Commentary by Karen Bernardo
“Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell.” So begins Cynthia Ozick’s chilling story, “The Shawl.” The story takes place on a death march to a concentration camp and later in the camp itself. The opening words establish the characterization of Stella very clearly; Rosa, the protagonist, sees her niece Stella as the murderer of Rosa’s baby daughter Magda, because Stella, always cold in the camps, took Magda’s baby blanket—the shawl—to warm herself with, causing the baby to be discovered and killed.
The shawl itself functions symbolically on many levels. First, and most importantly, it keeps Magda hidden from the Nazis; even as Rosa and Stella are being marched to the camps, tiny thin Magda, too weak to cry, stays hidden unseen beneath her mother’s shawl. Rosa gives Magda all her food, but in turn this causes Rosa’s milk to dry up, and Magda takes to sucking the edge of the shawl, which now serves as a pacifier as well as a covering. On the morning of Madga’s death, when Rosa realizes that Magda is unhidden and calling for her mommy because she’s missing her shawl, she runs back to the barracks, snatches the shawl away from Stella, but it is too late. And at the moment when Rosa sees Magda hurled against an electrified fence by a German soldier, she stuffs the shawl into her mouth to prevent herself from screaming, knowing that the noise would undoubtedly have caused her to be killed as well.
The fence itself, which also is an important symbol in “The Shawl,” hums continuously, and often Rosa thinks she can hear “grainy sad voices” in the noise. At the moment of crisis, when she sees that the soldiers have Magda and knows what the outcome will be, the voices become clear and insistent; they tell her to unfurl the shawl, wave it like a banner, call attention to herself, do something. But of course she does none of those things; rationally Rosa knows that any of those actions would only seal her own fate, so she gags herself with the shawl instead.
“The Shawl” is an incredibly moving piece of writing. Only seven and a half pages long, it flows with an astonishing ferocity. The story has a sequel called “Rosa,” which takes place in a vagrant hotel in Miami where Rosa now lives; “Rosa” completes “The Shawl” in that it shows what happens when the wounds of the past are too deep for healing. But we already know that; we know it from reading “The Shawl,” and our only human response can be to work for a world in which that kind of barbarity itself becomes a thing of the past.
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