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A Place Without Pity: Loss and Motherhood in Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl

Cynthia Ozick published the short story The Shawl in The New Yorker in 1980, 35 years after the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust. One might wonder about the reasons for the reminiscence of the traumatic experiences of Holocaust survivors and, thus, the establishment of Holocaust Literature as a genre. As Alkana (1997) introduces, “the task of telling Holocaust stories has involved a recognition that beyond the fundamental value of presenting witness and survivor accounts, whether in nonfiction or fictional forms, there is value in telling more stories” (Alkana, 1997, p. 963). That reasonably applies to Ozick’s short story, considering that “although Ozick has repeatedly acknowledged that she is not a true witness of the Auschwitz horror, she felt the need to fictionalize it” (Canales, 2011, p.30), hence, to promote awareness and demonstrate that the genocide had a long-lasting effect upon people’s lives. Foremost, The Shawl very shortly presents the imprisonment of Rosa, her daughter Magda, and Stella in a concentration camp at the hands of the Nazis. The second part of The Shawl, a novella titled Rosa, follows Rosa's life, 35 years after the events of this short story. However, for the sake of concision, the follow-up novella is not dealt with in this article. Beyond the general historical context, in The Shawl, Ozick efficiently depicts in less than two thousand words how a mother witnesses her daughter’s cold murder, not only because of the Jewish genocide, but also because of the main protagonist of the story to a certain extent, namely the shawl, a powerful symbol throughout the short story.


To contextualize, Rosa carries Magda, barely 15 months of age, both to the concentration camp and inside it, bundled up in the eponymous shawl to protect her from the elements and the guards. In addition, due to the starvation the prisoners suffer, Rosa cannot breastfeed Magda, who resorts to suckling the shawl for nourishment. However, Stella, jealous of Magda, takes it away from her. Magda, desperate for the shawl and her mother, runs outside the barracks, where a guard takes her and throws her against an electric fence, instantly killing her. All of this is witnessed by Rosa, who, after stripping Stella of the shawl, waves it at her daughter to come back inside and so, avoid being shot by the guards. Yet, despite the actions presented by the text, the emotional and psychological baggage reflects the inhumane, immoral, and unethical circumstances the characters find themselves in. As a consequence, the protective effect the shawl had on Magda, and subsequently on Rosa, dissipates and a simple everyday object turns to embody a tragic and traumatic moment. Accordingly, this article contends that through the shawl, Ozick indirectly transmits the progressive loss of hopefulness and liveliness that Holocaust victims such as Rosa and Stella suffer.

Figure 1. Cover of The Shawl (1980) by Cynthia Ozick.

Broadly speaking, this short story provides a gender-based perspective of the Holocaust, that is, the struggle of motherhood and children in times of danger, fear, and most of all, survival. Rosa has to look after both Magda, her daughter, and Stella, her niece. As Scrafford (1997) explains, “set in a Nazi concentration camp, the story does not focus on the political decision to exterminate an entire race, nor on the crimes and their perpetrators, but on the mind of Rosa and her struggle to keep her infant alive, despite the fact that the child’s only future is certain death” (Scrafford, 1989, p. 11). For instance, when traveling to the concentration camp, Rosa “dreamed of giving Magda away in one of the villages. […] But if she moved out of line they might shoot […] she might drop the shawl, and Magda would fall out and strike her head and die” (Ozick, 1980).


As the extract presents, the shawl plays a crucial part in Rosa’s struggle to protect Magda, worrying about keeping her alive. For Rosa, it acquires a magic-like quality: “it was a magic shawl; it could nourish an infant for three days and three nights” (Ozick, 1980). Furthermore, the shawl protected Magda from the cold as Rosa “looked into Magda’s face through a gap in the shawl: a squirrel in a nest, safe, no one could reach her inside the little house of the shawl’s windings” (Ozick, 1980). As Fernández Gil (2012) argues:

“This piece of cloth, around which the story revolves and which serves as a title for the book, is the tale’s central motif. It functions symbolically on many levels. First of all, it stands for shelter. It is meant to be a life-preserved amidst a sea of death […]. In other words, the shawl serves to keep the baby hidden from the Nazis, whether it is in the barracks or disguised […]. The shawl, therefore, pacifies the infant so that she will not cry out of hunger”. (Fernández Gil, 2012, p, 67)

However, the frustration of not providing food and resources to her own infant certainly affects Rosa’s own perception of herself as a mother, even if “Magda lived to walk. […S]he did not walk very well, partly because she was only fifteen months old, and partly because the spindles of her legs could not hold her fat belly. It was fat with air, full and round. Rosa gave almost all her food to Magda” (Ozick, 1980). This foreshadowing not only introduces the unavoidable fatalistic ending but also engages with the progressive loss of optimism that could not flourish in their situation. In other words, “Rosa knew Magda was going to die very soon; she would have been dead already, but she had been buried away deep inside the magic shawl, […] Rosa clung to the shawl as if it covered only herself” (Ozick, 1980). Even if the shawl kept Magda alive, she was going to die one way or another. Although the shawl protected Magda for the time being, Rosa realizes that it could only shield her for so long, and her hope rapidly declines, if it was even there to begin with.

Figure 2. Illustration by Rebekka Dunlap. The New Yorker.

It could be argued that Rosa unsteadily debates with herself whether her daughter can survive thanks to the shawl, and because of her will as a mother. But at the same time, her character also appears so struggle to be realistic and come to terms with the fact that her circumstances do not allow a possible plausible future for Magda, whose health continues to decline. As Jones (2002) maintains, “a shawl, as a long piece of woven cloth, is a richly evocative symbol for the feminine, the maternal – and all that should come with maternity: softness, protection, warmth, and comfort. And yet in these stories, the shawl, from its first mention, is permeated with contradictions” (Jones, 2002, p. 73). The shawl evokes these contradictions in the forms of life-death and protection-danger antonym pairs. The former is presented when the shawl ceases to be a source of comfort, keeping Magda alive but still powerless to save her when she runs outside. The latter involves Stella. Contemplating that “[Magda] guarded her shawl. No one could touch it; not only Rosa could touch it. Stella was not allowed” (Ozick, 1980), the conflict appears not directly opposing the Nazi regime to the children, but between two children both victims of their circumstances.


Throughout the story, Stella’s jealousy of Magda’s shawl and the fact that "you could think she was one of their [Nazis] babies" (Ozick 1980) develops into resentment and hate, and cannibalistic tendencies. For example, “Rosa thought how Stella gazed at Magda like a young cannibal. And the time that Stella said ‘Aryan,’ it sounded to Rosa as if Stella had really said ‘Let us devour her” (Ozick, 1980). As a consequence, this opposition between the two children creates an unsustainable environment between the three female characters. Apart from Rosa, Stella might not have another motherly presence in her life, and thus, upon seeing Rosa deeply care for her daughter and not her, “Stella took the shawl away and made Magda die” (Ozick, 1980). In fact, “[Rosa] and her surrogate, the shawl, give a mother’s comfort, protection, and life-sustaining nourishment to Magda, but to Stella, also a child in need of care, Rosa gives nothing (even before her taking of the shawl)” (Jones, 2002, p. 74). Therefore, while it may be contended that Stella is responsible for Magda’s death (not directly, considering the verb ‘made die’), the reasoning behind Stella’s thinking also remains consequential to her situation as a Jewish child during the Holocaust. In addition, the relationship between Rosa and Stella is perpetually dysfunctional since “afterward [Stella] was always cold, always. The cold went into her heart. Rosa saw that Stella’s heart was cold” (Ozick, 1980).

Figure 3. Cynthia Ozick, author of The Shawl (1928 - ).

Moreover, Stella’s lack of a mother figure implies that “she was not part of the same magical, maternal connection – that maternal bond – that linked Rosa and Magda; she simply wanted [the shawl] to warm herself” (ibid.). Analogously, Stella sees in the shawl, not only a source of heat but the bond between mother and daughter that she could not find in Rosa. Likewise, Rosa and Stella’s perceptions of the shawl are drastically exchanged when Magda dies. Indeed, what for Rosa once represented protection and motherly love shifts to symbolise her guilt and grief for her daughter’s death. To survive, Rosa must ignore her motherly instincts, because “if she tried to pick up the sticks of Magda’s body they would shoot, and if she let the wolf’s screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot; so she took Magda’s shawl and filled her own mouth with it” (Ozick, 1980). In the end, “Rosa, therefore, makes the same use of the shawl that Magda and Stella had previously done -she uses it as a life-preserver. Successively nourishing Magda, warming Stella and saving Rosa, the shawl becomes a potent symbol of life, a talisman” (Fernández Gil, 2012, p. 69). Rosa seeks the life and protection Magda and Stella found and seized in the shawl, even if the emotional aftereffects trigger another response which Ozick tackles in the subsequent novella Rosa.


On the whole, The Shawl thoroughly but simplistically exposes the tragic story of a woman, her daughter, and her niece in a concentration camp. Moreover, Ozick presents the strenuous and mentally exhausting effects Rosa suffers as a mother and caregiver fighting for survival. The significance of the shawl, as previously exposed, surpasses the simple source of heat but engages with motherhood and instincts for survival, as a potent and polysemous symbol. Death becomes a presence throughout the whole story that the characters strive to defeat but that catches up to them, both literally and metaphorically. Consequently, Ozick underlines not the political and social effects of the Holocaust horror, but the individual and familiar effects people suffered because of it. The Nazi regime did not appropriate the story but became the background context for the struggle to survive and to live.

Bibliography

Alkana, J. (1997). “Do We Not Know the Meaning of Aesthetic Gratification?”: Cynthia Ozick’s ‘The Shawl’, The Akedah, and The Ethics of Holocaust Literary Aesthetics. Modern Fiction Studies, 43(4), pp. 963-990. https://doi.org/10.1353/mfs.1997.0067


Canales, G. (2011). “Prisoners Gradually Came to Buddhist Positions”: The Presence of PTSD Symptoms in Rosa in Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl.” Studies in American Jewish Literature (1981), 30, pp. 29-30. https://doi.org/10.2307/41228660


Fernández Gil. MJ. (2012). Allegorical Traces of the Traumatic in Cynthia Ozick’s ‘The Shawl.’ Es: Revista de Filologia Inglesa (Valladolid), 33, pp. 61-80.


Jones, B. (2002). The Fabrics of Her Life: Cloth as Symbol in Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl.” Studies in American Jewish Literature (1981), 21, pp. 72-80.


Ozick, C. (1980) “The Shawl”. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1980/05/26/the-shawl


Scrafford, B. (1989). “Nature’s Silent Scream: A Commentary on Cynthia Ozick’s ‘The Shawl.’ Critique-Bolingbroke Society, 31(1), pp. 11-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/00111619.1989.9934679

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Natàlia Vila

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