Fiction’s Fixation on the Rosenberg Execution

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Last week, I mentioned to a few friends and family members that I picked up Jillian Cantor’s The Hours Count, a fictional look at Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Immediately, the reactions were strong: “it was a national disgrace!” “But how innocent were they, really?”

A married couple who were executed as atomic spies the same night in 1953, despite international protests, the Rosenbergs faced trial and sentencing over 60 years in the past. Yet their story still has the power to divide people in internet comments sections, families and historians.

The layers of pathos and complexity in the story are many. Because the Rosenbergs were Jewish, many, particularly abroad, felt they were being scapegoated. Although they had been essentially sold out by Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, the Rosenbergs refused to testify against anyone else or name names, even though many speculated that Ethel had been arrested mostly to get Julius to break and implicate other members of his spy ring. Their willingness to die rather than betray others or each other exerted a hold over the public imagination, intensifying the hatred of many and the support of others, a divide that echoes until today.

The night the Rosenbergs died, their two young children, Michael and Robert, were deliberately orphaned by the state. They were eventually adopted by Abe Meeropol — who wrote “Strange Fruit” — and his family. And the night they died (Ethel in a particularly gruesome manner) signaled the apex of the McCarthy era, the moment when paranoia took over. When the Rosenbergs were alleged to have done the bulk of their espionage, Russia was our ally. By the time they died, the Cold War had begun in earnest.

For all these reasons, their story has fascinated writers ever since. Take the famous first paragraphs of Sylvia Plath’s the Bell Jar:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me at every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves. I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

The Hours Count, Cantor’s new novel (her last book, Margot, imagined Anne Frank’s sister a survivor living secretly in America), is told from the perspective of Millie, a fictional neighbor of the Rosenbergs in the Knickerbocker housing complex in New York. This extremely naive narrator befriends the lady down the hall, who is Ethel Rosenberg. They bond, harried mom to harried mom, and Millie thus gets unwittingly swept up in the drama of the FBI vs. the Rosenbergs. Thanks to Ethel and her own shady husband, Millie’s family faces a different kind of danger.

The historical doom that hovers over Cantor’s characters provides quite a bit of suspense throughout the reading process, and she makes a convincing case by proxy. Millie’s relative powerlessness within her marriage and her family seem to remind us that this is ten years pre-Friedan, and women were very much at the mercy of society. The contrast with Millie’s trapped position highlights both Ethel’s strength, and her persecution by the government, making her story stand out as even more remarkably.

There’s very high probability that readers will do what I did once they put the book down — head right to the internet and read as many documents about the original case as they can. It’s all there, from the Rosenberg’s touching letter to their sons to summaries of the trial to later articles revealing that Ethel’s brother perjured himself and cables seemed to implicate Julius, but not his wife, in lower-level spying.

Cantor’s effort follows E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, published in 1971, only two decades after the event. Doctorow’s novel follows a character loosely based on the Rosenbergs’ son through the political tumult of the ’60s, while also flashing back to the events around the trial. Although the characters in the novel (a boy and a girl, Susan and Daniel) are only very loosely based on the Rosenberg (now Meeropol) boys, their reaction to the story is profound and painful:

Michael Meeropol professed that he is a fan of Doctorow’s “The Book of Daniel.” “I found it an excellent work of fiction, an interesting political take,” [Michael Meeropol said]. He added that since he knew the real Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, he “never got confused” about what was fact and what was fiction. Robert, on the other hand, admitted that his feelings about Doctorow’s book were much more negative than his brother’s. “There’s no accounting for taste,” he said, with a laugh.

It’s possible that the Rosenberg trial has a particular significance in our post 9/11, post-Snowden-Assange era. But the exertion it holds over our memories goes beyond a particular set of circumstances.

What we know today is that Julius did engage in espionage, although it probably wasn’t atomic. Ethel seemed to be aware of his activities, and was maybe even supportive, but there was no evidence that she actively aided him, and the main testimony against her was fabricated by her brother. Thus with hindsight we understand that what really killed them was a political climate of fear, particularly after Russia began its nuclear testing. There were so many moments where the government could have turned back the mechanism of death but didn’t; the lesson about the terrifying power of the state is a dark one, likely to provide fodder for novelists for a long time to come.