees; she had lately taken to composing letters.

Wiesel: She lives in Miami but she thinks she's in Warsaw.

Gioia: Elie Wiesel.

Wiesel: And she still lives there. Warsaw followed her to Miami, and she lives in that memory of hers of Warsaw.

Gioia: Although Rosa is not even sixty years old, she lives in a section of Miami largely populated by the elderly. Here she has neither friends nor relations.

Ozick: Essentially it was a kind of outdoor old peoples' home.

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick

Ozick: It was too full of old people walking in the street who were living out their lives in the heat because it was too cold elsewhere.

Marion Ross reads from The Shawl...

It seemed to Rosa Lublin that the whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret. Everyone had left behind a real life. Here they had nothing. They were all scarecrows, blown about under the murdering sunball with empty rib cages.

Gioia: Ruth Wisse.

Wisse: Instead of adjusting fully to this potential of a new life in America, as she says, the New World, she can't bear it.

Gioia: Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman: What Rosa has been through is so unspeakable that we feel for her deeply, but we know that if she were our relative or friend, we would find her enormously difficult.

Gioia: Elie Wiesel.

Wiesel: All of a sudden, she meets a man. Finally, she meets a man who is ready to like her, to listen to her.

Gioia: At this point Ozick introduces a brilliant and utterly unexpected comic character, Simon Persky, a spirited older immigrant who meets Rosa at the laundromat. With his humor and optimism, he tries to help Rosa break out of her shell of grief.

Ozick: Because Mr. Persky, being an immigrant and not a refugee, knows about life.

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick

Ozick: He has an unbalanced wife who's apparently institutionalized. He's retired, but was a button manufacturer.

Gioia: Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman: Persky, to his credit, recognizes that Rosa is unusual. Even if he has false teeth and wears vulgar clothing and is unfamiliar with great Polish literature, at least he understands that Rosa is not just a shabby woman in late-middle age with some missing buttons and ungrammatical English.

Wisse: He's such a grubby Romeo. He's missing his teeth.

Gioia: Ruth Wisse.

Wisse: Persky, who comes to her with crullers and with hot tea, saying, drink it as hot as you possibly can.

Again, here, the idea of the freezing cold, the frozenness of her image, and the heat that he feels that she ought to be able to experience.

Gioia: Diane Thiel.

Thiel: In, you know, this kind of dark story, he's a little bit of a comical figure, and adds a little bit of lightness to it. And kind of brings a little bit of light into her life.

Wisse: It's from Persky, from this very imperfect man who tries to convince her of the most essential thing—let it go, let me enjoy your presence. Perhaps if you let yourself go, you might even enjoy mine.

Marion Ross reads from The Shawl...

He almost understood what she was: no ordinary button. “I read only Polish,” she told him. “I don't like to read in English. For literature you need a mother tongue.”

“Literature, my my. Polish ain't a dime a dozen. It don't grow on trees neither. Lublin, you should adjust. Get used to it!”

She was wary: “I'm used to everything.”

“Not to being a regular person.”

“My niece Stella,” Rosa slowly gave out, “says that in America cats have nine lives, but we—we're less than cats, so we got three. The life before, the life during, the life after.” She saw that Persky did not follow. She said, “The life after is now. The life before is our real life, at home, where we was born.”

“And during?”

“This was Hitler.”

“Poor Lublin,” Persky said.

“You wasn't there. From the movies you know it.” She recognized that she had shamed him; she had long a go discovered this power to shame.

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: He's there as vitality and health and the possibility of resolving tragedy. But he, I'm afraid, can resolve only personal tragedy. He cannot resolve world atrocity.

Gioia: Persky encourages Rosa to put her unbearable past behind her. And although she's moved by their encounter, she remains unable to commit either to him or to her future.

Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman: The loss of Rosa's baby is an experience so horrible that although Rosa is able to talk of the other things that she lost—she's able to talk about the country that she lost and the language that she lost and the possessions that she lost—but she can't talk of the daughter that she lost.

Gioia: Rosa's madness allows her to imagine an adult life for her dead daughter. Rosa envisions Magda living a married and successful life in New York. Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: Magda is an imaginary creature. She is actually an American vision that Rosa has invented.

Gioia: Anne Fadiman.

Fadiman: Indeed she denies her daughter's death by imagining that she is still alive and writing her long, beautiful letters in upper class Polish.

Gioia: These letters, like her connection with Persky, serve as an emotional release for Rosa. Very slowly, the painful ghosts of the Holocaust begin to recede, but never quite fade, from her memory.

Marion Ross reads from The Shawl...

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!

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: A refugee is full of longing. A refugee wants to go back to the good times. A refugee never has left home.

Gioia: Elie Wiesel.

Wiesel: One cannot live without memory. At the same time, it's very difficult to remember certain events that transcend language.

Gioia: Diane Thiel.

Thiel: I think Ozick does such a tremendous job of creating a very realistic description of what it would be like to be a survivor of the Holocaust, or of another kind of atrocity.

Ozick: An atrocity of the kind that really, I think, the world has never known before because it was so rationally conceived and so scientifically created in a laboratory of, of hatred.

Black: One thing that strikes me is that the mental path of survivors of the holocaust is, is very individual. And Rosa Lublin represents one individual path.

Thiel: The way that she describes Rosa as being unable to move beyond that past, to live. The way Rosa says it, there's only before and during and after, and during was the time of Hitler, and she cannot move beyond that. It is always present in her.

Gioia: Peter Black has talked with many Holocaust survivors.

Black: Her reticence about her past echoed many stories that I heard that from survivors saying, “It wasn't that I didn't wanna talk about it, in the '40s and the '50s; it wasn't that I wanted to push it away. People were tired of listening. They couldn't understand, they couldn't go in that place.”

Marion Ross reads from The Shawl...

The tramcar came right through the middle of the Ghetto. What they did was build a sort of overhanging pedestrian bridge for the Jews, so they couldn't get near the tramcar to escape on it into the other part of Warsaw. The other side of the wall.

The most astounding thing was that the most ordinary streetcar, bumping along on the most ordinary trolley tracks, and carrying 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.

Ozick: Actually, what is it? It's an old rag. And so it seems that in despair, we can take an old rag and turn it through imagination into a living child. And that's what Rosa does.

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Adam Kampe. Executive producer, Dan Stone. The readings from The Shawl were by Marion Ross.

The Yiddish lullaby, "Raisins and Almonds," courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways. Classical selections by Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and "Quartet for the End of Time" by Olivier Messiaen, used courtesy of Naxos Music. "A Song for Silenced Voices" courtesy of Newport Classic. Songs from I Remember Klezmer performed by NEA Heritage fellow Elaine Hoffman Watts. Original sound effects by Brent Findley at Sonic Magic Studios.

Administrative assistants, Pepper Smith and Erika Koss. Special thanks to Ken Hoffman, Laura Bradshaw, Rebecca Ridsel, Brent Werb, and to our contributors: Peter Black, Anne Fadiman, Cynthia Ozick, Diane Thiel, Elie Wiesel, and Ruth Wisse. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.neabigread.org. That's www.neabigread.org.

Note: The Shawl is copyright © 1980 by Cynthia Ozick. Originally published in The New Yorker From The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick (Vintage, 1990). Used by permission of Melanie Jackson Agency, L.L.C.

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