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Comparative Analysis of Elsie Wiesel’s Night and The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick


The two stories; “Night” (1960) by writer Elsie Wiesel and “The Shawl” (1980) by Cynthia Ozick are indeed breathtaking and instill a rare intense and horrific experience to the readers. "The shawl" combines Cynthia Ozick’s morally profound and me...Read More


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Comparative Analysis of Elsie Wiesel’s Night and The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

The two stories; “Night” (1960) by writer Elsie W...

The two stories; “Night” (1960) by writer Elsie Wiesel and “The Shawl” (1980) by Cynthia Ozick are indeed breathtaking and instill a rare intense and horrific experience to the readers. "The shawl" combines Cynthia Ozick’s morally profound and metaphorically complex short story of a similar title, about Holocaust horrors, with her longer follow-up novella about personal reverberations of those horrific times thirty years later. Ozick puts it down on seven crisp pages (2000 words) that are poetically terrifying. Though short, Ozick was able to compress the terrifying experience of the Holocaust into a story that comes close to formal perfection. It tells the story of three characters: Stella, Magda, and Rosa on internment and their march to a Nazi concentration camp. Although both focus on the Holocaust, The Shawl is fictional but Night can be referred to as a memoir. This is because the story contains a mixture of deposition, emotional truth-telling, and testimony that renders it similar to written works in the memoir genre. Elsie Wiesel tells about his experience with his father when they were locked up in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944 to 1945 during the height of the Holocaust as the second world war was coming to an end. It’s quite clear that Eliezer (the story’s narrator) is by a great extent meant to serve as author Wiesel’s representative and stand-in. Although minor details have been altered in the narrative, what happens to Eliezer depicts real life events that occurred to Wiesel himself during the Holocaust. Important to note however is that there’s a difference between the persona of Night’s author, Elie Wiesel and that of the narrator, Eliezer. Comparing the two stories analytically in this paper will illustrate the differences in the way they are narrated, show how the themes and plot differ and the emotion they both try to evoke to readers.

 

In The Shawl, the plot is thin and barely noticeable. A young Jewish mother loses her infant child as a result of the barbarism of the Nazis. Since the characters are highly compressed embodiments of tortured terror, they’re not so much real. Although history admits that the event described is the most despicable in modern life as the characters suffer more pain in a moment than most people will in a lifetime, it’s neither the event nor the characters that make this story so powerful. Rather, it’s the language and voice of the speaker that possesses the typical values of great works of art and make this miniature narrative such a powerful story. It’s, therefore, impossible to summarize the events of the story without proper reference to the words used to describe them.

The story revolves around Rosa, her niece Stella and her baby Magda on their march to a Nazi concentration camp during winter. During their march, they are described as weak and starving. The knees of Stella are said to be "tumors on sticks." Rosa is described as a "walking cradle" since she constantly carries Magda close to her chest, having wrapped her in her shawl. Rosa deliberates on handing off Magda to one of the villagers watching them march, but eventually, she comes to a conclusion that the guards would most likely shoot them both if she does that. Rosa calls the shawl “magic” when Magda sucks on it because it sustained the infant for three days and nights without food. Stella makes an observation about Magda resembling Aryan, but Rosa disregards this and sees it as some kind of threat to Magda. Rosa continues to hide Magda at the camp, but her constant fear is that someone will discover and take away her life. Then one day from Magda, Stella takes the shawl away to warm herself. Magda who had never made a sound since the march begins screaming for her “Ma” because of the shawl. Rosa hears the baby cry but doesn’t run to Magda because the guards will kill both of them. Instead, she runs to get hold of the shawl and waves it while hoping the baby will see it and chill down. Unfortunately, she’s too late for this, and now she has to watch the Nazi guards pick Magda up and throw her towards the electric fence thus killing her instantly. To stop herself from screaming, Rosa stuffs the shawl into her mouth ("The Shawl Overview - eNotes.com", 2017).

The novel "Night" is narrated by a Jewish teenager called Eliezer whom at the beginning of the memoir lives in his hometown of Sighet, in Hungarian Transylvania. Eliezer studies the first five books of the Old Testament known as the Torah and the Cabbala which is a doctrine of Jewish mysticism. However, his studies are cut short when his instructor Moshe the Beadle is deported. Moshe returns after few months only to tell a horrifying tale: The German secret police force known as the Gestapo took charge of his train and led all the passengers into the woods where they were butchered. No one believes Moshe as they take him for a lunatic. The Nazis occupy Hungary in the spring of 1944. Soon afterward, several increasingly repressive measures are passed, and Jews residing in Eliezer’s town are compelled into living in small ghettos within Sighet. Before long, they find themselves herded onto cattle cars, and a nightmarish journey follows suit. After being crammed into the car for several days and nights without food and profoundly exhausted, the passengers finally arrive at Birkenau, which is the gateway to Auschwitz. Eliezer and his father are separated from other members of the family (his mother and sisters) upon arriving at Birkenau never to see them again. They go through the first of the numerous “Selections” described by Eliezer in the memoir. In this one, Jews undergo an evaluation to determine whether they’re fit to work or they should be killed immediately. Luckily, Eliezer and his father pass the taste, but before they’re taken to the prisoners’ barracks, they came across the open-pit furnaces where the Nazis were burning babies by the truckload.

 

The Jews arriving at Birkenau are shaved, stripped, disinfected, and treated with utmost cruelty. Their captors then march them from Birkenau to the main camp in Auschwitz. Eventually, they arrive in Buna, a work camp where Eliezer is forced to work in an electrical-fittings factory. Under slave - labor conditions, decimation in frequent “selections,” and severe malnourishment, the Jews take consolation in taking care of each other in religion. They also take solace in Zionism, a movement inclined to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine also considered the holy land. The Jews in the camp become subject to gross beatings and humiliations. One cruel foreman compels Eliezer to give him his gold tooth that has been pried out of his mouth with a rusty spoon. Prisoners are compelled to watch the hanging of fellow inmates in the camp courtyard. On one occasion, the Gestapo hang a young child who was reportedly associated with some rebels within Buna. Due to the horrific conditions at the camps and the ever-looming danger of death, many prisoners began turning cruel as they were only concerned with personal survival. Soon, sons begin to abuse and abandon their fathers. Eliezer is no different. He begins losing his humanity and his faith both in the people around him and in God. After several months in the camp, Eliezer undergoes an operation on his foot after suffering an injury. However, while Eliezer is undergoing treatment at the infirmary, the Nazis begin evacuating the camp since the Russians are advancing with the aim of liberating Buna. The prisoners begin a death march in the middle of a snowstorm and are forced to run over fifty miles to the Gleiwitz concentration camp. Most of them succumb to exhaustion and harsh weather conditions. The prisoners are once again herded into cattle cars at Gleiwitz as they begin a dangerous voyage. Of the hundred Jews who board the car, only twelve survive to the last stop at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Eliezer and his father help each other in surviving throughout the ordeal with the aid of mutual support and concern. However, Eliezer’s father finally dies of physical abuse and dysentery while he survives though an empty shell of a man until 11th of April, 1945 when the American army liberates the camp ("SparkNotes: Night: Plot Overview", 2017).

Although both stories depict most of the real events that occurred during the Holocaust, they make use of different themes to drive the point home. In “The Shawl” Ozick uses the theme of horror to evoke emotions from the readers. In the story, the inhuman attitude of the Nazis is shown by the way the Jewish are forced to cruel conditions in concentration camps. In fact, the Jewish were treated even worse than animals. Most of them lived in cold, starvation and sickness while waiting for death. As for the Nazis, they proved to be fierce and savages with no mercy, sympathy or pity. They did not respect the lives of others. In these circumstances, some individuals including Stella in the story, for example, tend to lose their humanity and let hatred and envy seize their hearts. But we cannot blame them as it’s hard to imagine what these poor people must have endured and experienced. The theme of maternity is also used in “The Shawl.” This theme is popular in literature for its tenderness and importance. However, in The Shawl, it also acquires deep sorrow. A young mother is confined in one of the Nazi concentration camps with her little daughter on her hands. From the context, we can tell that the baby’s father is Nazi, which implies the baby must have been conceived against its mother’s will. Regardless of that, Magda, the baby becomes paramount to Rosa as she gave all her love and food to this innocent child. Rosa hopes Magda would live since when they pass some villages, she thinks of giving her up to some women by the roadside. Rosa does not conceal wrath nor hatred in her heart, but she’s profoundly sad because she knows that death awaits her and her daughter. Ozick has managed to touch the soul of the readers by skillfully revealing all the horror of the event. It’s impossible to imagine what Rosa had to endure. Seeing her child being killed can make one’s eye tear and hearts to shiver ("The Shawl Themes", 2017).

On the other hand, the theme of violence permeates all of Elsie Wiesel’s “Night” in so many ways. Wiesel has used violence to show dominance. The Germans use violence to force Jews into gory concentration camps. In a similar manner, the writer uses the public display of violence to illustrate how the Jewish were threatened and intimidated by the Nazis so as the latter could gain control. For instance, the Jewish who try resistance in the concentration camps are gruesomely hanged in public to serve as a warning to would-be insurgents. Those in power exercise violence against the weak. A good example here is the German SS guards who abuse prisoners. Also, the downtrodden use violence against each other as the Jewish prisoners become violent against each other while they struggle to survive. Examples of violence in the book vary as there are instances when violence is passionate whereas its dispassionate, planned and spontaneous, senseless and to meet a specific goal in other instances. Violence is so excessive and extreme that many characters have a hard time believing it could perhaps be real. The theme of race is also included here. The Jews are the primary targets of the Nazi for extermination and hate crimes only because of their race. Readers cannot fail to get a sense for the arbitrariness of race. It’s clear that the distinctions between the Jews and Aryans blur. For instance, the distinctions between the Jews and Aryans when we learn that the little sister to Eliezer has blond hair, the Aryan ideal. The Jews try to keep their cultural and religious traditions alive throughout their time in concentration camps, but this becomes increasingly difficult as suffering and death continue. “Night” also portrays the theme of religion whereby Eliezer presents the Jewish faith in the face of adversity. When he sees the horrific scene of the Auschwitz concentration camps especially the killing of young children and babies and other gruesome murders, he feels like his God has been murdered before his eyes. He cannot be able to reconcile the atrocities he witnesses with the notion of God. However, he doesn’t stop believing in God but his faith weakens, and he questions if God is absolutely just. Amongst many others, he raises questions like “Is he a good God?” Similarly, other Jews in the concentration camps experience loss of faith. For example, a rabbi feels guilty for doubting God’s mercy, and the Akiba drummer gives up before dying as soon as he loses his faith in God. Many men in the concentration camps continue to observe Rosh Hashanah among other religiously significant days, but what remains mysterious is how many of them retain their faith ("Night Theme of Religion", 2017).





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Comparative Analysis of Elsie Wiesel’s Night and The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

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Comparative Analysis of Elsie Wiesel’s Night and The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick