A few days ago I read a very interesting novel by Cynthia Ozick, Heir to the Glimmering World. Being anxious to read more of her work I was delighted to find her short story dealing with the Holocaust, “The Shawl”, described in The New Yorker as “a miniature masterpiece”, available in the open archives of the magazine and also as a podcast on YouTube, read with great feeling and elegance by the multi-awarded British actress Claire Bloom. I first listened to Bloom read it, then the next day I read it, then this morning, far from feeling I’m close to the full depth of this story I listened to Bloom’s Reading again.
I listened then to Ozick talk about how she came to write the story. (She also talks about growing up loving to read and how the Holocaust impacted her thinking. This podcast, linked above, is only eight minutes but it is glorious).
Still feeling I must go deeper, I was delighted to find a New Yorker Fiction Podcast in which Joyce Carrol Oates reads the story and talks about the story with the fiction editor of The New Yorker, Deborah Treisman.
As the story opens, Rose is being marched to a concentration camp, to be interned. The woman’s age is indeterminate, she is carrying her baby, Magda, wrapped it in a shawl to hide it from the Germans who killed all babies of Jewish Women. Babies have no labour value to the Germans. With her is her niece Stella, in her teens. Rose tells us both women are suffering terribly from malnutrition, months ago they stopped menstruating, their legs are like “tuber covered sticks”. They can barely walk but if they falter they know the Germans will shoot them. Rose has no milk to feed her baby. She wants to give Magda to a woman in a Village they pass through but how does she know if a stranger will accept her baby. She also fears if she steps out of line the guards will shoot her and the baby.
Once they are in the concentration camp the level of terror, fear and madness becomes incredible. Rose descends to madness, she fears her niece wants the baby to die so she can eat her. The ending is the stuff of pure evil. How do people become this horrible, so full of hate.
In just a few masterful pages Ozick has evoked the Holocaust.
This is a deeply disturbing story. In an interview Ozick, normally a very methodical writer, said she felt almost as if a spirit inhabited her and helped her convey the story of Rose, Magda, and Stella.
“She wrote it, she says, in a way she has never written anything, before or since. "I'm not a mystic, I don't believe in any of that. I've been on the side of rationalism. I had an experience, just the first five pages – I hate to say it, it's the kind of absurd thing that I mock – that I wasn't writing it, that it was dictated. Just for those five pages." - from The Guardian