Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl”

How to describe this book? Even its format defies categorization. In “The Shawl”, Cynthia 418N3xACHxL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ozick has paired a short story and a novella with the same characters separated by more than thirty years. Though these two works were originally published as separate pieces, they need one another and create a whole that is haunting.

This volume opens with the titular short story, “The Shawl”, in which we meet Rosa, her niece Stella, and her infant daughter Magda, Polish jews imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II. In eight short pages, Ozick breaks her reader’s heart.  She delicately imparts a shawl with such vivid characterization and importance that it is both icon and foil. This one, seemingly insignificant cloth is given metaphorical power and creates a stunning visual in the mind’s eye, much the way the red coat does year’s later in the film adaptation of “Schindler’s List”.

In “Rosa”, the novella which follows the short story, Rosa is now an immigrant and survivor – terms laden with ulterior meaning which crackle and chafe in Rosa’s ears.

“Consider also the special word they used: survivor. Something new. As long as they didn’t have to say human being. It used to be refugee, but by now there was no such creature, no more refugees, only survivors. A name like a number – counted apart from the ordinary swarm. Blue digits on the arm, what difference? They don’t call you a woman anyhow. Survivor. Even when your bones get melted into the grains of the earth, still they’ll forget human being. Survivor and survivor and survivor; always and always. Who made up these words, parasites on the throat of suffering!”

The reader is shown unequivocally the emptiness, the desolation of surviving. Though Rosa spent years in New York making a semblance of a life and going through the motions, ultimately she unravels. The horrors and images of the holocaust are too much to overcome. Thirty years after leaving the concentration camp,”Rosa Lublin, a madwoman and a scavenger, gave up her store – she smashed it herself – and moved to Miami” where she lives in a single room occupancy hotel for the elderly and displaced. There she truly is a survivor, for she exists but doesn’t live any longer.

Cynthia Ozick has boldly embraced a mammoth topic – the holocaust and its aftermath -, one that commands volumes and decades. Yet Ozick clearly has a gift, to paint an image so full of detail and conflict which grabs the reader and creates a lasting impression in the blink of an eye. “The Shawl” is spectral, and Ozick is tremendous.

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