“Rosa” gives a dramatic example of how the Holocaust not only took the lives of the millions of Jews who died in concentration camps, but also emotionally crippled millions of others who survived. While Rosa and Stella survived the camp physically, both are disabled emotionally, though they deal with it in very different ways. Rosa refuses to move on; Stella refuses to look back. Rosa tells Persky that Stella “wants to wipe out memory.” Conflict in approaches to dealing with the Holocaust has given rise to an important debate in the years since World War II (1939–1945). An extremist movement calling its members “Holocaust revisionists” claims that the annihilation of Jews in Nazi concentration camps either never happened at all or was vastly exaggerated. Denounced by historians, these “revisionists” have nonetheless made themselves heard, attempting, like Stella, to “wipe out memory.”
Rosa lives in almost complete isolation, partly because of her own efforts. Though she is supremely articulate in her native Polish, her English is still halting and broken, even after more than 30 years in the United States. “Why should I learn English?” she asks Persky. “I didn’t ask for it, I got nothing to do with it.” Through her own brand of anti-Semitism, she alienates herself from her own people, even those who have suffered the same tragedies. In a letter to Magda, she writes, “imagine confining with teeming Mockowiczes and Rabinowiczes and Perksys and Finkelsteins, with all their bad-smelling grandfathers and their hordes of feeble children!” Finally, through her own mental illness, living in her fantasy world with visions of Magda, she further distances herself from reality and others. Rosa’s alienation is not entirely her own doing, however. In New York, she attempted to reach out to customers of her antique shop, to tell her story, but no one listened. “Whoever came, they were like deaf people,” she says. Also, the impersonal university letters from Dr. Tree epitomize the kind of insensitivity that has convinced Rosa no one will ever understand.
Treatment of the Elderly in America
Like Rosa, the other elderly residents of the Miami hotel are isolated, shut off from their families and their former lives: “Everyone had left behind a real life. Here they had nothing.” In letters they read “rumors of their grandchildren,” but it all seems unreal. Rosa’s visions of Magda are more substantial than the connection many of the residents experience with their living family members. These people are essentially forgotten. This is all too typical of American attitudes toward the elderly; while other cultures value and revere the elderly, Americans tend to view them as burdens who have outlived their usefulness. One way or another, the younger people featured in the story are all fenced off from the elderly. The Cuban receptionist, for instance, works in a cage; the gay men on the beach are enclosed by a barbedwire fence.
Idolatry, the worship of something or someone other than God, is a recurrent theme in Cynthia Ozick’s work. Though Rosa writes in a letter to Magda, “I don’t believe in God,” she worships Magda’s shawl with all the fervor and ritual of religion, giving it the status of a relic like medieval Christians did objects associated with the life of Jesus. As Stella writes her, “You’re like those people in the Middle Ages who worshiped a piece of the True Cross.” Rosa makes special preparations for the opening of the box, putting on a nice dress, fixing her hair, tidying her room. Once opened and taken from the box, the shawl has the power to bring the dead back to life, conjuring the vision of Magda at age sixteen. In “The Shawl,” the story which precedes “Rosa,” baby Magda is somehow sustained by sucking on the shawl, even though Rosa is no longer capable of nursing her.
Sex and Shame
Rosa tells Magda in one of her letters, “I was forced by a German, it’s true, and more than once.” Though she denies that Magda is the result, late in the story when Magda’s vision begins to fade, Rosa implores her, “Magda, my beloved, don’t be ashamed! Butterfly, I am not ashamed of your presence.” When Rosa imagines that Persky has picked up her lost underpants, her first thought is one of disproportionate humiliation: “Oh, degrading. The shame. Pain in the loins. Burning.” Later she wanders Miami at night in a futile search for the lost underwear, and her lost innocence. When Persky asks her what she lost, what she is looking for, she replies, “My life.”
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