The story “Rosa” is set in 1977, the same year in which it was written. “Rosa” is written in the third person limited point of view, but the reader is allowed only Rosa’s viewpoint on events; letters in the story are, of course, written in first person. Because Rosa’s mental state is unstable, her perceptions are not always the most reliable. Cynthia Ozick begins “Rosa” by describing the current state of Rosa Lublin’s meager existence. Having destroyed her own antique shop in New York City (“It was a mad thing to do”) Rosa is now living in a shabby “hotel” for the elderly in Miami, Florida. Her resentful and critical niece Stella, still living in New York, supports her. Rosa sees no one, goes out only when absolutely necessary, and barely eats enough to stay alive. She spends most of her time composing letters to her daughter Magda, who was killed as an infant by a Nazi guard in a concentration camp, 35 years ago.
As the story begins, Rosa reluctantly sets off to the laundromat (“After a while, Rosa had no choice”). While watching her clothes swirl about in the washer, she is approached by the flirtatious older man, Simon Persky. Like Rosa, he is from Warsaw, Poland, but Rosa is quick to tell him, “My Warsaw isn’t your Warsaw.” Undeterred, Persky helps her fold her laundry and insists on taking her to a diner for a hot cup of tea and a Danish. There he tells her that he is a retired businessman who once owned a button factory and that his wife is in a mental institution. Rosa tells him how she destroyed her antique shop, “Part with a big hammer . . . part with a piece of construction metal I picked up from the gutter.” When Perksy encourages her to tell more about her life, she gets up to go. She says she has no life, because “Thieves took it.”
When Rosa arrives back at her hotel, a package and two letters are waiting for her. The first letter is from Stella, who writes to tell Rosa that she has sent her Magda’s shawl in a separate package. The tattered shawl in which Rosa swaddled baby Magda is all that she has left of her daughter, and now she treats it as a sacred relic. Stella’s letter describes with disdain how Rosa worships the shawl: “You’ll open the box and take it out and cry, and you’ll kiss it like a crazy person.” Assuming the package she has received contains the shawl, she begins to tidy up her room in preparation: “Everything had to be nice when the box was opened.” Before reading the second letter, Rosa inventories her laundry and discovers she is missing one pair of underpants. At first, she is ashamed of her own carelessness: “Degrading. Lost bloomers— dropped God knows where.” Then she latches onto the idea that Persky picked up the underwear but was too embarrassed to hand them to her. Finally, she decides that Persky has stolen them.
After reaching this questionable conclusion, Rosa opens the second letter, which is from Dr. James Tree, a university researcher who is conducting a study on repressed animation in Holocaust survivors. It is not the first such letter Rosa has received. The impersonal, clinical tone outrages her, so she lights a match and burns the letter.
Next, Rosa writes her own letter, a long letter in Polish to her daughter Magda. Rosa has invented an entire life for her daughter, whom she now imagines to be a professor of Greek philosophy at Columbia University. In the letter she tells Magda that her niece Stella suffers from dementia, and to humor her, Rosa agrees that Magda is dead. Rosa writes that Stella believes Magda’s father was a Nazi who forced himself on her, but Rosa insists Magda’s father was the son of a family friend, to whom Rosa was engaged. “No lies come out of me to you,” she writes.
Rosa finishes the letter to Magda and then prepares herself to open the box containing Magda’s shawl. She puts on a nice dress, fixes her hair, even puts on some lipstick, but then when she sits down on the bed to open the box, she is lost in a reverie of concentration camp memories. After hours spent reliving past horrors, she finally leaves her room in search of her lost underpants.
Rosa wanders Miami at night, looking for her underwear in a host of unlikely places: on the street, at a newsstand, and then finally, at the beach. She goes through a gate and onto the private beach of a fancy hotel, where she stumbles upon two men having sex. She tries to leave the beach, but she is locked in, a trespasser. She reacts to the barbed wire fence surrounding the beach. Desperate, she asks the men for help, but they laugh at her. Finally, she escapes by making her way through the hotel kitchen. Once in the lobby, she demands to see the manager, whom she chastises for the barbed wire on the fence. When the manager asks her to leave and not disturb “important guests” who are visiting the hotel, Rosa leaps to the conclusion that Dr. James Tree is staying at the hotel: “I see you got Tree! You got a whole bunch of Trees!” When Rosa returns to her hotel, she discovers Simon Persky there, waiting for her. He invites himself up to her room for a cup of tea. During their conversation, Persky asks if Rosa lost her family in the Holocaust. Rosa says there are just three left: Rosa herself, Stella, and one more. She offers him the box with Magda’s shawl as “evidence.” But the box contains not the shawl, but the study on repressed animation sent by the persistent Dr. Tree. Enraged, Rosa hurls the book at the ceiling. Persky leaves, promising to return the next day.
The next day Rosa receives the package containing the shawl and takes it up to her room. When she handles the shawl, a vision of her daughter at sixteen springs to life. Rosa picks up her pen and writes another letter to Magda. But when the phone rings with a call from Simon Persky, the vision vanishes.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Cynthia Ozick, Published by Gale Group, 2010