Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed on June 19, 1953, the only Americans put to death during the Cold War between the United Sates and the former Soviet Union.
In the minds of many Americans during Sen. Joseph McCarthy's 1950's witchhunt to find Communists under every bed—perhaps still today—the Rosenbergs were executed for providing the former Soviet Union with the secret to constructing the atomic bomb. The actual charges against the couple were "conspiracy to commit espionage."
Were they guilty, and if they were, did they deserve to be executed?
The fact of their execution still incites debate. And Jillian Cantor, 37, author of The Hours Count: A Novel, which debuts next month, doesn't shy away from the ongoing controversy. Was it the inextricable fear of "the other, communism, or anti-Semitism," which sealed their conviction?, she asks. Both of the Rosenbergs were first-generation Jewish-Americans, born in New York to immigrant parents.
Cantor, who grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, first heard about the couple in her high school American history class. She went on to graduate from Penn State University with a bachelor's degree in English. Cantor and her husband moved to Tucson in 2000, when she enrolled in the UA MFA program.
Her first book for adults, Margot, a post-Holocaust fantasy about Anne Frank's sister living secretly in the United States, was greeted with acclaim upon its publication in 2013.
It wasn't until a writer friend suggested Cantor delve into the Rosenbergs' story that she began to consider it. Melding the historical account with fiction stuck with her after she read a letter that the Rosenbergs left on their execution day for their two young sons. "Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience," they wrote.
"I didn't realize that Julius and Ethel were parents," says Cantor. "I empathized with Ethel as a mother. I have two young sons, who were similar ages to her boys when she was first arrested" on Aug. 11, 1950. "I started wondering, 'Was she innocent?'"
The Hours Count is a mystery seen through the eyes of Millie Stein, a fictional New York neighbor who lives down the hall of their apartment building. What went on at the couple's secretive political meetings? Millie tells herself she's not interested in politics, which changes as the two young wives and their young sons become friends.
The book's intrigue revolves around the public's fear of communism and the rising power of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, from 1947 to 1991, especially in the 1950s.
Who's guilty of being a communist? Who's betraying whom? In The Hours Count, not only are the activities of the Rosenbergs suspicious; so are those of Millie's Russian immigrant husband, her psychologist friend, the FBI and the KGB. All are mixed up in a quagmire of charges and counter-charges.
Alternating between the back story of Millie's and Ethel's friendship and the Rosenbergs' execution day, Cantor raises provocative questions about the search for truth, the aftermath of a death sentence, and the possible withholding of essential evidence.
Just this August, Michael and Robert Meeropol called on President Obama to acknowledge that their biological mother, Ethel Rosenberg, was wrongly convicted and executed. In a New York Times opinion piece, the brothers insist that "the government held her hostage to coerce our father to talk, and when that failed, it extracted false statements to secure her wrongful conviction" ("The Meeropol Brothers: Exonerate Our Mother, Ethel Rosenberg," New York Times, Aug. 10, 2015.
"I'm wondering if a mother was executed today," asks Cantor, "would there be outrage in our society?" She recalls being on a book tour after Margot was published, when a woman asked about her next book. When Cantor replied that it was about the Rosenbergs, a collective gasp arose from the audience.
While researching The Hours Count, she began to believe "Ethel was innocent, that all she did was type notes. I began to have the sense there were people who were spying who never were arrested or executed" during the 1950s. For example, notes Cantor, there was Ted Hall, who at 19, was the youngest scientist to work on the Manhattan Project to come up with an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. He was suspected of being an atomic spy but was never arrested, and died in England in 1974. Evidence was released against Hall in the mid-1990s.
Historical fiction has emerged as Cantor's go-to genre. Her next book, Proof of Unusual Daring, is about a stamp engraver in Austria, who works with the anti-Nazi resistance. The book, she says, goes back and forth between the 1930s and 1989.
"I never thought I would be someone who would write historical novels, but when I found history I was interested in, I immersed myself in it," she explains. "As a fiction writer. I'm much more interested in character and story but I want the history to be accurate and to be there as part of the novel. But I don't want the reader to be hit on the head by facts."
The Hours Count: A Novel
by Jillian Cantor
JUNE 19, 1953
On the night Ethel is supposed to die, the air is too heavy to breathe. The humidity clings to my skin, my face wet with sweat, or maybe tears. It is hard to tell the difference. To understand one thing from another anymore. It's as if the world were ending the way I always knew and imagined it would. And yet I'm still here. Still driving. Still breathing, somehow, despite the heavy air, despite what I have done. The sky is on the edge of dusk. No mushroom cloud. No bodies turned to dust.
I'm driving Ed's Fleetmaster up Route 9, the road to Ossining, along the sweltering Hudson. There are a lot of cars, all headed the way I am, slowing me down. I push anxiously on the gas, wanting the miles to speed along, wanting to get there before it's too late. I hope the car will make it, that I haven't damaged anything that will cause it to stall now, at the worst possible time.
I wish I could've left earlier, but I had to wait until I was able to take Ed's car. I suppose you even might say I've stolen the car now, but Ed and I are still married legally. And can a wife really steal a car from her own legal husband?
So much has already been stolen from me, from all of us. From Ethel. And that's why I'm driving now.
My stomach turns at the thought of what might happen to me when I tell the truth at last. And I glance in the rearview mirror at the backseat. For so long, I have taken David with me everywhere, and it takes me a moment to remember he's not here now. It's just me in the car and David's gone.
But Jake will be there, at Sing Sing, I remind myself. He has to be. And if I can just see him one last time, one more moment, then it will make everything else I am about to do, everything I have lost and am losing by doing this, all worth it.
I think now about the curve of Jake's neck, the way it smelled of pipe smoke and pine trees, just the way the cabin on Esopus Creek smelled. I inhale, wanting him to be here, to be real and in front of me again. But instead my lungs fill with that thick air, the dank smell of the Hudson, a humid summer afternoon turned almost-evening. A few fireflies begin to gather just outside my window, their bodies glowing, a little early. It is not quite dark. Not yet the Sabbath. I'm almost there, so close, and I will the darkness to hold off. Just a little longer.
Up ahead, there are dozens of red taillights and I realize that traffic has come to a standstill. I stop and put my head out the window. Farther up the road, it looks like there are barricades set up. Police with flashlights, though I'm hoping FBI, too. I switch on the radio and listen anxiously, wanting so badly for there to be good news. A last minute stay. A decision to halt things until after the Sabbath has passed. More time.
I switch the stations, anxious for something. Anything. But all I get is music: Ella Fitzgerald singing "Guilty." It feels like a cruel joke, and I switch again. At last I find news, but it's not good. President Eisenhower has denied a stay of execution, saying Ethel and Julie have condemned tens of millions of people to death all around the world. No. Ethel and Julie are still set to die at eight p.m. An hour from now.
I switch the radio off, pull the car to the side of the road, and kill the engine. I take a cigarette from my purse and light it with shaking hands. I inhale the smoke and for a moment consider not getting out of the car but just waiting here in the line of traffic. But I know I can't.
I push open my door and step out into the steamy air. I stomp out the cigarette with my worn heel. I stare at the back window, and picture David there on the other side, staring back at me, his round brown eyes like the pennies he so loved to stack. "Come on now," I would tell him if he were here. "We have to hurry if we're going to find Dr. Jake."
His mouth would twitch slightly at the mention of Jake's name, and I'd wonder if maybe it might even be a little smile.
Jake's here, I tell myself instead. All I have to do is find Jake.
And I shut the car door and begin running up the road.
The first time I ever saw Ethel Rosenberg, she was round and bright as a beach ball. She stood on the sidewalk in front of our building at 10 Monroe Street in Knickerbocker Village, clutching a bouquet of yellow roses in one hand, her little boy in the other, and despite all her brightness and girth I might not have even noticed her at all if it hadn't been for David, who decided at the very moment we walked by her to reach up and swipe the roses from her hand.
I saw them in a blur, yellow and green flashes tumbling all over the sidewalk, and then Ethel let out a short, startled cry.
"David," I yelled at him, realizing what he'd done. "What's wrong with you?" David was almost two, but he wasn't prone to tantrums, fits of rage, or grabbing things from strangers on the street. But then I realized what it was—the yellow. David was recently infatuated with the color, drawing circles for hours with his yellow crayons. Suns, I would tell him, begging him to repeat the word after me, but he kept drawing his yellow circles, without even the slightest sound.
I bent down to gather up the flowers, and I noticed David was crying, silently. He hated it when I yelled at him, and I immediately felt bad for being so cross. It was exactly what Dr. Greenberg had told me not to do, and here I was, doing it anyway. "I'm so sorry," I murmured, handing Ethel back her flowers. "He didn't mean to. . ."
"Yes he did," her little boy shot back at me. I judged him to be older than David, though I couldn't be sure how much, and he spoke to me like that, so clearly and completely. And, rudely. . .
I nodded at him. David had meant to. But what else was there to say?
We had only lived on Monroe Street a week by then—David, Ed, and I—and I had thought, however stupidly at the time, that it might change us. The outdoor playground, the scores of other children, the loving families that nested all about Knickerbocker Village like indigenous birds, that somehow we would become shiny like all the rest of them just by virtue of living here. But aside from the steam heat, the laundry room, and the elevators, nothing was different in Knickerbocker Village than it had been in our efficiency above my mother's apartment on Delancey Street.
From THE HOURS COUNT by Jillian Cantor. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 Jillian Cantor.