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The Shawl, 1989, Cynthia Ozick


In The Shawl Ozick captures the desperation and despair of Rosa, a Jewish mother hiding her infant daughter Magda from her Nazi captors. On the march, Rosa arranges her shawl to cover the child. In the camp, Magda is miraculously quiet, content, and undiscovered-- until an older child robs her of the shawl she loves, and her crying draws the guards.

The Shawl is not a story to be savored. We want to gulp it standing, like a Passover meal, unblemished kid, bitter herbs, and all. As it is offered without comment or conclusions, so we want to have it, just read it and get it behind us. A moment's thought, however, and we know that will not do.

It is not possible that Ozick meant her story ever to be enjoyed, but its stark, blank horror threatens to defeat its own purposes by shutting down the reader's sensibilities. As the disciples once said to Jesus, "This is a hard saying. Who can hear it?" We find ourselves scrabbling at the surface of The Shawl for purchase, nowhere to grip its smooth wholeness, no way to leverage these persons and events from their world into our own. For a story, any story, to ultimately succeed, it must not only draw us into its fiction, it must allow us to draw something of its reality out.

The story itself lacks those internal references that usually help us begin our journey towards the characters we meet. There is no 'before this awful march', and there will be no 'after this hideous camp'. Indeed, within the time of the story's own events, there are no connecting phrases, nothing that allows us to move with the characters from the march to the camp, or from Magda's infancy to toddlerhood. This is certainly a deliberate device, but it leaves the reader disconnected, somehow above and behind Rosa's moment. We pity the terror that Rosa is living, but we do not live it with her.

It may be that Ozick intends us to feel this detachment from Rosa, as Rosa feels detached from humanity, even her own. To merely watch this mother in her delirium cling only to one last human thing, her motherhood; perhaps this is all Ozick feels we should be allotted, curled in our comfortable homes, reading in the warmth and light.

If so, she fails Rosa and Magda.

The recent popular fascination with the second world war, its clear-drawn heroes and villains, and its suddenly antique clanking war machines, has afforded the current generation of cynics a welcome opportunity to demarcate the good from the bad with satisfyingly broad and certain strokes. Is it really that we see the right and the wrong? Or is the time now sufficiently removed that we feel safe in denouncing its evils, assured that they are not our own? If so, we fail our fathers who fought, and make of ourselves sheep to be herded by the next yapping pack of utopian parasites that can raise from its ranks a demagogue who knows what we wish to hear.

Rosa's plight is fearfully immediate; it is as close to every mother as the open end of a loaded rifle. Social engineers will always seek the power to remake humanity in the image of their fantasies. Reality's gritty chaos will always frustrate and enrage them. In the end, their solutions will always become Final. There is no safety, only vigilance. Outward vigilance, that we may not find ourselves facing that rifle. Inward vigilance, that we may not find ourselves wielding it.

Much of holocaust literature seems to badly miss teaching this crucial lesson. As in The Shawl, we are too often encouraged to pity and to hate, but not to see in these actors ourselves. Ozick's soldiers are faceless, nameless, merciless helmeted demigods, easy objects for an easy outrage. We need to face these other human beings with their arms and emblems, and their strange freedom to fling wailing babies against their electrified fences, do we not? Must we not? Well, perhaps not in this case, when it is so apparent that 'other' is precisely what they are, when they are plainly distinguished from folks like us, when by their deeds they prove themselves the hideous blight upon the race that… oops. Ready to take up arms and herd them into camps, weren't we?

The Shawl is powerfully written. It is a nightmare in ink, a kind of anti-carnival's Tunnel of Hate. Somehow, though, when the ride is over, we are too ready to shake our heads and mutter what a shame that such things were once possible. Finally, although it is a very difficult story to read, The Shawl allows us a facile response. We need more than a passing aftertaste from such a bitter pill. We need to be challenged not to pity poor Rosa from the safe vantage of our clean, enlightened future, but to become her. Our hearts need to know that her hunger, degradation, and fear are only a few hours off for any of us. Perhaps even more urgently, we need to be challenged not to despise her captors for their inhumanity, but to be aghast that their evils are so human, and to fear ourselves for being no different in kind.

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