Perhaps the basic question about The Shawl, Cynthia Ozick’s little pair of stories originally printed in the New Yorker and released as a stick-thin seventy-page book in 1989, is whether it represents “women’s experience” in the Holocaust. The question whether Holocaust experience can be differentiated by sex has divided scholars and writers into warring parties.
Ozick has said things that suggest she would reject the notion of a distinguishable “women’s” Holocaust experience. In an interview in the Atlantic, for example, she said:
For Ozick, the differentiating fact about Holocaust victims would seem to be their Jewishness. And yet The Shawl seems to emphasize their sex.
To begin with, Ozick prefaces the book with two lines from Paul Celan’s Todesfuge—untranslated, as if she were unwilling to dilute their strength:
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith
And isn’t this the work of Ozick’s two stories? The whole purpose of the book, divided into two stories, is to differentiate between Rosa Lublin, who must witness the murder of her daughter in a Nazi camp, and her niece Stella, who also survived the camp and wishes now to live in the present. The title story focuses upon the death of Rosa’s infant daughter Magda. After her cousin Stella jealously steals her “magic shawl,” which “wrapped” her and kept her “hidden away,” which was both her mother’s breasts and her “own baby, her pet, her little sister,” Magda wanders outside the barracks into the roll-call arena, searching for it. There, while Rosa looks on, horrified, she is murdered. But the agency of the murder, although it can be assumed, is barely narrated:
And on Stella’s. The second story in the book, entitled “Rosa,” takes up the afterlife of these two women. After having smashed up her own antique shop in Brooklyn and relocating to Florida, Rosa has moved, although only fifty-eight, into a hotel for the elderly, where she spends all her days in her room (“I like my own room, that’s all”), writing letters to Stella, which she never mails, and to the dead Magda. “Stella was alive,” she thinks, “why not Magda?” She clings to Magda’s old shawl. Stella is disgusted, calling it Rosa’s “idol” and telling her to
To Rosa, however, it is Stella who suffers from “a strain of dementia.” And why? Every vestige of former existence is an insult to her. Because she fears the past she distrusts the future—it too will turn into the past. As a result she has nothing. “She wants to wipe out memory,” Rosa says later. In other words, The Shawl differentiates what might be called two strategies of response to the Holocaust—one that insists upon preserving memory, the other that seeks to wipe it out. But are these uniquely women’s responses?
My own view is that Ozick means to revalue sex, “a category of anatomy and physiology,” by reinterpreting it as motherhood, a moral category. Opposing herself to Stella’s fear of the past, Rosa writes in a letter to Magda that
Someone else might accuse Rosa of being obsessed with Magda, with the Holocaust, with (as she puts it) the theft of her life. The accusation that American Jews obsess over the Holocaust was popularized by Peter Novick’s faux-history The Holocaust in American Life (1999). Since obsession is a mental disorder, the implication is that American Jews need treatment to get over it. (In a mordant anticipation of such insipidity, Ozick has Rosa receive a letter from a psychologist who is studying “Repressed Animation,” or R.A. for short, in Holocaust survivors.) Rosa, however, is Ozick’s evidence that, instead of obsessing over the Nazi genocide, the living may have an obligation to the Holocaust dead. For as she tells Persky, the retired button manufacturer who tries to pick her up, Holocaust survivors know three lives:
“This was Hitler. . . .”
Persky speculated. “You want everything the way it was before.”
“No, no, no,” Rosa said. “It can’t be. . . . Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays. . . .”
And that could be the motto of motherhood. Once a mother, always a mother; even though Magda was murdered, Rosa remains a mother forever after. Motherhood stays and stays. Persky asks quietly whether the Germans killed Rosa’s entire family.
In the biblical book that bears her name, Ruth is praised by the “chorus”—the women, the elders, the townspeople—for “building up the house of Israel” when she gives birth to Oved, the grandfather of King David. Something like this, Ozick seems to be saying, is the religious value of motherhood. She hints as much by calling Magda at one point a “lioness,” which is probably an allusion to Ezek 19.1–9. There Israel is praised as a lioness who raises up her whelps to become princes. Motherhood is a building up of Israel.
But if a mother is a building up of Israel, and if (through Rosa) Ozick has shown motherhood to be what Novick disdains as “obsession”—keeping memory alive in conscience, in consciousness—then the conclusion follows as a kiss follows a confession of love: memory builds up the house of Israel. To memorialize the Holocaust is not to “obsess” over it, but to discharge an obligation.
And women are suited to the obligation, not by the “physiological facts,” but because of their experience of motherhood—that is, their long training in the truth that “Only during stays.”