Finkelstein is the manager of the Hotel Marie Louise. Rosa is trapped on the hotel’s private beach when she inadvertently trespasses. After she escapes, she rages at Finkelstein for having barbed wire around the perimeter of the hotel beach.
The title character of the story, Rosa Lublin— who reflexively gives her name as Lublin, Rosa— is a 58-year-old Holocaust survivor now living in Miami, Florida. Rosa lost her only child, a baby daughter named Magda, when a Nazi guard threw the baby against an electrified fence. Rosa’s life stopped at this moment; she tells Simon Persky: “Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays.” For Rosa, the Holocaust has never really ended.
Rosa is full of contradictions. She is Jewish and yet anti-Semitic; she has contempt for Persky yet fixes her hair and worries about a hole in her dress while she is with him. She finds her lost underpants rolled in a towel but tells her niece Stella, “A man stole my underwear.” She seems determined to live as little as possible. Repeatedly, when she is told to get on with her life, she replies, “Thieves took it.” It becomes clear as the story progresses that Rosa is mentally unstable, especially during the nighttime search for her lost underwear. Her musings on their whereabouts progress from questionable to absurd, for example, when she concludes that the underwear “thief” may have buried them on the beach.
Though Rosa’s daughter has been dead for more than 30 years when this story takes place, Magda figures as an important character in the story because to Rosa, she is still very much alive. Rosa writes her long letters telling of her life before the Holocaust and describing life in the Warsaw ghetto. When Rosa embraces the shawl that once held baby Magda, a vision of Magda springs to life before her.
Through Rosa’s letters Stella suspects Magda was fathered by a Nazi who forced himself on Rosa. Though Rosa denies this vehemently in her letter to Magda, later when she is gazing upon the vision of Magda, the reader learns, “she was always a little suspicious of Magda, because of that other strain, whatever it was, that ran in her.” In “The Shawl,” the story that precedes “Rosa,” Stella has a different word for it: “Aryan.” When writing Magda, Rosa uses endearments such as “my yellow lioness,” “yellow blossom,” and “yellow flower.” The yellow suggests the yellow Star of David, which Nazis forced Jews to wear on their clothing. The name, Magda, suggests Mary Magdalen (the reformed prostitute Jesus healed of evil spirits [Luke 8:2]), and it also suggests magdalen, which is a reformatory for wayward women or prostitutes. In her name, baby Magda may embody Rosa’s memory of the traumatic rape by a Nazi.
Simon Persky is a flirtatious, 71-year-old man who “picks up” Rosa at the laundromat. Though he has had his share of tragedy—his wife now lives in a mental institution—his philosophy of life seems to be the antithesis of Rosa’s: he is determined to enjoy the moment and help Rosa do the same. Persky is undeterred by Rosa’s strange outbursts—“If there’s one thing I know to understand, it’s mental episodes,” he says—and persistently chips away at her defenses.
Persky is a well-off retired businessman who once owned a factory that manufactured buttons and other notions. Button metaphors recur in the story. For instance, when Persky offers to take Rosa to a library to get some books, Rosa is touched: “He almost understood what she was: no ordinary button.” Stella is Rosa’s niece living in New York, who supports Rosa financially (repeatedly reminding her, “I’m not a millionaire”).
Stella was in the concentration camp with Rosa and her baby daughter when the baby was killed. It is obvious that Rosa resents Stella for having survived: “Stella was alive, why not Magda?” Unlike Rosa, Stella is determined to leave her Holocaust experience in the past. About Stella, Rosa writes in one of her letters to Magda: “Every vestige of former existence is an insult to her.” Stella finds Rosa’s obsession with Magda and her shawl exasperating and will only let her have the shawl periodically. In her exchanges with Rosa, Stella is not only impatient but cold and unfeeling. Rosa refers to her as the “Angel of Death,” to whom she attributes almost every negative experience of her life: “It comes from Stella, everything!” Despite Stella’s attempts to deny the past, there are signs that she is not succeeding. Now 49, Stella is still searching for a husband, taking night classes in hopes of finding a man to marry. As Rosa writes to Magda, “Because [Stella] fears the past, she distrusts the future . . . as a result she has nothing.”
Dr. James Tree
Dr. Tree is a university researcher and Ph.D. who is conducting a study on the metaphysical aspects of “Repressed Animation” in Holocaust survivors. He contacts Rosa requesting that she meet with him at her home as part of his research: “I should like to observe survivor syndroming within the natural setting.” The language Dr. Tree uses in his letters to Rosa is impersonal and clinical. Earnestly oblivious to his own insensitivity, he even sends Rosa a copy of a study on repressed animation, with the recommendation: “Of special interest, perhaps, is Chapter Six, entitled ‘Defensive Group Formation: The Way of the Baboons.’” He sees her not as a human being, but as a curiosity to be examined, a specimen, a supposedly lower form of life.
To Rosa Dr. Tree becomes the enemy, the symbolic representative of all the people who cannot—or will not—understand what she has been through, extending her oppression and leaving her alienated and isolated.
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