Readers should not be fooled by the slimness of Cynthia Ozick's award-winning book The Shawl (1989). The interlocking short story and novella pack enough punch for a book many times its length. Though set several decades apart and on opposite sides of the Atlantic, the two sections describe with heart-breaking empathy the life of one woman.
The title story, "The Shawl," introduces us to Rosa, the mother of a baby girl hidden within a tattered cloth, and her fourteen-year-old niece, Stella, as they attempt to survive the horrors of life in a Nazi death camp. Cold, exhausted, starving, they live in "a place without pity" where the struggle for the most basic necessities can have terrible consequences. When Stella warms herself with the shawl, she unwittingly begins a chain of events that leads to her infant cousin's death.
In the novella, set almost four decades later, Rosa and Stella are refugees in America. Though they left Poland long ago, neither can escape memories of the Holocaust. Stella copes by attempting to forget and build a new life in New York; Rosa cannot. Unable to relinquish the past, Rosa destroys her New York store and moves to a cheap Miami hotel. Adrift in a world without companionship, Rosa relies on financial support from her niece.
In spite of her pain, Rosa makes fumbling attempts to tell the story of her suffering, to warn others of man's capacity for unspeakable evil. In Simon Persky—a flirtatious, retired button-maker—Rosa finds a willing listener and perhaps someone who can understand the hurt that can never, and should never, be forgotten.
Full of beautiful imagery and finely crafted sentences, The Shawl is a tour de force that portrays not only the characters' grief, guilt, and loneliness but also their hopes and dreams. It's a novel about the importance of remembering, of bearing witness, and of listening to the lessons of history with our ears and our hearts.
As a young woman, Rosa is raped by a German soldier, confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, and sent to a Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland with her niece, Stella, and her infant daughter, Magda. Almost four decades later, Rosa lives in Miami, haunted by the memory of her daughter's death. "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. ... Her niece in New York sent her money and she lived among the elderly, in a dark hole, a single room in a 'hotel.'"
Teenage Stella's theft of the shawl leads to her cousin Magda's death. As an adult, Stella provides Rosa with financial support, but she cannot understand her aunt's inability to let go of the past. "Stella liked everything from Rosa's junkshop, everything used, old, lacy with other people's history."
A baby hidden in her mother's shawl, Magda survives infancy in a concentration camp in Nazi German-occupied Poland but is murdered by a guard at fifteen months old. "The face, very round, a pocket mirror of a face: but it was not Rosa's bleak complexion, dark like cholera, it was another kind of face altogether, eyes blue as air, smooth feathers of hair nearly as yellow as the Star sewn into Rosa's coat. You could think she was one of their babies."
A retiree whose wife is hospitalized in a mental institution, Simon is a comic character in a tragic situation. His persistent kindness begins to break through some of Rosa's barriers. "Two whole long rows of glinting dentures smiled at her; he was proud to be a flirt."
"The Shawl began with a line, one sentence in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. This one sentence told of a real event, about a baby being thrown against an electrified fence. And that stayed with me and stayed with me, and that was the very explicit origin of The Shawl."
"It began with those very short five pages. We read now and again that a person sits down to write and there's a sense that some mystical hand is guiding you and you're not writing out of yourself. I think reasonably, if you're a rational person, you can't accept that. But I did have the sense—I did this one time in my life—that I was suddenly extraordinarily fluent, and I'm never fluent. I wrote those five pages as if I heard a voice. In a sense, I have no entitlement to this part because it's an experience in a death camp. I was not there. I did not experience it."
"I wrote the second half because I wanted to know what happened to Rosa afterward. I was curious to enter the mind of such an unhappy, traumatized person and see how that person would cope with the time afterward—rescued, saved, safe, and yet not rescued, not safe, not normal, abnormal."
—Excerpted from Cynthia Ozick's interview with former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia