The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick, like Bellow, is a new author for me. Thanks to the push of Kevin at KevinFromCanada and John Self at The Asylum, I picked up Ozick’s THE SHAWL. Consisting of a story and a novella, THE SHAWL takes on large subjects. Three characters are central to both the story and the novella: A mother, Rosa, her niece, Stella, and her daughter, Magda. The shawl of the title figures prominently in both the story and the novella.

TheShawlIn the story, “The Shawl”, Rosa is in her early twenties, Stella is fourteen, and Magda is a baby. They are in a concentration camp. The story is only eight pages long, but dense with emotion. If it were much longer, I think the reader might become numb. As it is, it is near perfect, if a story about something so horrifying can be said to be perfect. The story is much anthologized, including in “The Best American Short Stories of the Century” (which is a great collection of short stories if you are at all hesitant about investing solely in Ozick). For fear of spoiling it, my only further comment is that it is well worth the effort to find and read it.

In the novella, “Rosa”, Rosa is an old woman living alone in Florida in a broken down “hotel” (the quotes are hers). Her social life consists primarily of writing letters to Stella (in English) and to Magda (in Polish). Her connections to the broader world are tenuous at best.

Her routine of solitude is broken one day when she takes her filthy sheets and clothes to the laundromat. There she meets Simon Persky, an old Jew who also happens to be from Warsaw. He left in 1920. Through Rosa’s interaction with Persky and another old man she meets who did not experience the Holocaust, Ozick explores the attitudes of “survivors”, a term Rosa finds dehumanizing, toward fellow Jews who were not there.

Persky, whether through lust, romanticism, benevolence, or boredom, spends the novella trying to entice Rosa to go on a date with him. He is an interesting character, though he remained something of a mystery to me. Perhaps, I have too little familiarity with elderly ex-New Yorkers living in Florida. I could not decide whether he was benevolent, benign, or threatening. Certainly he is threatening to Rosa’s cocooned existence. There are hints of the sinister or pathetic, but no damning evidence.

The true focus is Rosa. The letters constitute a large portion of the sixty page novella. After one letter, she muses on the writing process:

“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!

“To lie.”

Rosa does lie. She lives mostly in the past, unable to escape the horrors of the Holocaust. And, to the extent she does get away, her mind goes mostly to pre-war Warsaw. She oft reminds Persky and herself that “[her] Warsaw isn’t [his] Warsaw.” In the Warsaw she remembers, her father and mother were somebody. They were not ordinary Jews, but true Poles. Her mother wanted to convert to Catholicism, people bowed to her. Her father was important.

Rosa carries horrible memories of the Holocaust, certainly, but part of what she laments is her loss of status. Due to the evils perpetrated by the Nazis, she went from somebody to nobody. First her family was stripped of its privilege, then they all were stripped of their humanity. Rosa feels she has never been able to regain, in the eyes of the world, her humanity.

This theme is repeated throughout the novella, as with her indignation at being labeled “refugee” or “survivor”. Barbed wire she encounters in America is likewise a reminder that she is less than, that others, even other Jews, consider her to be “riff raff” to be kept separate and apart. But her characterizations are not the only possible ones, as Persky reminds her.

Her tragedy, in the novella, is that she believes she cannot retrieve her past status as a full, complete human being. Who can argue? So she retreats to an alternate present, where she yearns for the past. She is a sympathetic character, but a frustrating one as well. I wanted her, as Persky urges, to forget a little, even though I know this probably asks too much. I want her to have her reprieve.

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