How does one deal with the Holocaust and its memory? This is the question that “Rosa” brings to mind, but does not necessarily answer. Rosa Lublin’s niece Stella theorizes that there are three lives: before the Holocaust, during, and after. Rosa claims: “Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays.” Rosa’s answer to dealing with the Holocaust is to carry it with her every day, to deny that there is a life after by living only in the past.
In fact, in moving to Miami Beach, Rosa has returned to a confined camp of sorts. Where the Warsaw ghetto segregated and confined Jews, Miami Beach confines the elderly. The few younger people Rosa encounters are segregated from the elderly by fences: the gay men at the beach, the receptionist in her “cage.” Even the description of the elderly as “scarecrows, blown about under the murdering sunball with empty rib cages” brings to mind images of emaciated concentration camp prisoners.
The words and images Ozick uses to describe Miami Beach depict a place just this side of hell. The heat and humidity are oppressive, thick, and suffocating; the air is “molasses,” the streets are a “furnace,” the sun is “an executioner,” bringing to mind more images of Holocaust atrocities. The heat serves to further confine Rosa in her dismal, grimy room, which she shares with “squads of dying flies.” In coming to Miami, Rosa has moved back into the worst of her past.
As Rosa lives in the past, clinging to her memories of Magda, there are signs that she would actually like to move on but has no idea how to do it. First, there is the simple fact that she continues to live, however marginally. Second, it seems that she realizes her mistake in coming to Miami; she writes her niece, “Where I put myself is in hell,” and she later suggests naively to Stella that she could return to New York and re-open her store. Finally, her attempts to get rid of the optimistic Persky seem half-hearted, and when she is with him she worries about her hair, her missing button, the fact that she is not wearing her nice shoes. Though these signs indicate some willingness to move forward, her isolation and misery have become such an ingrained way of life that she is not even fully aware of other options.
When Persky comes into her dingy room and sets her table to eat the crullers he has brought, “to Rosa this made the corner of the room look new, as though she had never seen it before.” The incident on the private hotel beach gives Rosa a chance to rewrite her own history in some small way. When she is trapped on the beach behind barbed wire, she is forced to relive the past not just in her mind, but in reality. She pleads with the men on the beach to let her out, but they refuse. They are her persecutors, her jailers. This time, however, she makes her own escape, finding her way through the hotel kitchens and into the Eden-like lobby. After telling off the hotel manager, she marches out of the lobby, “Irradiated, triumphant, cleansed.” When she returns to the hotel, Persky is waiting for her; the next morning, she requests that her phone be reconnected. She has taken one tentative step into the future.
Even Magda seems to know that something is different: when Rosa opens the box containing Magda’s shawl, this time, “For some reason it did not instantly restore Magda.” In fact, when Rosa first looks at the shawl, she is “indifferent.” For the first time, she is seeing the shawl for what it really is, “a colorless cloth.” The ever-patient Persky seems ideally suited to lead Rosa from the confinement of her own misery. She has a button missing; he is a manufacturer of buttons. She barely eats enough to stay alive; in both of their meetings he buys her food. As Rosa comes to realize, “he almost understood what she was: no ordinary button.” Between the extremes of living in the past and denying it, Persky takes the middle road. Unlike Stella, he is sympathetic to Rosa’s anguish, though he advises, “Sometimes a little forgetting is necessary.” Cynthia Ozick has made the emotional anguish of Holocaust survivors immediate and real by making Rosa a flawed, not entirely sympathetic character. Rosa is both an intellectual snob and an anti-Semite, despite all that she has suffered at the hands of anti-Semitism. It is exactly because she is not heroic or noble that the reader can relate intimately to her suffering. Her experiences are made even more immediate by Ozick’s technique of shifting from narrative to Rosa’s thoughts without punctuation. What is actually true and what is the product of Rosa’s unstable mind? The lines are blurred.
While Rosa has lived the last 35 years in the past, Stella has spent the last 35 years trying to ignore it. Though Rosa describes her as pretty, Stella has been unable to find “the one thing she wanted more than anything: an American husband.” Ozick does not reveal what Stella does for a living, though her constant reminders to Rosa that she is not a millionaire would indicate a lack of success in this area as well. As Rosa asks aloud to Stella’s letter, “And you, Stella, have a life?” It would appear that Stella’s methods of dealing with her war-time experience have been as ineffective as Rosa’s. In fact, by trying to blend in with other Americans and hide her own past, Stella does not even have her own heritage to rely on and draw strength from. Like Rosa and Stella, other people have their own difficulties in dealing with the Holocaust. If Rosa is representative of one extreme (remembering to the point of obsession) and Stella represents the other (denying or ignoring the Holocaust entirely), then Ozick seems to advocate memory. Though hardly lovable, Rosa is a far more sympathetic character than the cold and critical Stella.
The importance of remembering the Holocaust has been underscored in the late twentieth century and early 2000s by the rise of the Holocaust “revisionist” movement, an extreme group that denies the Holocaust ever really happened or if it did, it has been greatly exaggerated. Ozick’s Rosa, stubbornly and proudly clinging to the past despite the urgings of those around her, is a defiant answer to these deniers. Though Persky advocates “a little forgetting,” the more problematic question for Rosa, and for society in general, is how much forgetting is too much? At what point does forgetting become carelessness, leaving the door ajar for future persecution, for history to repeat itself? And to what extent does this forgetting devalue the suffering and sacrifice of millions of Jews suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis? “Rosa” and “The Shawl” not only raise these questions, they are in some small measure part of the answer. If writers and artists can create work that brings the suffering and horror of the Holocaust so sharply into focus, as these stories do while avoiding the temptation to create myth from history, they can help all people remember and understand.
Laura Pryor, 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