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Were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg traitors? Did they deserve the harshest punishment?

The Hours Count: A Novel - Jillian Cantor

The Hours Count, Jillian Cantor
After WWII, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were arrested for spying, tried, convicted of stealing secrets enabling Russia to obtain an atomic weapon, and summarily executed. Were they guilty? David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother, implicated Julius after his own arrest. His own wife Ruth, had recently been badly burned in an accident. To save his life and hers, did he accuse his brother-in-law of being a traitor, and then to save Ruth, did he implicate and condemn his innocent sister to death? The country was awash in anti-communist fever fueled in part by the madness of McCarthy’s anti-communist investigations. It was a time when the only thing on people’s minds was the bomb, and there were hungry masses who were desperate to find someone to blame for their fears. Were those arrested encouraged to lie and make deals to save themselves to calm those fears? Perhaps justice was not served, but that angry mob, seeking vengeance for the passing of secrets to the Russians was certainly appeased.
Cantor portrays the Rosenbergs as a perfectly normal family. Ethel and Julius seemed devoted to each other and their children. He even operated his own small business. They lived happily in a neighborhood in New York City, at 10 Monroe Street, in a place called Knickerbocker Village, where Jews, communists and socialists felt at home. The Rosenbergs held meetings in their apartment with friends and associates. One day, in 1947, Ethel Rosenberg met her neighbor, Millie Stein, and the two women bonded to each other because of their loneliness. The unusual behavior of their sons caused most other parents to shun them. It is through the connection of these two women, which is made up out of whole cloth that drives the story forward.
Both women appear to be young, naive mothers struggling with somewhat difficult children who need some kind of outside intervention. One child, David Stein, is two years old when we meet him; he does not speak yet and prefers simple repetitive activities. He often simply pounds on walls or bangs on floors to get attention. His father has rejected him because he is not “normal”. The other child, John, son of Ethel Rosenberg, is bright and over aggressive when he is thwarted, often getting physical. Soon, both women have a second child and begin to help each other as neighbors often do. Both also have their children engaged in therapy to help them adjust.
Millie Stein’s husband, Ed, is a Russian who had recently come to the United States. He was a rigid, non-communicative, controlling man who made demands but showed little affection for his family. Julius and Ethel were also of Russian background, but they treated each other warmly. Julius appeared to be not only a loving and considerate husband but also a hands-on father.
At a gathering at Ethel’s apartment, Millie meets Dr. Gold. He is the therapist who later begins to treat her son’s developmental problems. They develop a relationship. At this party, Millie also hears talk of Russia. She is confused because she thought her husband had left all thought of Russia behind when he adopted the United States as his country. She then learns that Ed knew the Rosenbergs before she did and was surprised he had never introduced her to them. However, Millie is an unsophisticated young woman who asks few questions and prefers to maintain the status quo, not creating problems. She doesn’t ask her husband to explain anything about himself or his background.
When Dr. Gold offers to help Millie and David for free, she is overwhelmed and not very suspicious about his motives. He wants to analyze and study Millie and study David, hopefully helping him to learn to function on a more communicative level. Eventually he wants to publish, writing about them, without using their real names. Is his proposal realistic? As the plot plays out, the theme of secrets develops, and the story seems to be two tales in one. The first concerns what may have been the unduly, unjust treatment of the Rosenbergs which ended with their execution in 1953. Did they compromise American security to the extent of which they were accused? Did Ethel even know what her husband was up to, at the time, if he was a spy? The first half of the book develops a little slowly, perhaps because it lays the foundation and most people know the end result; the Rosenbergs were convicted and sentenced to death. The second half sets the stage for the investigation and develops the different motives of the characters. It is then that the story catches fire. The romance that developed between Millie and the doctor who treats David grows. Her life becomes more hopeful and exciting. His kindness seems to give the boy some serenity and eases his frustration, as he encourages him to find alternate ways to communicate. The second also explores the methods used by the FBI and other law enforcement during that time.
Questions will rise in the reader’s mind. Was Dr. Gold the man he presented himself to be? Was he really a doctor? Was Ed the man he presented himself to be? Were the only ones true to themselves actually the Rosenbergs? In the book, it would seem that way. After doing some research, I discovered that the Rosenberg children, Richie and John were adopted by the Meeropols. As adults, they tried to clear their parents’ names, especially that of their mother when new evidence was revealed, but they were unsuccessful. They do believe now, that their father was guilty, but that their mother was not.
The author has written a very sympathetic account of the Rosenberg’s lives in which she presents a very plausible scenario to show that at least one, if not both, could have been framed by others in order to save themselves, and in fact, decades later, two others convicted of spying for Russia at that time, did eventually tell the truth and at least attempt to clear Ethel’s name. One of those was her own brother who confessed he lied  because his wife meant more to him than his sister. Should Ethel, at least, be granted a pardon for the sins for which she was condemned, sins that were never committed by her? Were the Rosenberg’s guilty? Were they sacrificial lambs, convenient victims because of their ties to communism, their Russian background and their Jewish religion at a time when the effects of the Holocaust were still ripe, and anti-Semitism was still alive and well? Who better than a couple who were perceived to have betrayed not only America, but their fellow Jews? Were the tactics used to convict them ethical, moral or legal? Was Millie a credible character? Was her behavior at the end justified? The reader will wonder about many questions, not only those I presented.