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The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick
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The Shawl (original 1989; edition 2001)

by Cynthia Ozick

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5681317,512 (3.87)42
Member:PaulCranswick
Title:The Shawl
Authors:Cynthia Ozick
Info:Vintage Books (2001), Edition: 1st Vintage International Ed, Paperback, 69 pages
Collections:Your library, Modern Fiction
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Tags:FICTION HITLIST

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The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick (1989)

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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.
( )
  Cynical_Ames | Sep 23, 2014 |
Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Two award-winning works of fiction by one of America's finest writers, together in one collection.

In "The Shawl," a woman named Rosa Lublin watches a concentration camp guard murder her daughter. In "Rosa," that same woman appears 30 years later, "a mad woman and a scavenger" in a Miami hotel. She has no life in the present because her past will never end. In both stories, there is a shawl—a shawl that can sustain a starving child, inadvertently destroy her, or magically conjure her back to life.

Both stories were originally published in The New Yorker in the 1980s; each was included in the annual Best American Short Stories and awarded First Prize in the annual O. Henry Prize Stories collection. Each succeeds in imagining the unimaginable: the horror of the Holocaust and the unfillable emptiness of its aftermath. Fiercely immediate, complex, and unforgettable, each is a masterwork by a writer the New York Times hailed as "the most accomplished and graceful literary stylist of our time."

My Review: The story "The Shawl" is very short indeed, about six pages, but they are six of the most painful pages in my memory. They chart the descent of a mother from horror, a concentration camp where she exists with her daughter and her niece, to that most hideous and unending of hells: Loss of a child.

To call it harrowing is to deceive you as to the power and poetry of the story.

"Rosa" is the novella that follows the childless mother into her cronehood, a forcibly and fortunately retired fifty-nine-year-old Floridian transplant via New York. Remembering that, in 1980, fifty-nine was older than it is now, and remembering that camp survivors very very often aged (physically, psychically) more rapidly than their peers, and remembering that a parent who has lost a child has very often come unmoored from even the strongest bonds to life, Rosa is unusually situated. She is supported by her niece, whom she saved in the camp, she is free from jail, despite a psychotic break, and she lives in Florida, Death's Waiting Room, an open-air casket:
It seemed to Rosa Lublin that the whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret. Everyone had left behind a real life. Here they had nothing. They were all scarecrows, blown about under the murdering sunball with empty ribcages.
In the shabby hotel where Stella, her niece, grudgingly supports the woman who saved her, Rosa goes about the quotidian tasks of living with as little care and cheer as an unwanted soul managing to stay alive but not sure why does. Her talisman, the shawl she carried her dead daughter in to the camp inside, is with Stella in Queens. Stella feels this will force Rosa to come to terms with the empty core of her life. When Rosa meets an older not-quite-widower and he determinedly strikes up an acquaintance, Rosa puts into words the reality she lives:
"If you're alone too much," Persky said, "you think too much."

"Without a life," Rosa answered, "a person lives where they can. If all they got is thoughts, that's where they live."

"You ain't got a life?"

"Thieves took it."
Someone stole her life, and left her body alive. It's what a childless parent lives every day, every minute of every day, and surviving a camp was a doddle for Rosa because what difference does anything make? Her child, her future, her gold and treasure, was stolen from her by a brutal, indifferent guard.

And to make it worse, now she's in Florida! And Doctor Tree, an academic with no smallest grain of comprehension or compassion for Rosa the childless mother, writes to her to request (in terms most peremptory and condescending) that she subject herself to inclusion in A Serious Study while he's in Florida for a convention! The NERVE!
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!
Rosa, rattled by Persky and shat on by Tree, takes solace in writing her fantasy of her grown-up daughter yet another letter. It is heart-wrenching, naturally enough, and reveals the horrors Rosa can't fully repress. It isn't any surprise that this damaged old woman is unbinding her few tenuous ties to life there in Hell's Boiler Room.

But there is, after all, Persky the man whose life is emptied by madness and laziness and America; Persky, who sets his sights on damaged Rosa and simply walks into her world to make it over:
"...this is very nice, cozy. You got a nice cozy place, Lublin."

"Cramped," Rosa said.

"I work from a different theory. For everything, there's a bad way of describing, also a good way. You pick the good way, you go along better."

"I don't like to give myself lies," Rosa said.

"Life is short, we all got to lie."
Persky the Pragmatic Pollyanna.

In the end, Rosa isn't a set of symptoms or a desperate survivor of the twentieth century's most horrifying genocide of its many. Rosa is a grieving childless mother who, unable to forgive herself or her only family for surviving, never sees or never cares who inhabits the planet with her. One foot in front of the other, no reason, just do it again; and then she receives the shawl from Stella, the Angel of Death, the cruel and grasping; and she looks at the ikon of her lost motherhood; and she feels...nothing? Can nothing be felt? What does it mean to lose your loss?

For a moment, Rosa loses her loss...for a moment....


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. ( )
2 vote richardderus | Jul 7, 2014 |
I am not one much for dealing with crazy main characters and I would've enjoyed this novelette more had it bee written with less symbolism and more straight forward. However, that being said, The Shawl is made up of one short story, The Shawl, and one longer tale, Rosa. The Shawl tells the tale of Rosa, Magda, and Stella, taken by the SS and incarcerated in the Warsaw concentration camp and how Rosa believed the shawl protected Magda from detection until one day Stella takes it and Magda is discovered and tossed against the electric fence. The second tale, Rosa, goes 39 years into the future to Rosa being half crazed down in Miami and shows how the shawl still affects her life. ( )
  phoenixcomet | Oct 17, 2013 |
The short story included here, "The Shawl," is a brief but powerful holocaust story, showcasing a mother's love in the worst of times. The novella, Rosa, though, is a POV I don't see much: what every-day life is like for survivors 30 years later, when they have so little to hold on to and every encounter is tainted with the memories of what they've been thorough. Quick to read, but not quick to forget. ( )
  librarybrandy | Mar 31, 2013 |
Death and what comes after. This is what fiction is about. Amazing. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Cynthia Ozickprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Flothuis, MeaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shmulenson, YelenaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Book description
This book contains both the short story The Shawl (first published in the New Yorker in 1980) and its sequel, the novella Rosa (first published in the New Yorker in 1983). Both won first place (separately) in the annual O. Henry Prize Stories collections.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679729267, Paperback)

A devastating vision of the Holocaust and the unfillable emptiness it left in the lives of those who passed through it.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:54:45 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A short story and a novella which, together, tell an exquisitely powerful and moving tale of the Holocaust. Both The Shawl and Rosa won first prize in the O. Henry Prize Stories and were chosen for Best American Short Stories.

(summary from another edition)

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