Look out for Jillian Cantor's new book, The Lost Letter, on sale now!
On June 19, 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for conspiring to commit espionage. The day Ethel was first arrested in 1950, she left her two young sons with a neighbor, and she never came home to them again. Brilliantly melding fact and fiction, Jillian Cantor reimagines the life of that neighbor, and the life of Ethel and Julius, an ordinary-seeming Jewish couple who became the only Americans put to death for spying during the Cold War.
A few years earlier, in 1947, Millie Stein moves with her husband, Ed, and their toddler son, David, into an apartment on the eleventh floor in Knickerbocker Village on New York’s Lower East Side. Her new neighbors are the Rosenbergs. Struggling to care for David, who doesn’t speak, and isolated from other “normal” families, Millie meets Jake, a psychologist who says he can help David, and befriends Ethel, also a young mother. Millie and Ethel’s lives as friends, wives, mothers, and neighbors entwine, even as chaos begins to swirl around the Rosenbergs and the FBI closes in. Millie begins to question her own husband’s political loyalty and her marriage, and whether she can trust Jake and the deep connection they have forged as they secretly work with David. Caught between these two men, both of whom have their own agendas, and desperate to help her friends, Millie will find herself drawn into the dramatic course of history.
As Millie—trusting and naive—is thrown into a world of lies, intrigue, spies and counterspies, she realizes she must fight for what she believes, who she loves, and what is right.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
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 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, 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. 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’s 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 lived on Monroe Street only 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.
“It’s all right,” Ethel said. “They’re only flowers. And you’ve gathered them all back up. No harm done, see, John?” She handed the bouquet to her boy and she turned back to me. She patted David on the head and his sobs worsened, shaking his shoulders, but he still did not make a sound. “You’re new around here?” she asked, turning back toward me, her voice clear and sweet now.
I hugged David close to my hip, willing him to stop so that we might have a moment to befriend someone in the building. So far the other mothers at the playground had eyed me and David with trepidation. And why shouldn’t they? When David would only sit by himself, silently stacking rocks in even piles, while all the other children laughed and shouted and ran around the courtyard together.
“I’m Millie Stein.” I reached out for her hand to shake it. “And this is my son, David.” Her grip was firm but delicate, yet her fingers looked decidedly swollen, like the kosher sausages Mr. Bergman sold in the butcher shop.
“Millie,” she said. “Nice to meet you. I’m Ethel Rosenberg. And this is John.”
“You live here, in Knickerbocker Village?” I asked her. “I haven’t seen you at the playground yet.”
She looked down. “We don’t get to the playground too often these days,” she said softly. I assumed it was because of her large, heaving belly, her being so firmly in the family way—about eight months along, I judged—remembering how uncomfortable I’d been at that stage and trying to imagine feeling that way with another child to tote along.
But at the mention of the word playground, John suddenly clung to Ethel’s bright dress, twisting it between his fingers. “I want to go to the playground,” he whined. Ethel shook her head, and he began to cry. Not the way David cried, silently, but loud, disturbing cries, reminding me of the feral cats that used to run around outside our apartment on Delancey, howling at all hours of the night in hunger or pain.
Ethel offered me a fleeting smile, and then she quickly pulled John and her round body back toward our building. “I’ve got to get him inside, but maybe I’ll see you around,” she called over her shoulder.
I could hear John crying even after she walked inside, the sound coming through the brick walls like a siren.
David, however, had stopped. His eyes followed after them with what I imagined to be curiosity.
DAVID AND I were on our way to visit Mr. Bergman that morning we first met Ethel and John, and after parting ways, David and I continued walking slowly down Monroe Street toward Market Street and Kauffman’s Meats, the kosher butcher shop once run by my father and, since his death five years ago, run by Mr. Bergman, his business partner.
I watched our footsteps making shadows on the sidewalk, overrun quickly by people humming by all around us. Now that the war was so firmly over, the city moved again. People smiled, the crowds on the sidewalks bright flashes of warmth and laughter. People everywhere were happy. Or at least it seemed that way to me. Every woman I saw seemed to have the bright pink stain of love and happiness across her cheeks, a look I tried to replicate myself with Helena Rubinstein blush, but somehow when I saw my own face staring back at me in the mirror, it never seemed quite the same.
Mr. Bergman set aside a brisket for me every Friday, free of charge. His best cut, he said, and we both pretended that that was why David and I came to see him each week. The truth was, the inside of the shop, the smells of meat, Mr. Bergman’s thinning gray hair and thick gray beard, still seemed to be a familiar little piece of my father.
“Mildred! And boychik!” His voice rang out across the counter as we walked in through the glass front door, and the bell clanged cheerfully behind us. The sound startled David and he jumped a little. He is not deaf, I reassured myself yet again despite Ed’s insistence that he must be.
Mr. Bergman waved and I waved back. David clung to the side of my dress until Mr. Bergman leaned across the counter. “I have a present for you, boychik.” He opened his hand to reveal a yellow gumdrop and David took it and chewed it greedily.
“You spoil him,” I said, but I smiled, enjoying how this moment felt normal for David. I remembered the gumdrops Mr. Bergman would sneak to my sister, Susan, and me when we came into the shop as girls.
“And for you,” he told me, “a bigger cut this week. Because I hear you are having company tonight to enjoy the Shabbos.”
I nodded and thanked him. It was the first Friday night in our new apartment, and everyone from my family was coming to us tonight: my mother, Bubbe Kasha, Susan, Sam, and the twins. Whenever there was a family get-together, we normally all flocked to my sister Susan’s house, so this would be a first—everyone coming to me.
“How is the new place?” Mr. Bergman asked as he handed my brown-paper-wrapped brisket across the counter and David chewed happily on the candy.
“Wonderful,” I said, though I had not yet decided for myself whether it was truly wonderful or not, but it certainly did have a lot of nice, modern features. “There’s an elevator that takes us all the way up to the eleventh floor.”
“Your mother told me.”
I smiled, unsurprised. I was sure all of Delancey Street had heard about the elevator multiple times, even the feral alley cats. Which was a change for my mother, whose usual favorite topic of conversation was my older sister Susan, her adorable baby girl twins, and her recent move to the suburbs in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
“And how is Ed?” Mr. Bergman asked, his voice taking on a slightly higher pitch, a peculiar end note. I often thought Mr. Bergman saw Ed the way Ed’s mother, Lena, saw me. With disdain and mistrust. Though I couldn’t imagine that Mr. Bergman knew much about me and Ed, beneath the surface, it was almost as if some shadow of my father still existed within him. He worried about me.
“Ed is well,” I said. Our weekly dance.
Mr. Bergman frowned. “And he isn’t having a problem at work with this loyalty oath everyone is talking about now?”
“Why should he?” I asked, though I swallowed hard, not willing to admit to Mr. Bergman that I had already worried as much but had been afraid to broach the subject with Ed myself. Ed clung to his Russian past like a winter coat, something that enveloped him absolutely even though it had been four years since he’d come to America.
“I just thought . . . Well, never mind.” Mr. Bergman waved his hand in the air. Behind us another customer demanded service by clearing her throat loudly and talking in Yiddish to what looked like her mother. Mr. Bergman held up his hand to indicate he’d be with her in a moment.
“Millie,” he said, leaning over across the meat case so he could lower his voice to a whisper. “I’m worried about you. Things are not the same as they used to be for a Russian Jew in New York. It’s not like it was when our relatives came over forty years ago.” Mr. Bergman shook his head. “They say Stalin is the next Hitler, you know? And what will happen if he gets the bomb?”
“You worry too much,” I told him, and I grabbed my brisket and David and headed back toward Knickerbocker Village.
Mr. Bergman was not the only one who worried about the bomb. The truth was, I thought of it often—we all did—the idea that this utterly destructive thing could come suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, all the way across the ocean from Russia, instantly turning New York City into dust. We could be the next Hiroshima, Nagasaki. And no amount of blush could hide this fear.
As David and I walked through the front entrance of 10 Monroe Street, I imagined the bomb coming just then, the imprint of our bodies etched forever wordlessly in the ground where the two thirteen-story brick buildings of Knickerbocker Village once stood, our remnants just shadows, nothing more. In midtown, Ed’s body would become a shadow beneath his office building. And somewhere across the ocean, Stalin would be laughing at us.
But it didn’t happen, and David and I rode the elevator back up to the eleventh floor as peacefully as we’d come down an hour earlier, stopping at each floor along the way, as David wanted each button to light up yellow. I allowed him to do it if only to keep him from crying again.
On the long ride up, I thought about my sister, Susan. She and her husband, Sam, had retreated to the suburbs of Elizabeth last year shortly before the twins were born. Susan told me there was safety in the suburbs, that no one would think to bomb there because life was more spread out, slower, less people as targets. And Time magazine had recently reported the same thing. Not that I was surprised, as Susan was always right—or, at least, she acted as if she were. I wondered if Ed and I would’ve been safer and happier there, too, rather than here in Knickerbocker Village, but Ed had insisted on staying in the city so he’d be closer to work and to his mother. And since Susan had left, I knew I needed to stay, too. Someone had to be close by for my mother and Bubbe Kasha. Besides, Ed was giving me steam heat, an elevator, a playground, and, at some point, even a nursery school for David. And our one-bedroom apartment here on the eleventh floor was quite an upgrade from our tiny one-room apartment on Delancey.
And as Ed said, with an accusing lilt to his thick Russian accent, why did we need any more than this with only one child?
Time had also reported that the American family was thriving as never before, that the average man and woman now hoped for three children. Susan was well on her way, but three? I couldn’t imagine. I could barely even imagine two, of taking care of David and a baby, and so I had taken special and quite secret steps to make sure this would not happen.
Ed was none the wiser. Ed, who had repeatedly told me that all the fears about the bomb here were silly.
It’s never going to happen in New York, he always said, waving the concerns away with the trail of smoke from his cigar, and I didn’t understand how he could be so certain about a city he had known only for a short time. Women have many babies, he told me. That’s what they do. He whispered it in my ear at night like a love song, in his thick Russian accent, just before he took his pants off and rolled on top of me.
WHEN THE ELEVATOR at long last stopped on the eleventh floor and the door opened, David and I nearly ran right into Ethel again, as she was waiting to ride the elevator down. But this time, she was alone.
“So we meet again,” Ethel said, and she laughed, as David and I stepped out. I wondered what had happened to John and how Ethel managed to be going out without him. Since David had begun showing some peculiarities in his behavior, my mother had lost interest in watching him, so now he was always with me. Sometimes I dreamed about the solace of being alone, even if only for an hour. And I was torn for a moment between feeling jealous of Ethel and excited that she lived on the same floor as us. Perhaps we really could be friends, and I imagined David playing with John, me sharing afternoon coffee with Ethel. It had been a while since I’d had a friend this close by, not since before David was born. On Delancey all my old friends had married before me and moved or we’d drifted apart, and in the room above my mother’s apartment our only companions had been her and Bubbe Kasha.
But Ethel propped open the elevator door with her thick fingers and seemed a bit impatient for us to get out, shuffling her feet as if she were in a hurry. David reached for the elevator buttons again, and I grabbed for his hands. “No. No more buttons, darling,” I told him, and he shrank until his eyes caught onto Ethel’s dress, the same bright yellow-and-red one as earlier, but now I noticed her brown curls were also topped with a dramatic red hat. Ethel was quite short, a few inches shorter than my very average height, but she held herself in such a way that I hadn’t noticed it earlier on the street.
“I have to run,” she said, pushing past us into the elevator. “I have studio time and I’m late.”
“Studio time? You’re on the radio?”
“Oh, no.” She laughed. “I’m making a recording for my John so he’ll have my voice to listen to when I’m in the hospital for the new baby.”
“Oh,” I said. “How lovely.”
She smiled and touched her free hand to her hat shyly, in a way that made me think someone else had told her this was not such a lovely idea. I wondered about her husband and if he was like Ed when it came to money. I guessed not. Studio time sounded expensive.
“I should have you and John over sometime,” I said as I watched her press the button to go down to the ground floor.
But before she had time to answer, the elevator doors shut and Ethel was riding down to her studio.
OUR APARTMENT WAS DARK, the air inside quiet and cool. Ed was still at work, and I prayed David would actually lie down and take a nap so I could have a little time to myself.
I switched on the lights, unwrapped the brisket, and put it in the oven, and after I settled David into his crib, which I understood he was getting way too big for but was trying to follow Dr. Greenberg’s advice to coddle him just a little while longer, I lit myself a cigarette and sat at our scratched wooden table. The Sabbath was only a few hours away, and Susan and Sam and the twins would arrive before sundown. They never took the twins on the train into the city, but tonight they had decided to make an exception in order to see our new place.
I inhaled the smoke from my cigarette and then exhaled. My sister and her babies and all their glowing perfection. Motherhood seemed to suit Susan, made her even prettier than she always had been, which I might have once thought impossible, but, no. Caring for the girls gave her rosier cheeks and a new sheen to her vibrant black hair and even made her laughter sound brighter. And never mind that she’d carried two babies at once, the extra weight had dropped off her waistline just like that and now her figure looked more perfect than ever. The twins were only nine months, but they already babbled and smiled and had started to make sounds that vaguely resembled dada. Sam is just in love, Susan had gushed the last time I’d seen her a few weeks earlier when we’d taken the train out to Elizabeth for Sunday brunch. And why wouldn’t he be? His children—and his wife—were perfect, and thinking about it made me well up with both jealousy and sadness.
Motherhood had done no favors for my figure. I was always a slightly heavier, slightly shorter, slightly duller version of my older sister. My mother used to tell me my features were ordinary—and not unkindly, just a statement of fact. I’d always had nice clear skin and pretty pale brown eyes, but I was neither tall nor short, beautiful nor ugly, the kind of woman who can blend into a crowd and be utterly forgettable. My most distinguishing feature was my shoulder-length medium brown curls, often impossibly unruly. I loved David, but my waist was a few inches thicker than it once was, my curls were forever a mess, and the last time Susan saw me she took one look at the bags under my eyes and told me I wasn’t sleeping enough. Yes, David was exhausting. He would be two soon and had yet to utter even a single sound. Ed claimed his ears must not work, or possibly his brain, and Dr. Greenberg said it was me, that I was too cold with him, too cross with him. Indulge him a little more, why don’t you, he had said, the entire weight of his bald head sinking into his frown.
And yet I’d tried everything: coaxing him, playing with him, listening harder, hugging him more, punishing him, yelling at him. I read Parents magazine with a rapt hunger for answers that were never there. I learned about illnesses and tantrums, but nothing at all about what to do with a child like mine who just would not speak.
I heard a knock at the door, interrupting my thoughts. I checked the time, but it was only three thirty, too early for anyone to arrive for dinner and too early for Ed to be home from work. For a moment, I wondered if it was Ethel back from the studio and wanting to take me up on my offer for coffee. “Coming,” I called, but not too loud so as not to wake David, and I squashed out my cigarette, stood, and smoothed down my dress with my hands, then smoothed my curls.
I opened the door and saw my mother standing there in the hallway, looking as if she’d just swallowed a lemon, a frown so big enveloping her plump cheeks that it seemed to weigh them down, to make her entire face sag. “You’re so early,” I said, opening the door wider, “I don’t have anything ready yet.”
She pushed past me into the apartment. “Dinner is canceled,” she said. “Susan just sent me a telegram. Thank goodness she figured it out.”
The telephone operators had been on strike for two weeks, rendering our new shiny black telephone entirely useless. We had been promised a party line as part of our forty-six dollars a month rent, which also included electricity. It was an excellent deal, according to Ed. Not so excellent when the phone was unworkable because of the operators’ strike.
“Canceled?” I asked, trying not to let the disappointment I felt seep into my voice.
“There’s a smallpox outbreak in the city,” my mother said. “Susan heard on the radio and she can’t bring the twins into the city under these conditions.”
Susan had yet to bring the twins into the city under any conditions, and I fought the urge to roll my eyes. “Smallpox outbreak?” I’d heard nothing of it yet, but I hadn’t listened to the radio all morning. David did not like the sound and he would cry when I’d turn it on—more evidence that he could at least hear. I’d asked Ed for a television, hoping that David would be drawn more to it, the visual stimulus, but he’d yet to oblige what he called my expensive whims.
“There’s going to be inoculation clinics in the streets starting Monday,” my mother said. “We’ll go. You’ll come for me in the morning.”
“Is that really necessary?” I murmured, thinking ahead to the way David would react to an inoculation in the street. It had been bad enough when Dr. Greenberg had inoculated him for whooping cough in the office, after I’d read the terrifying article about it in Parents. David had clung to the examining table and kicked and cried such hard, silent tears that I thought his entire small body might burst.
“You should want to die of smallpox instead?” my mother asked, putting her hands on her wide hips. She wore her pale gray dress like a sack, and her hands revealed the lumpiness of her large stomach underneath.
Would I want to die of smallpox? It seemed closer, more immediate than Stalin’s bomb, but I also imagined the process would be slower and more painful. Should the bomb come and take us, I might never even know what happened. And it would take me and David, instantly and simultaneously. What would happen to David if I should die of something else on my own?
“Of course not,” I said to my mother. “I’ll come by for you Monday morning.” I paused. “You’ll still come for dinner tonight, though? And Bubbe Kasha, too?”
“Oh goodness no. I feel like I’m risking my life just having come here. All these people living here in one place. All the germs that could be in that . . . elevator.”
“Well, then you should have sent a telegram,” I said, unable to keep the annoyance I was feeling with her from my voice. I had been looking forward to the dinner with my family, my sister—perfect babies and all—and now it would just be Ed and me and David. Alone. I had a brisket enough to feed at least ten. And there was no option to skip Shabbat, not for Ed anyway.
“You should want for me to spend money on a telegram when I can use my own two feet?” She waved her hand in the air, blew me a kiss, and then as quickly as she’d come she was gone.
From the back room I heard the sounds of the crib bars rattling. David was awake.
I was raised Jewish—and only the second generation in America at that. My grandparents came over from Russia in 1901, but for them, and later for me, our religion always felt more cultural than spiritual. Growing up, Shabbat dinner was something we’d attend at Bubbe Kasha’s and Zayde Jerome’s apartment, but not every week. Only when my father felt like it. Some weeks he was too tired and wanted to stay in our apartment and rest, which to him meant eating my mother’s terrible split pea soup, smoking a cigarette, and then listening to Jack Haley on The Wonder Show. As he always said, he could believe in God and listen to the radio on his night of rest.
To be married to a kosher butcher who doesn’t even want to attend Shabbat dinner, my mother would say and cluck her tongue, and then she would light our candles. She always lit the candles and we’d always say a quick prayer. But then she would smile and pull up a chair next to the radio and eat pea soup there with our father, and Susan and I would hear the two of them laughing from the bedroom in the back of the apartment.
But Ed grew up back in Russia, much more religious than I did here. He insisted on a formal Shabbat dinner every Friday night. We used to go to the one at his mother Lena’s apartment, which was regularly attended by Ed’s younger brother, Leo, Leo’s wife, Betty, and their two daughters, but more recently I had told Ed that I would make the dinner for us. Back on Delancey Street my mother and Bubbe Kasha would walk up the steps to join us each week.
I had offered, not because I wanted to make the dinner or even cared so much about the ritual of Shabbat, but because I didn’t enjoy attending the dinner at Lena’s, the way her piercing green eyes bored holes into me. It was as if they knew my secret and she hated me for it, though there was no way she could know—Ed had no idea about the diaphragm I’d gotten from Dr. Greenberg. And I’d told no one, not even my mother or Susan.
But then I understood that wasn’t what it was at all. The last time we’d been there, two months earlier, Lena had taken me aside just before dinner. “I raised boys, you know,” she’d said, her voice curling, so I didn’t want to point out that, technically, she’d raised only Leo. Ed had grown up in Russia with an aunt and had moved to America as an adult to join Lena, only four years ago. “And neither one of them had the . . . problem that David has.” She frowned, and her green eyes felt hot against my face, as if they really and truly could burn me.
“David is fine,” I shot back at her. “Dr. Greenberg says he’s just taking his time to develop, that’s all.” That was, of course, only part of what Dr. Greenberg had said, but that was the part that had to be right.
She wagged her finger in my face. “You don’t love him enough,” she said, but it wasn’t clear whether she was referring to David or to Ed. I didn’t answer, and when we got back to Delancey Street that night, I told Ed that I would cook us Shabbat dinner from then on. I blamed it on my mother and Bubbe Kasha, who was getting old and had a hard time with her memory, and so far they had joined us each week.
But now, tonight, I had a brisket in the oven, enough to feed ten, and no one coming to dinner.
ED WALKED IN the door just after five, just after I’d gotten David settled with a pile of brightly colored blocks on the floor by our window overlooking Monroe Street. I’d pulled all the yellows out and had given them to him, and he sat there and stacked them over and over again, seemingly contented, lulled by their brightness. The brisket was done and I had it on the table, along with our Shabbat candles. I smoked a cigarette nervously, waiting for Ed to arrive, watching out the window at all the men in suits rushing by on their way home from work. From this high up, they were tiny, and they all looked the same, cloaked in dark suits, dark hats, and I could not make out which one was Ed until I heard the door opening, and then I knew I’d missed him entirely.
He entered the apartment wordlessly and walked toward the narrow kitchen. I heard him rustling in the cabinets, pulling out a glass and pouring his vodka. And then he entered the living room, glass in hand.
He didn’t lean in to kiss me, as my father had always done with my mother when he returned home from work each evening, or even stoop down to pat David on the head, as I remember my father doing with me. Instead, he simply sat on the couch, downed his vodka, and then he said, “Where is everyone?”
“They’re not coming.” I squashed my cigarette out in the ashtray on the coffee table just next to where Ed rested his feet.
“What do you mean not coming?” he asked.
“There’s some kind of smallpox outbreak, I guess,” I said. “So Susan didn’t want to bring the twins into the city, and my mother and Bubbe Kasha thought it better to stay home.” I tried to read his face, to judge his reaction. But his expression was blank, his gaze fixed straight ahead on the beige wall, and I couldn’t tell if he was angry or just tired. I thought about what Mr. Bergman asked, about whether Ed was having trouble with work now that everyone was making such a big deal out of Truman’s loyalty oath. Ed’s Russian accent, even four years after he’d come to America, was so thick, so obvious, that it worried me that it would brand him now that everyone had started worrying about Stalin and Russia and American loyalty in a way they hadn’t before. “I have the brisket ready,” I added. “And the candles.”
He finished off his vodka and put the empty, sweating glass down on the coffee table. “You should have telephoned me at work,” he said. “Then I would have had time to let Mother know she would have three more at the table tonight.”
“I couldn’t,” I said quickly. “The phone operators’ strike, remember? No calls are going through.” Though the truth was, I wouldn’t have called him at work anyway. And now it would be too late to go to Lena’s, there was no way to telephone her, and besides, the brisket was already done. Ed would not let a cooked brisket go to waste. “Come on,” I said to him, sitting down on the couch next to him and gently reaching my hand around to the back of his neck. “Let’s eat.” Ed had a thick neck, and I could feel it was knotted with tenseness. I rubbed it softly with my fingers, hoping it would calm him.
David picked that moment to accidentally knock his stack of yellows over so that they scattered all about the floor. I watched as his mouth turned from content to aghast in a matter of seconds, and his face turned bright red, his eyes welling with tears.
Ed pulled out of my grasp and he stood, clearly agitated now. David kicked the floor, making loud, booming thuds over and over again. “Do something with him, would you?” Ed demanded. And he walked back into the kitchen.
I went to David and held on to him, trying to soothe him by picking the yellows back up, stacking them again, but this time David knocked them back over intentionally. I wasn’t supposed to yell. I was supposed to give him extra love, Dr. Greenberg had said, so I hugged his small body to me tightly. I rocked him back and forth and back and forth until his breathing evened and his crying stopped. “I wish you could just tell me what you were thinking,” I whispered into his soft curls. “Wouldn’t that be a whole lot easier for both of us?” But the only sound I heard came from the kitchen: Ed pouring another vodka.
I led David to the table, where I handed him his cup of milk, and then I walked into the narrow kitchen and put my hand on Ed’s shoulder. “Come on,” I said to him. “Let’s sit down and light our candles and eat. David has calmed down, and the meat is growing cold. We can still celebrate the Shabbat together as a family in our nice new apartment.”
Ed finished off his second vodka, and I could feel the tension ease from his shoulders. He put the glass in the sink and nodded.
LATER, Ed and I lay on opposite sides of our hard mattress, not quite touching. The room was still, but I could hear the even sounds of David asleep, breathing in his crib, and the sounds of the neighbors next door, who I hadn’t met yet, their bed springs squeaking up and down and up and down. It was clear what they were doing in there, and I hoped it wouldn’t give Ed any ideas.
Ed wanted another child, another boy, so very badly. We had been married only a month when I got pregnant with David, and we had barely known each other but everything had seemed like a grand adventure to me then. Playing house with a man and a child in the one-room apartment above my mother’s—it was such a relief to be doing what I always thought and dreamed I would—leaving my days as a working girl at the factory behind for a quiet domesticity.
My marriage to Ed was something my mother and Lena cooked up one evening a few years ago at a Hadassah meeting. Lena had for years tried to bring Ed to New York, but it was not as easy to emigrate from Russia in the ’40s, during the war, as it had been when Bubbe Kasha and Zayde Jerome came in 1901 with my mother. Lena had finally gotten him here at the end of ’43 and then she had to marry him off, of course. Ed had been living in New York only a month when I first saw him, and he was ten years older than me. Back then I’d still been working at the Cupid Garment Factory with Susan. The work there was easy, and though I took no particular joy in sewing, I liked the camaraderie with the other girls there, all just like me, young, unmarried, unfettered. But my friends at the factory started getting engaged one by one, including Susan. I feared I might become a spinster, stuck sewing forever. Ed appeared to be the answer to everything.
It didn’t hurt that he was very nice to look at. He was tall, with a thick head of brown hair. He had very nice broad shoulders and a squarish nose that sat firmly in the center of his face. The first time I ever saw him, inside Lena’s threadbare apartment, he was sitting at Lena’s worn table, looking at me shyly, his hands shaking a little as we were introduced. He was nervous in front of me at first, a quality I found endearing.
I wasn’t lucky—or even beautiful—like Susan, who had known and loved Sam practically forever. He’d grown up down the street from us on Delancey and he’d gone to high school with us. We’d always known he and Susan would get married, and they did, just after he came home from the war. But I’d had no one, and with all the men gone, and my thirties rapidly approaching, it had seemed I might never find anyone, that I might live on Delancey with my mother and Bubbe Kasha forever. And then I saw Ed there at Lena’s kitchen table so eager to please me, for me to like him, and a few weeks later, when he asked, I agreed to marry him.
I never thought about the years and years that would stretch ahead in our marriage, making the life that lay ahead of me sometimes feel like an impossibly long and arduous void. I didn’t know about the way Ed would drink too much vodka when things bothered him or the way Ed would need another child that I might not be ready to have. Ed was so happy when David was first born. Ed’s younger American-born brother, Leo, had so far given Lena only two granddaughters, and here Ed, always trying to prove himself to Lena after so many years away from her in Russia, had produced the first grandson, a boy to carry on the family name. But since it had become clear that David might not exactly be a normal, perfect boy, Ed had become obsessed with having another. It felt to me he wished to throw David away as you would wayward garbage. Ed had grown so cold and distant with David in a way I could not understand nor accept, that it often occurred to me now how little I had ever really even known Ed—or loved him—at all.
Suddenly his hand reached across the bed for my thigh, and I noticed the bed springs were now silent in the apartment next door. Ed’s fingers pushed up my leg gently, but in a way that now made me feel sick to my stomach. If we didn’t have another child, Ed would not be able give up on David.
“Not tonight . . . I’m bleeding,” I said to him.
“Again?” He moved his hand. “Maybe you should see the doctor, Mildred.” He sighed. “Maybe there is something wrong with you?”
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” I said, wondering how long I could keep this up without Ed growing suspicious. It had been six months of us “trying” so far with nothing happening. “Dr. Greenberg says it just takes time, that’s all. David isn’t even two yet.”
But Ed didn’t say anything else and his silence hung there, an emptiness between us, as I wondered what he was thinking, if he knew I was lying. He rolled over and I could feel the weight of his back, leaning into the mattress. A few minutes later, he was snoring.
On Monday morning, my mother, Bubbe Kasha, David, and I waited in the pouring rain in a very long line on Monroe Street to get our smallpox vaccines. I was flanked by David and Bubbe Kasha, while my mother stood just in front of us, complaining about her hip hurting, as it always did in the rain. Bubbe Kasha was confused, as she tended to be these days, and kept asking why we were in line.
David, blissfully now, said nothing and clutched tightly to my hand as I tried to shield both him and Bubbe Kasha from the rain with my umbrella, all the while getting soaked myself. There were so many people and we were packed tightly in line, water rushing over us. My brown dress was soaked and my bones ached, and I thought maybe smallpox would be better than this, especially since my mother kept talking, as she always did. “I hear the man who started this epidemic carried it in from Mexico and then spread it all through the city like a sewer rat. Imagine, the gall of some people.” She was talking too loudly, something she had begun doing lately, which I took to mean her hearing wasn’t as good as it used to be, and several strangers in line stared at her suspiciously. She seemed not to notice and shook her head, right into my umbrella, sending rainwater tumbling over both David and Bubbe Kasha until I repositioned.
I thought about the poor man, maybe drawn to the sunshine and beauty of Mexico, who’d come back to New York only to die of a terrible disease and then be blamed for it.
“Good thing Susan and the babies aren’t in the city,” I heard my mother saying, “in the middle of all this filth. You and Ed will probably find your way out to the country eventually, too, and then I suppose we will be forced to come live with one of you. Won’t we, Mamaleh?” Bubbe Kasha did not respond and neither did I.
“What are we in line for?” Bubbe Kasha asked me for what felt like the hundredth time, and I calmly explained to her again about the smallpox and the necessary inoculation. But I knew I could tell her anything now and she would simply nod her head.
She had been my sanctuary, growing up. It was her apartment I’d run to when I was upset with my mother or Susan—or both. She was the one who showed me how to knead the challah in a way that made me always feel better. She was the one who dropped butter cookies in the pocket of my dress even before the candles were lit for Shabbat dinner. “You’re too skinny,” she used to whisper even though it wasn’t true. “I need to fatten you up.”
I hugged the umbrella under my shoulder so I could reach down and squeeze her hand now, and for a moment her thin, frail fingers clutched mine, squeezing back, the way they used to when I was a girl and my mother would prattle on and on about Susan’s many accomplishments. Susan got high marks in school, while mine were decidedly average, and she sang a solo every year at the end of school performance because she had such a lovely voice, while I was in the chorus. I was just plain old dependable Millie, the one who helped my father out in the butcher shop and who helped Bubbe Kasha around her apartment, while Susan was too busy with all her many activities. But with a slight squeeze of my fingers, a knowing smile cast my way, Bubbe Kasha told me that I was appreciated, that she thought I was special, too.
“Finally,” my mother exclaimed, and I looked up and saw that at long last we were at the front of the line. My mother pulled Bubbe Kasha away from me and pushed up her sleeve. Then did the same thing herself. Their pale, wrinkly arms hung there in the rain, waiting to get inoculated, and it was at that moment that I thought to move the umbrella to look down at David. His eyes were wide and his mouth had dropped open a little. He was not dumb, I reminded myself again. He understood exactly what was happening, what was about to happen to him. I saw it in his eyes, the fleeting recognition, the memory of the whooping cough vaccine that morning not too long ago in Dr. Greenberg’s office. He understood even if he didn’t say it.
“It’s all right, darling,” I leaned down and whispered in his ear. “It’s just a little poke. But it will keep us from getting sick.”
“Ouch!” my mother yelled too loudly as the needle hit her arm. “That hurts.”
David’s eyes widened farther, and he struggled out of my grasp and began running through puddles right into Monroe Street. It took me a second to understand what was happening, that David had gotten away from me and was in the street, and then I ran after him, a yellow taxicab swerving and honking at me.
There were so many people in line that it wrapped around the block, past the entrance to our building, and it was raining so hard that I struggled to see, to make sense of where I was looking. David. My David. I couldn’t see him, and certainly I wouldn’t be able to hear him.
“David!” I screamed. “Don’t run. Don’t move. You don’t have to get a shot!”
In response, I heard only the rain hitting the sidewalk, the squeal of car brakes in the street, my mother’s voice yelling, “Millie, get back here. Should you want to die of smallpox?” She was oblivious to what had happened, and I didn’t turn back to tell her.
My heart pounded so loud and hard, louder and harder than the rain, and I turned frantically in circles looking for him—in the street, across the street, then back by the entrance to our building. “David!” I screamed his name again and people in line looked at me, but no one left their place to ask who I was looking for, why I was screaming. “My son!” I shouted at them. “Have any of you seen my son? A little boy?”
David was so small and he couldn’t talk. How would he ever find me again? What had I done, taking him to get inoculated in the street and not watching him carefully enough?
“Millie.” I heard a familiar woman’s voice saying my name and I looked up. It was Ethel. John clung to her hip, and she was holding on to David, his small legs wrapped around her rotund belly.
“David!” I grabbed him from her and held him tightly to my chest. His tiny arms clasped my neck in such a way that I knew what he wanted to say even if he couldn’t: He loved me, and he was sorry.
“I saw him wandering in the street”—I realized Ethel was talking—“and I grabbed him.”
She walked in through the front entrance of our building as she talked, pulling herself and John out of the rain, and I followed her, David still clutching tightly to my neck, me clutching back. “Don’t you ever do that again,” I said to him, not sure if he understood or not, but the way he curled his head into the crook of my neck I hoped he did.
The elevator doors opened and Ethel and John stepped in. I ran to catch up with them. “Thank you,” I said to Ethel. She nodded, holding John tightly to her hip but staring straight ahead as if she didn’t want to talk to me now. What she must think of me!
The elevator doors shut, and we began moving slowly up to the eleventh floor. “Really,” I said to her, “we were waiting in line for the smallpox inoculations and he got startled and . . .” My voice broke and I couldn’t hold back the tears. To think what had happened, what might have happened.
“Of course,” Ethel said. “I did what anyone would have done.”
I thought of all the strangers waiting in line, staring anxiously at me as I screamed for David. “No, really,” I said. “I owe you . . .”
The elevator doors opened again and Ethel and John stepped off onto the eleventh floor. They walked to apartment G.E. 11 at the end of the hallway, down a few doors from ours. Ethel pulled her key from her pocket and fumbled to get it in the lock. I was soaked to the bone and my teeth were chattering. David’s tiny body heaved with shivers, but I got off the elevator and ran after her.
I reached up and touched Ethel’s shoulder, and she turned to look at me again. “I can imagine what you must think of me,” I said, and she shook her head as if to say she didn’t think anything of me. John tugged at the bottom of her red dress, impatient, and she put her key back in the lock. “Would you at least come over for a cup of coffee after we all change into dry clothes? Let me thank you,” I said. “The boys could even play . . . maybe.”
She hesitated momentarily. “I don’t think so.”
“Another time, then?” Though I understood there would not be another time, that whatever I thought about Ethel and me becoming friends would not happen now after she had seen firsthand what kind of mother I was. After this, Ethel and I would be nothing more than strangers who would pass each other by in the hall, getting on and off the elevator.
“You never let me have friends,” I heard John say as we walked down the hallway toward our apartment. His voice sounded so crisp and perfect and clear that it surprised me. Granted, he was obviously older than David, but it was as if I’d forgotten the way normal little boys sounded. That they had voices, demands.
“Millie,” Ethel called down the hallway after me. I turned back to look at her, and from farther away, I noticed her stomach was so big that there barely seemed to be anything else to her tiny frame. “Why don’t you come here for a cup of coffee after you dry off. John has so many toys. David might enjoy playing with some of them.”
ETHEL’S APARTMENT was quite similar to mine, right down to the linoleum squares in the tiny, narrow kitchen. The exceptions were the large upright piano in the living room, the views of the courtyard and the East River, and the multitude of toys scattered all about the floor. She was right about John having so many, and with that, the piano, and her studio time, it seemed Ethel and her husband had a lot more money than Ed and I had.
Now that we were in dry clothes, David seemed tired, and he still clung to my neck and sucked his thumb. We sat at Ethel’s table while she brewed some coffee in the kitchen, and John tossed a ball against the hard floor, trying to get David to join in.
“Why doesn’t he say anything?” John implored me, frowning.
“He just . . .” I didn’t have an answer that I could give a child. Or anyone. “He just doesn’t talk yet,” I said, brushing the damp brown curls from David’s forehead. “He’s younger than you.”
“He doesn’t need to talk to play with you,” Ethel said to John, putting two steaming cups of coffee on the table. I was still chilled, my curls were still damp, and the steam felt wonderful against my face. “Why don’t you show him some of your things?” Ethel said.
I pulled David from my lap and put him on the floor, but he reached right back up for my neck. “Do you mind if I sit down here with him?” I asked Ethel.
“Not at all.” And she joined us on the floor, too. John handed David the ball he’d been bouncing, and David pulled his thumb from his mouth to use his hands to examine the ball carefully. It was red with yellow squares, and I watched David’s eyes widen with interest.
John pulled the ball back and began bouncing it again. And David reached his arms back, trying to recapture it. “Make sure you’re sharing,” Ethel said to John. He squirmed and pulled out of Ethel’s grasp.
“It’s all right,” I said, sensing John was on the edge of a tantrum. “There are plenty of toys to go around here.” I searched the floor for something else yellow, saw a bright yellow bird stuffed animal, and picked it up and handed it to David.
John bounced his ball without complaining, though the repetitive noise of it against the floor was dreadful, and David seemed content to turn the yellow bird over and over again.
Excerpted from "The Hours Count"
Copyright © 2016 Jillian Cantor.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
The Hours Count Reading Group Guide
1.) After Millie first meets Ethel, she idealizes her life and marriage. How are Millie and Ethel different? Similar? How does their friendship play out in each other’s lives?
2.) Does Millie’s view of Ethel and this story change what you have thought or known about Ethel Rosenberg historically? What were your previous perceptions?
3.) Millie and Ethel both make their children their top priority. Compare their roles as mothers in the 1940s and 1950s to what motherhood is like today. Do you think Ethel and Millie are good mothers?
4.) Millie and Ethel are both women of their time. How do changing ideas of family, motherhood, birth control, autism, and psychology play roles in the novel?
5.) What do you think of Millie’s relationship with her husband, Ed? Why does Millie stay with him even after their issues become clear?
6.) Near the end of the novel Millie must choose between Ed and Jake. Do you think Millie should have listened to Ed or trusted Jake? How would the novel have ended if Millie had chosen differently?
7.) How does the time period and the era of McCarthyism play a role in the novel? What about the setting of New York City in the 1950s and the difficulties that the Rosenbergs as well as Millie’s family both faced?
8.) Who in the novel could be considered guilty and of what? Who is innocent? Does anyone get what he or she deserves in the end?
9.) The title, The Hours Count, comes from a Picasso quote about the Rosenbergs. How does it fit the story in this novel as well as the fictional character of Millie?
10.) Millie and Ethel are both Jewish. What role does religion play in the novel? Do you think it played a role historically in the Rosenbergs’ execution? Why or why not?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Immediately after finishing this book, I went to the internet to research the Rosenburgs and find out more! You know it is a good book when you do that! I loved the story and loved learning about thiis time in American history great book!
This would be a great book to read on a winter’s day wrapped up in a blanket, just letting yourself travel inside the pages of this novel. The story began with a single letter and it developed into a full-blown novel, leading me down paths that I wasn’t prepared for. It wasn’t a jaunting journey; it was a journey of two families, of mothers who loved their children, of husbands who had other ties and of knowing where your heart belongs. Millie suffers from mother guilt. I felt for her, for the doctors told her that her son was not developing properly because she did not love him enough. David, her two-year old son is not talking and maturing like other two-years and now Millie is dealing with emotional issues that the doctor placed on her. I had to remember it was 1947 when this novel took place as things were different back then. Her husband Ed wants to have another baby and Millie feels that one is enough. Ed ignores his family when he returns home from work as he’s frustrated with his wife’s decision and with his son’s behavior. Ed is passionate about having another child and I feel like Millie. Why should she have another child when she feels like she hasn’t done a good job with the first one? Why take a chance on another one? This tension of having another child runs through the whole novel, Millie holding the cards and her husband hammering at her. They’re fighting a silent war; they’re quietly going behind each other backs trying to bring each other down which only results in more retaliation. Unfortunately, someone has to lose. Soon Millie finds a tenant in the apartment building and their families become great friends. Crossing between work and home, there is more to this friendship than what meets the eye. Millie and David attend therapy, another one of Millie’s secrets. Millie has a talent for her secret life and I am happy to be a part of it even when things start to unravel. This novel was like a journey, the story weaving deeper and deeper with new circumstances occurring, I couldn’t quit reading now. I liked Millie, her character showed a variety of mannerisms. I loved her commitment and her determination, her lack of knowledge and her innocence gave me someone to cheer for. At times she was a lost soul and other times, she was strong and sure of herself. This novel was more than I hoped for.
This was a beautifully written historical fiction. Most anyone who has studied US History from the time after WWII have heard about the Rosenberg trial & death of both the husband and wife. This story is about the time prior to the trials and about fictional characters that may have been neighbors of the the couple. It was very well written and the facts behind what was happening in the US at the time were will looked into and written about. I so enjoyed because it felt like I was there experiencing everything that was happening.