The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

The Shawl

The Shawl is the first book I’ve read concerning the Holocaust but it’s everything one would expect it to be. A horrific, poignant, lyrical, and heartbreaking narrative of one woman’s life before, during and after the traumatizing events for the Jewish during WWII. Listening to Yelena Shmulenson’s skillful narration brought Rosa’s suffering to life and doesn’t fail to evoke heartache for her plight.

The Shawl is a poignant short story, a very short story but is also very unusual for it’s ability to pack an emotional punch with so few words. It tells of Rosa’s incarcaration inside a Jewish concentration camp in WWII with her 15-month-old baby Magda and her 14-year-old niece Stella. Rosa’s approximately 24 years old at this time.

Starved and freezing, Rosa has run out of milk to feed her baby and instead Madga sucks on her protective shawl that Rosa has used to hide her baby’s existence from the guards. Stella steals the shawl claiming she was cold and Magda is found and horrifically killed by a German soldier by throwing her into an electric fence in front of her stunned mother, who stuffs the newly found shawl into her mouth to silence her screams.

Rosa is a novella showing a snapshot of Rosa Lublin’s life at 59 years old. It’s a portrait of a woman with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. She lives in the past, is haunted by it, is so obsessed with it that she writes letters to a not-dead made up version of Magda with a full back-story. Rosa is adamant that Stella is a liar, that Magda isn’t dead, that Magda wasn’t the product of rape by a German soldier.

Rosa, just a few months before, had had a mental breakdown smashing up her antiques store and is now living in Miami in a cheap hotel for the retired, financially supported by Stella. Her room is bare of decoration and her life is just as bare of friends and social activity.

On a rare visit to the laundrette she meets 71-year-old almost widower Simon Persky, another fellow Polish expat. She doesn’t take kindly to his interference in her life, his chatty demeanor or the fact that he isn’t easily intimidated as he’s used to the not quite sane as his wife is in an asylum. His uncanny perceptiveness and tenacity in pursuing Rosa as a friend softens her up a little though she’s adamant that, “My Warsaw is not your Warsaw.” He had left Poland before the Nazi occupation. When he tells her to live her life a little, she responds “Thieves took it.” She’s not wrong. Thieves took her daughter’s life and with it Rosa’s life as a mother – the only thing she was desperately clinging to in the concentration camp – had died with her. It didn’t matter that Magda was mere days away from death by starvation.

Letters from Dr. Tree deeply upset and infuriate Rosa. Despite his polite tone his letters are disrespectful in his request to include her in his psychological study of Holocaust survivors. His language is scientifically dense and inaccessible to anyone but him. She had been a refugee, a survivor and now she was a specimen – she constantly asks why she isn’t simply referred to as a human being rather than a thing to be studied and used.

Over and over again Rosa is shocked and dismayed at people’s ignorance of the Holocaust and of the concentration camps. At first she believed they had forgotten but she comes to realise that they’ve never been told of the horrors in the first place. For her, it’s as if those events happened just yesterday instead of 30 years ago. She’s stuck in that time period and can’t move on. She has no friends, only her niece whom she had rescued from the orphanages once the residents of the concentration camps had been liberated.

It’s obvious that Stella has also struggled to embrace life as she hasn’t managed to fulfil her desires for marriage and a family. Instead, Stella and Rosa appear to be co-dependent. Stella deprives Rosa of the all-important shawl to force Rosa out of the past but Rosa begs and Stella sends it to Miami. Rosa’s reaction to it as the most precious thing in the world is deeply sad. It doesn’t live up to her expectations at first, in its colour, its smells, that is until it does the one thing she wants the most: catapault her back into the past to be with her beloved baby.

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