“Rosa” is a short story written by the American novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick, which was first published in 1983 in the New Yorker magazine. The plot recounts the stories of the people, who survived the Holocaust, moved to America, and are trying to continue living their lives. Two main female characters, Stella and Rosa, represent two different types of personalities, one of which successfully managed to continue leading a normal life after the traumatizing experience in the concentration camp, while the other holds strongly to her past and refuses to start a new life in a new place. Being the sequel of the earlier short story, “The Shawl”, “Rosa” may be considered a narration, which through specific language, story structure, images, and symbols demonstrates how a woman failed to arrange her life after being psychologically hurt during the Holocaust.
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The main theme of this work is the depiction of an experience of the particular person in the concentration camp and a demonstration of the dire consequences it might have. Stella, the main character’s niece, tells that Rosa lived three lives – the one before, the one during, and the one after the Holocaust (Ozick 187). The author emphasizes that the lives of people, who had to undergo those terrible events, are ruined and fragmented. Moreover, the story demonstrates that not all people can endure such harmful and harrowing experiences. Two secondary characters, Stella and Persky, who also lived in concentration camps, are examples of those, who successfully left behind the horrors of the past. Stella, being a very hard-working woman, arranged her life so that she manages to support both herself and her aunt Rosa, while Persky also enjoys his new life in America, flirts with women, and does not seem to be psychologically traumatized.
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Rosa, who values her Holocaust past the most, on the contrary, despises Stella and Persky for forgetting what they underwent. She holds so strongly to her life before and during the Holocaust that she actually refuses to live in her present, normal and free from a dangerous world. Rosa claims that only the life before is the real one (Ozick 190). She allows her memories to be more real than the contemporary world that surrounds her. Thus, the woman is lost and confused and does not want to do anything to change this situation. For example, when Persky asks Rosa why she continues to exist in the past, she tells him that if the person has no life, the only place such an individual can live is in thoughts, and that “before is a dream, after is a joke. Only during stays. And to call it a life is a lie” (Ozick 195). Thereby, since Rosa does not cease to dream about her “before”, and relives “the during” in her thoughts, she is unable to see that life continues, and that new opportunities are open for her.
The only real-life for Rosa is the one in the concentration camp, and the only reality for her is her memories of the past when she was young. Additionally, she frequently replaces communication with real people with the imaginary conversations with her dead daughter Magda through letters she writes her. Rosa cannot deal with the thought that Holocaust has ruined her life completely, forget her past, and accept that it is time to start creating a new life. She tells Persky that her Warsaw is not his Warsaw (Ozick 189), and this way she emphasizes that she spent her childhood in wealth, not in the ghetto Warsaw Persky knew. Rosa is unable to forget how great her life once was: she reminds herself that she was an educated young lady, and that she dreamt to become a serious, ambitious, and responsible person (Ozick 190). She recalls her wonderful house with a library that included books in different languages. Due to the excellent education she received, Rosa could hope for great opportunities in the future. She is also very proud of her family’s wealth – Rosa claims that wonderful architecture and gardens made her home even more beautiful than places in Paris. This pride of her pre-war self does not allow Rosa to accept anything American because it cannot match her standards of the past.
Various symbols skillfully created by the author also help the readers to reveal the theme of this literary work. One of the most significant symbols of Rosa’s loss and inability to lead a normal life is the image of her dead daughter Magda. Throughout the entire story, Rosa frequently writes her letters “in the most excellent literary Polish” (Ozick 186). Instead of making new acquaintances, Rosa spends all of her time and effort talking to a ghost. She picks the most beautiful words and uses all her creativity to write the letters that will never be delivered. The poor woman explains to her dead child that she “has grown into the lioness”, and that she “can stretch apart her furry toes in all their power” (Ozick 187). This way she demonstrates how proud she is of her daughter. At the end of the story Rosa writes Magda another long letter telling that she has lost everything during the war, and it becomes obvious that the dead girl is the only character with whom Rosa is able to be sincere and to whom she can fully reveal her feelings. With this letter, Rosa shows that there is no future for her. However, the only person who does not allow her to continue to live is Rosa herself.
The other symbol of Rosa’s attachment to the past and her dead daughter is Magda’s shawl. Rosa holds to this object so strongly that Stella believes it has become Rosa’s fetish. The niece created specific rituals of viewing the shawl, and she did not allow Rosa to keep it all the time. Stella guessed that her aunt does not want to forget her past, thus she tried to control Rosa and her memories of the concentration camp by taking Magda’s shawl, because the shawl was not simply a memory for Rosa, but it also represented a direct connection to her daughter. When Rosa took the shawl out of the box, she could see and interact with Magda – during one of her visions Rosa told Magda that she was not ashamed of her presence and that she will always be happy to see her, if not now, then later (Ozick 219). Thus, Rosa refuses to treat her daughter as if she was dead, and the shawl is the object that strengthens her attachment to the hurtful memories, which does not allow her to live a full life in America.
The language and the manner of narration of this short story is very straightforward and realistically detailed, without any metaphors or allegories, which allows the readers to perceive the reality of Rosa’s madness. Ozick states clearly that the main character is mentally ill due to the terrible experience she had to endure in the past as she writes that Rosa Lublin is “a madwoman and a scavenger”, who smashed the store she previously owned (Ozick 186). Rosa’s obsession with her dead daughter is demonstrated through a description of her room, which “was littered with letters” (Ozick 187). Additionally, the unwillingness of Rosa to start a new life or to get to know new people, and her desire to stay in the past is depicted through the excerpts from her letters to Magda, where she writes that strangers scratch at her life (Ozick 202), and that thanks to motherhood she is safe from the sufferings over the passage of time.
This way the author shows the tragic situation of Rosa, who is trapped between two conditions of herself – one part of her personality lives in a delusion, where the past is frozen in time, and where she communicates with her daughter, while the other part still manages to understand that the time has passed. However, even this second part of Rosa does not wish to forget her previous experience. The author uses dialogs to complete Rosa’s image of a woman, who is obsessed with her past – Rosa tells Persky that thieves took her life (Ozick 195) demonstrating this way that she has nothing left and that she refuses to at least try creating a new life. The entire structure of the short story, which is composed of short sentences and passages, with rapid switch of the location of the action, also allows to comprehend how thoughts jump and get mixed in the head of the main character, who cannot find the inner strength to lead a normal life.
Thereby, “Rosa” is a very realistic story, which describes how life in the concentration camp has turned a young mother into a mad woman, who can only live in a cycle of memories and thoughts of the past. Unlike her niece, Rosa is a very tragic character, who was broken by a catastrophe that took place long ago, and who did not find strength in herself to start a new life. Thus, the author of “Rosa” through the example of one fictional woman demonstrated how millions of lives of real people were destroyed by the Holocaust.
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