Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686

It would be simple enough to read this as a tale of psychic wounds borne by a survivor of the Holocaust, particularly as “Rosa” is a sequel to an earlier story, “The Shawl,” which provides an account of a particular experience in the concentration camp involving Rosa, Stella, and Magda...

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It would be simple enough to read this as a tale of psychic wounds borne by a survivor of the Holocaust, particularly as “Rosa” is a sequel to an earlier story, “The Shawl,” which provides an account of a particular experience in the concentration camp involving Rosa, Stella, and Magda and lays groundwork for a probable cause of guilt on Rosa’s part.

This would seem further supported by Rosa’s explanation of time as a structuring device dividing people’s lives into “before,” “after,” and “during” the Holocaust. Just as the “before” is a dream, she says, the “after” is a joke: “Only the during stays.” She condemns those who try to forget the “during,” as if she were trapped in that time of horrifying experience, which had the power to transform “before” into “after,” or “dream” into “joke.”

However, Rosa is trapped not in time but in pride. Although her mind seems often to dwell in the “before,” she insists that she does not want to return to that actual time. Her memories serve, rather, to recall the privileged potential that she once enjoyed and to give imaginative shape to the potential perfection that Magda (as Rosa’s single accomplishment of any value) might have attained had she only survived, for Magda, too, has the power to transform: Like “the philosophers’ stone that prolongs life and transmutes iron to gold,” Magda can, through the material agency of the shawl, transform her ordinary mother into “a Madonna.” Rosa believes not in God but in “mystery” and attributes such power to the shawl that the object becomes almost a sacred relic in and of itself: “Your idol,” mocks Stella, whom Rosa often calls the Angel of Death.

The real means of Rosa’s transformation, however, is her pride, her readiness to be recognized as special, if only by Magda. Rosa cannot bear to be thought ordinary; that Persky would take her for “another button”; that Stella would have her “recuperated” or healed of her “craziness,” which, if nothing else, sets Rosa apart from the “ordinary.”

This same pride is also her cage, her trap, in that it not only holds her apart from her fellowman but also prevents her from recognizing that the distance and misperceptions between herself and others are at least partially of her own making. While she can admit “how far she had fallen . . . nobility turned into a small dun rodent,” she does not see that her fallen state comes, ironically, from having set herself so high above her fellowman, past and present. She has discovered the “power to shame” other Jews who did not experience the Holocaust and does not hesitate to hold it over them: “Where were you when we was there?” However, even after having shared a ghastly fate with those other Jews imprisoned with her family back in the Warsaw Ghetto, she can look back now only with contempt and shame at the squalor they imposed on her delicate and sensitive family.

It is, finally, from this same memory—in particular the metaphor of the tram that ran through the center of the walled-off Ghetto with the woman aboard, carrying the lettuce—that Rosa at last draws the key that may release her from her trap of pride. Cynthia Ozick, in “The Moral Necessity of Metaphor,” has written, “Metaphor is the reciprocal agent, the universalizing force: it makes possible the power to envision the stranger’s heart.” When Rosa admits, in her last letter to Magda, “Now I am like the woman who held the lettuce in the tramcar,” she has clearly begun to understand, it would seem, what it means to be a stranger, an ordinary stranger, traveling temporarily into a place of “misery,” and how she must appear to those less free than she, those others too “deaf” to understand. Rosa, having suffered both humiliation and persistent compassion from Persky, decides finally to reconnect her telephone and invites Persky to “come up” to her room, suggesting both that she is admitting him to her rarefied environment and that she is deliberately reaching out to another human being.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771

The Holocaust

“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.”

Alienation

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 thirty 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 us 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 barbed-wire fence.

Idolatry

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.”

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