Rosa's Past, Present, and Future

by , 2005

In Cynthia Ozick's short story "Rosa," Stella tells Rosa that those who survived the Holocaust really have three lives: "[t]he life before, the life during, the life after" (58). Ozick shows us that the survivors must move on to the "life after," but doing so can make them seem cold and callous. Persky and Stella are examples of 'successful' people who have seemingly forgotten what they left behind, and are looked down upon by Rosa for doing so. Persky seems to enjoy his Floridian existence, flirting with women and being generally lighthearted. Stella is more hard-working and cold, but is successful enough to support both herself and her Aunt Rosa. In contrast to these two, Rosa holds onto her life before and during the Holocaust and refuses to live in the present. She says, "The life before is our real life, at home, where we was born" (58). Even here, Rosa refuses to speak perfect English. Also, she continues to allow her memories to remain more real than her surroundings. When Persky questions her about living in the past, she explains again, "Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays. And to call it a life is a lie" (58). Because dreaming of "before" and reliving the "during" consume Rosa, she is unable to live her life.

"After, after, that's all Stella cares," according to Rosa, "Stella is self-indulgent. She wants to wipe out memory" (58). There are two main reasons why Stella is able to forget, or at least move on from, the Holocaust while Rosa is not: she did not lose a child of her own and she committed her own sins that she wants to forget. Both of these reasons involve the same incident. While Stella, Rosa, and Magda are still in the concentration camp, coldhearted Stella steals Magda's shawl and, by doing so, leads to Magda's execution. It is true that Stella also loses most of her family during the Holocaust. Rosa says to Persky, "Out of so many, three" are left (59). All of Stella and Rosa's family is gone by the end of the war. But Stella's losses are not as severe because she does not lose her own child. She is only fourteen while in the camp and perhaps is acting out of necessity and not malice when she steals Magda's shawl. Either way, her actions cause the death of Magda and remain on her conscience. Because she is also forgetting her own wrongs, Stella is more able to forget the wrongs of others.

In the "after" that she is living in, Stella is successful enough to support herself and her Aunt Rosa. Even though Rosa believes that Stella "was cold" and "had no heart," she calls her "Dear One, lovely, beautiful; she called her Angel; she called her all these things for the sake of peace" (15). Stella has earned words of adoration, even if they are insincere, from Rosa because of her support. In addition to working to support herself, Stella "took psychology courses at the New School at night, looking for marriage among the flatulent bachelors in her class" (31). Even if her schooling is more of an attempt to meet a future husband than it is to broaden her own education, Stella is at least taking steps to improve her life. In short, Stella becomes "an ordinary American, indistinguishable" (33). Rosa calls her this as an insult, but it still displays the amount of success that Stella has had in moving on with her life. Rosa goes on to say, "No one could guess what hell she had crawled out of until she opened her mouth and up coiled the smoke of accent" (33). Stella has moved on from the Holocaust that people cannot even recognize her as one of its survivors. The only thing she has linking her to the past is her accent. Her Americanization even spreads to her handwriting. Rosa tells us that "Stella's handwriting, pretending to be American, leav[es] out the little stroke that goes across the 7" (39). This thorough Americanization, along with her success, are signs that Stella has moved on from the Holocaust and is able to live in the present.

Similarly, Persky is able to live his life in the present successfully with little thought at all about the Holocaust. When Persky first meets Rosa in the Laundromat, he tells Rosa that he has already done his laundry and is just there, "to have a visit with the ladies" (22). This behavior shows that, even though he has a wife, he is still out looking for fun with women and also that he has enough leisure time to do nothing with his days except mingle with people at the Laundromat. Later, when they go to pay for lunch at a cafe, he pays the bill and tells Rosa, "Never mind, you got the company of a rich retired taxpayer" (25). He is able to pay for his own meal and the meal of a new acquaintance, while Rosa cannot even pay for her own rent. As they are talking, he explains that he made his fortune in the button industry. The business he built up allows him to provide well for his family. His son attended school and is a philosopher and his two daughters are married to lawyers. While Rosa lives in loneliness, Persky is surrounded by the family that he has made for himself.

Like Rosa, Persky lived in Warsaw before the war. But he somehow escaped the country before the war and did not experience the same Holocaust that Rosa did. Rosa tells him, "You wasn't there. From the movies you know it" (58). Persky is able to live so successfully after the war because he did not suffer the same horrors that Rosa did during it. Being reminded of this "shamed him" (58). Persky realizes that he did not have to suffer the same way that the rest of his people suffered. Still, it is this fact that allows him to live his life so prosperously. When Rosa tells him, "My Warsaw isn't your Warsaw," she is not only referring to the conditions they lived in during the war, but also before the war (19). She insinuates that Persky was from the lower class before he left Warsaw and because of that he lost less when he had to flee. Rosa traveled from a wealthy life into horrible poverty in the concentration camp while Persky moved from a humble life in Warsaw to a relatively equal economic position in Miami. Because he has not lost as much, he is able to realize that, "In Miami, Florida, people aren't more friendly... Nazis we ain't got, even Ku Kluxers we ain't got." He then asks Rosa, "What kind of person are you, you're still afraid?" (19). Persky is not paralyzed by the same fear that Rosa is because he did not live through the camp. He cannot even understand why it the fear is so strong in Rosa.

Unlike Persky and Stella, Rosa is unable to move on with her life past the concentration camp. Often she is stuck in memories from before the war; other times, she is recreating the concentration camp around her; and she replaces meaningful interaction among 'real' people with imaginary conversations with and letters to her dead daughter. When she says, "My Warsaw isn't your Warsaw," she is not only speaking of Persky's poverty, but also her own wealth. Rosa cannot forget how good her life was in Warsaw. She reminds herself how educated she was while imagining her teenage self as "a serious person of seventeen, ambitious, responsible, a future Marie Curie!" (20). This education was also prevalent in her wealthy family. She describes the "house of her girlhood [as] laden with a thousand books. Polish, German, French; her father's Latin books; the shelf of shy literary periodicals" (21). Because of the knowledge and education available to her, life held great possibilities for Rosa when she was younger. Her family's wealth also provides Rosa with a source of pride. She describes gardens and beautiful architecture that made her home even more magnificent than Paris. Her Warsaw was not the ghetto Warsaw. In fact, "Her father, like her mother, mocked at Yiddish; there was not a particle of ghetto left in him" (21). All of this pride in her pre-war self and family prevents Rosa from accepting anything in America that does not live up to those standards.

Even more important than her family's education and wealth to Rosa is her daughter Magda. The loss of Magda is the biggest factor that prevents her from moving on with her life: "To her daughter Magda she wrote in the most excellent literary Polish" (14). She spends time when she could be communicating with the outside world writing letters that can never be delivered to her dead daughter and instead of using the writing as a way of practicing her English, she only writes in her native Polish. The words that she writes are beautiful and clearly require a mastery of language and creative ability. She writes to Magda: "You have grown into a lioness. You are tawny and you stretch apart your furry toes in all their power" (15). In this passage, as an example, she uses metaphor to explain the pride that she has in her daughter. Rosa writes another long letter to Magda at the end of the story describing all the things that she had lost during the war. It is a full account of her life, more complete than anything that she is able to express in words to living people. She obsesses over Magda's shawl to the point that Stella calls it a "fetish." She creates elaborate rituals for the viewing of it and is not allowed by Stella to keep it all the time because she is overly attached to it. Stella realizes that Rosa refuses to let go of the past and by controlling Magda's shawl, attempts to control Rosa's dependence on the memories that it brings out. The shawl is not only a memory for Rosa, but also a direct connection to her daughter. When she pulls the shawl out of the box, she sees and interacts with Magda. Speaking to her in one of these visions, Rosa says, "Butterfly, I am not ashamed of your presence: only come to me, come to me again, if no longer now, then later, always come" (69). Rosa refuses to treat Magda like she is dead; she writes and even speaks to her as though she was living. This inability to move past the loss of her daughter debilitates Rosa and leads to much misery in her American life.

Rosa has the chance to be successful after arriving in New York, but she destroys that opportunity like a "madwoman" when she destroys her own antique store (13). The local newspapers described the scene with a brief article: "Woman axes own biz. Rosa Lublin, 59, owner of a secondhand furniture store on Utica Avenue, Brooklyn, yesterday afternoon deliberately demolished..." (18). People called her crazy for destroying her own business because they did not understand how her past could haunt her so much and how it could prevent her from functioning in her present life. After leaving New York, the life that she builds for herself in Miami is almost a recreation of her experience in the concentration camp. Her dark, dirty hotel room is furnished with a "shrieking pulley" that "swallowed her meager bags of garbage" (13). The language used to describe the room connotes images of the death camp. Rosa remains in her room most of the day in isolation, communicating only with letters. Her meals are tiny and closely rationed: "she stayed in her room and ate two bites of a hard-boiled egg in bed" (14). Even the entire egg would not be a sufficient meal, much less only two bites of it. Rosa's self-starvation leaves her weak and almost unable to bear the Miami sun, which she compares to "an executioner" (14). Rosa does not like living this life that she refers to as a hell worse even than the concentration camp, but it is her own actions that lead her to it. If she could have remained content running her antique store in New York, she could have been successful in living in the "after" as Stella and Persky are.

Stella and Persky are both successful in living their lives after the Holocaust because they did not lose as much during it as Rosa did. Rosa's loss of her family's status and the death of her daughter leave her incapable of enjoying a normal life in America. Persky tells Rosa that "Sometimes a little forgetting is necessary... if you want to get something out of life" (58). To this, Rosa responds, "Get something! Get what?" (58). Rosa is so stuck in her life during and before the Holocaust that she cannot even see the possibility of getting anything out of life after it.