LONDON — Just after 8 p.m. on June 19, 1953, Ethel Rosenberg, a 37-year-old mother of two young sons, went to the electric chair in New York’s Sing Sing prison minutes after her husband Julius had met the same fate.
Convicted two years earlier of conspiracy to commit espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union, Rosenberg earned the grim distinction of becoming the first woman in the United States to be executed for a crime other than murder.
British biographer Anne Sebba’s masterful new account of Rosenberg’s life, “Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy,” isn’t simply the story of what many view as a terrible miscarriage of justice. It is also a gripping tale of family betrayal, misogyny and antisemitism — the Rosenbergs’ trial has been dubbed “America’s Dreyfus case” — set against the backdrop of the fear, paranoia and hysteria which characterized the early 1950s. Film rights for this first biography of Ethel Rosenberg in three decades have already been snapped up by Miramax Films.
Sebba is in no doubt that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy, nor does she deny that his wife almost certainly knew about his activities.
“I’m not trying to relitigate the case,” she told The Times of Israel in an interview. “I’m trying to tell the story of a life.”
Sebba also believes it is important to recognize that, at the time, America felt it was facing “an existential threat from the Soviet Union.” Indeed, the Rosenbergs’ arrests in the summer of 1950 came at a particularly fraught moment in the early years of the Cold War. Russia had exploded its own atomic bomb in August 1949, Mao Zedong emerged victorious in China two months later, and in June 1950, North Korea invaded its southern neighbor, triggering a bloody conflict in which the US swiftly became embroiled.
Julius Rosenberg’s guilt was denied by many of the couples’ supporters, including their sons Michael and Robert, for several decades after their deaths. But the 1995 release of transcripts from the “Venona project” — secret messages between Soviet handlers and their US recruits decoded by American intelligence — confirmed that Julius Rosenberg began spying for Russia in the early 1940s.
An engineer inspector at a US Army laboratory and a fervent communist, he passed what his handler Alexander Feklisov described as “immeasurably valuable technical documentation” to the Soviets. “Liberal,” as the Russians code-named him, then went on to recruit friends who also had access to confidential military documents.
Ironically, however, it was Julius Rosenberg’s enlistment of a family member into his spy ring — Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass — which was to set the couple on the path to the electric chair. In August 1944, Greenglass, who shared his sister and brother-in-law’s devotion to the communist cause, was sent to work at Los Alamos on the highly secret Manhattan Project.
“Julius, although he had no particular knowledge about the bomb, felt strongly that the Soviet Union, as a key wartime ally, should benefit from all the information that he believed he could now obtain from David, a mere machinist with no scientific expertise, who was stationed there,” writes Sebba.
The significance of the atomic secrets passed by Greenglass to the Soviets via Julius Rosenberg is disputed. He was not the only or most important Russian spy within the Manhattan Project. German-born scientist Klaus Fuchs, who also worked at Los Alamos and was arrested in Britain in February 1950, passed far more damaging information to Stalin’s agents. However, Fuchs’s detention, confession and subsequent revelations set off a spy hunt which, within four months, had led the FBI to the door of Greenglass and then to Julius Rosenberg.
A pawn on the FBI chessboard
As government lawyers privately recognized, the case against Ethel Rosenberg was “not too strong.” Nonetheless, she swiftly became a pawn in the FBI’s efforts to wring a confession from her husband and, more importantly, the names of other spies.
“Proceedings against the wife might serve as a lever in this matter,” FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote to attorney general Howard McGrath two days after Julius Rosenberg’s arrest. The subsequent charges laid against her under the 1917 Espionage Act, Sebba writes, were “weak and unsubstantiated. In effect, Ethel was being indicted for having conversations with her husband and brother.”
The weakness of the case against her, though, did not stop prosecutors from publicly attempting to portray Ethel Rosenberg as a dangerous threat to national security. “If the crime with which she, Ethel, is charged had not occurred perhaps we would not have the present situation in Korea,” the Southern District of New York chief assistant attorney told the press.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the case is that Ethel Rosenberg’s conviction ultimately rested on the lies and betrayal of her brother. In order to escape the death penalty and protect his wife and co-conspirator, Ruth, Greenglass swiftly confessed to spying and cooperated with the FBI in its investigation into Julius Rosenberg.
Initially, Greenglass also sought to take the focus off of his sister. “I said before, and say it again, honestly this is a fact: I never spoke to my sister about this at all,” he told the Grand Jury in August 1950. But that crucial testimony, which, under US law at the time did not have to be disclosed to the defense, was not finally released until 2015.
Instead, the jury at the trial heard a different tale from the Greenglasses. In September 1945, the couple now claimed, Ethel Rosenberg had typed some of the documents which David had provided to her husband.
This account thus cast Ethel Rosenberg as an active participant in her husband’s espionage and almost certainly secured her conviction. As the prosecutor dramatically noted in his closing argument during the trial, Ethel Rosenberg “sat at that typewriter and struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets.”
The groundwork for these new allegations had first been laid by Ruth Greenglass, who had already used an interview with the “Jewish Daily Forward” to paint the couple as victims of the Rosenbergs. Their youthful left-wing sympathies, she claimed, had been exploited upon by their older, hardline communist in-laws.
Critically, Ruth Greenglass portrayed Ethel Rosenberg as the “dominant person” in the family. She would not, Greenglass charged, “buy from a butcher or grocer unless he were an open sympathizer towards Soviet Russia. She considered everyone who was against Communism her personal enemy.”
The loose bonds of flesh and blood
After the Rosenbergs’ conviction, Greenglass received a 15-year sentence and was released after serving 10 years. Ruth was never charged. In a 2001 television interview, a heavily disguised Greenglass finally admitted he had lied in court, said that he had “no memory” of the typing incident, and claimed that his wife had helped him with his notes. Ruth, he added, had led him to change his original testimony by telling the FBI that Ethel had done the typing.
Seemingly unrepentant, Greenglass suggested: “I sleep very well. I would not sacrifice my wife and my children for my sister. I had no idea they would give them the death sentence.”
As the jury foreman told a journalist in 1975, his fellow jurors came to believe Greenglass’ evidence “precisely because they could not believe that anyone could turn in their own flesh and blood and be lying into the bargain. To do something that terrible to his own sister, they reasoned, Greenglass had to be telling the truth.”
Greenglass’ betrayal of his sister was made all the worse by their once-close relationship. Like the rest of the family, Ethel doted on her youngest brother — she was “crazy over Doovey,” a friend remembered, using the Yiddish diminutive for David — and, says Sebba, “willingly became something of a surrogate mother.”
The teenage David went on to strike up a friendship with his sister’s new boyfriend, Julius. Later, the two men’s wives were similarly close. However, as Sebba notes, their “intense closeness gradually evolved into mild resentment on Ruth’s part, possibly provoked by Ethel’s superior status as a mother and her more comfortable home at Knickerbocker Village compared with Ruth’s miserable, poky apartment.” After the war, a series of failed and struggling joint business ventures into which Julius and David entered led the two men and their wives to drift further apart.
Nor was David the only member of the Greenglass family to turn his back on Ethel. Her mother Tessie was, according to one recollection, “a bitter woman whose affection such as it was all went to the boys in the family.” She did nothing to encourage her daughter’s efforts to escape the poverty which hampered her ambitions to go to college and become an opera singer or actor. (David, by contrast, had none of his sister’s capacity for hard work, love of the arts, or desire for self-improvement).
Ethel’s beautiful soprano voice did not impress her mother; there is no evidence any member of her family ever went to watch her perform when she became a member of the prestigious Schola Cantorum amateur choir.
But it caught the attention of 18-year-old engineering student Julius Rosenberg when he saw her sing on New Year’s Eve 1936 at a benefit for the International Seamen’s Union. “I have loved her ever since that night, and always when I hear her sing it is like the first time and I know that they can never part us — nothing will,” Julius later said.
Unsurprisingly, when her son and daughter were arrested, Tessie’s loyalty was immediately with David. Indeed, during her infrequent visits to see her daughter in prison, Tessie mainly berated Ethel for not cooperating with the FBI and doing enough to save “Davey.”
To her mother’s suggestion in January 1953 that she should have “backed up” David’s story, Ethel angrily replied: “What, and take the blame for a crime I never committed and allow my name, and my husband’s and children’s, to be blackened to protect him?”
Ethel Rosenberg’s appeal to the outgoing president, Harry Truman, for executive clemency revealed her true feelings about her brother. Describing him as a “Cain” and Ruth as a “serpent,” Ethel bluntly told the president: “David, our brother, knowing well the consequences of his acts, bargained our lives away for his life and his wife’s.” As she languished in prison, Sebba believes, Ethel Rosenberg’s goal was to be “as far different from the Greenglasses as possible.”
Tessie herself did not attend Ethel’s funeral. Instead, she called the FBI and told the chief field officer in charge of the investigation that her daughter was “a soldier of Stalin.”
Devoted wife, mother and communist
Ethel Rosenberg was undoubtedly a committed communist. According to a woman who befriended her in prison, she “followed the party line uncritically, unquestionably, and aggressively.”
Moreover, writes Sebba, while she may not have been a spy, “It is clear that Ethel and Julius’s relationship was so close that it is inconceivable she did not know and encourage his espionage for the Russians, which in the legal terms of 1951 made her complicit to a conspiracy.”
But, Sebba asks, was that a crime — let alone a crime punishable by death? “It’s not a crime to have knowledge,” she says. “She was not obliged by law to report on what he was doing.”
Certainly, the Venona transcripts do not offer conclusive proof of Ethel Rosenberg’s guilt; unlike the Greenglasses and her husband, for instance, the Soviets didn’t give her a code name and she is mentioned only fleetingly.
If the question of Ethel’s guilt is a grey area, so, too, is the role played by antisemitism in the case. Speaking to Sebba in 2017, Miriam Moskowitz, a fellow Jewish inmate in New York’s Women’s House of Detention, remained convinced that Jew-hate “hovered over the trial … with an unmistakable presence.”
The “National Guardian,” a radical weekly which ran a series of articles raising questions about the fairness of the Rosenberg’s trial, even chose to headline its opening salvo: “Is this the Dreyfus case of Cold-War America?”
For many Americans, the association between Jews and Communism was, in fact, a strong one. “Our evaluation of the general mood was that the people felt if you scratch a Jew you can find a Communist,” said Arnold Foster of the strongly anti-communist American Jewish Committee.
But the notion that the Rosenbergs were the victims of antisemitism is not clear-cut.
“I don’t think you can prove that their arrest was brought about by antisemitism or that their trial caused a rise in antisemitism,” says Sebba.
The Jewish community, she believes, was “completely divided” by the case. Thus while their defense lawyers, Manny and Alexander Bloch, were Jewish, so too were the ambitious young judge, Irving Kaufman, and prosecuting attorneys Irving Saypol and Roy Cohn.
As Sebba says, “There was this desire among ‘establishment Jews’ … to distance themselves from these ‘commie Jews’ who were not patriotic because it was believed that they represented a danger.”
“They really wanted to show that they were more patriotic than people like Ethel and Julius… That’s why Irving Kaufman fought to have this case,” she says.
Jews did not want to be responsible for sending other Jews to their death
The heavily Jewish cast of the Rosenberg story is unsurprising: roughly one-third of New York’s population was also Jewish. More surprising, however, was that no members of the jury were Jews. In part, Sebba believes, this reflected the fact that “most prospective jurors … if they were Jewish absented themselves because Jews did not want to be responsible for sending other Jews to their death.”
But the prosecution also believed its chances were better with a non-Jewish jury and its eventual composition was aided by crucial decisions made by Kaufman. These instructions effectively excluded many potential jurors who held left-wing views, a category into which New York Jews disproportionately fell.
Kaufman’s actions, in fact, repeatedly tipped the scales of justice against the Rosenbergs. At times, notes Sebba, he effectively conducted “a two-pronged attack” on Ethel Rosenberg alongside the prosecutors, while he also slyly sought to raise questions in the jury’s mind about her use of the Fifth Amendment.
But it was Cohn, soon to become senator Joe McCarthy’s right-hand man and Donald Trump’s future lawyer and fixer, whose ambitions and notoriety were to be most furthered by the trial. The son of a prominent New York judge, he later claimed that he had worked behind the scenes to get Kaufman assigned to the case.
The 23-year-old was also key to securing Greenglass’s perjured evidence, warning him that unless he incriminated Ethel Rosenberg directly, “We could not guarantee that Ruth… would be safe from prosecution.” Cohn was also determined that Ethel should not escape execution, saying later that he had told Kaufman: “She’s worse than Julius… she was the mastermind of this conspiracy.”
Ike did not like
In the end, the Rosenbergs’ fate came to rest with Dwight Eisenhower, Truman having opted to toss their clemency pleas for his successor to wrestle with. While a campaign to save the Rosenbergs began to gain ground and attracted several thousand people to White House vigils, public opinion remained overwhelmingly in favor of executing them. Moreover, many liberal stalwarts kept their distance. The American Civil Liberties Union refused to support the couple, as did former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a long-time opponent of the death penalty and champion of left-wing causes. Even the Communist party’s “Daily Worker” newspaper would have nothing to do with the couple.
Ignoring a growing tide of anger at the sentences in Europe — including appeals from, among others, the fiercely anti-communist Pope Pius XII, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, to spare the couple — Eisenhower chose not to intervene.
Publicly, the president suggested that their actions had put at risk the lives of “many, many thousands of innocent citizens.” Evoking the conflict in Korea, he said, too, that they had “betrayed the cause of freedom for which free men are fighting and dying at this very hour.” Eisenhower’s private correspondence, however, suggested that he was also motivated by a desire that the US should not appear “weak and fearful” in the face of the Soviet threat.
The president also seems to have been unsettled by the fact that, as he wrote to his son, “It is the woman who is the strong and recalcitrant character [and] the man [who] is the weak one.”
Eisenhower’s comments reflect a seam of misogyny which ran through the trial. Ethel Rosenberg’s frumpy clothes and plain appearance drew negative comments, with one reporter describing her as “as dashing as a bread pudding.” Meanwhile, her stony expression during the trial led to a perception that she was a “cold and unfeeling” woman.
Kaufman’s summing-up emphasized that Ethel was three years older than her husband — “a clear signal that she might not simply be a stay-at-home wife” in the 1950s, notes Sebba — and questioned her maternal instincts. “Love for their cause dominated their lives,” Kaufman argued, “it was even greater than their love for their children.”
“Ethel had come to symbolize an attack on the whole American way of life,” says Sebba. “They tried to pin the danger that America faced on this woman because of how she looked, how she dressed, the fact that she was older and didn’t show emotion.”
In reality, Ethel Rosenberg was a devoted wife and mother. “Ethel modeled herself on trying to be a better mother than Tessie. That’s why she was so consumed with her own children, she wanted to give them everything in life that she hadn’t had,” says Sebba.
Her absolute insistence on the couple’s innocence (misplaced, as she surely knew, in the case of her husband) was matched only by a dogged refusal to cooperate with the government or separate herself from her husband’s fate.
“A cold fury possesses me and I could retch with horror and revulsion,” Ethel Rosenberg said when it was reported that, out of “humanitarian” considerations for her as a mother and woman, her life alone might be spared.
Ethel couldn’t imagine a life in which she had betrayed her husband and then lived with her sons
“Ethel couldn’t imagine a life in which she had betrayed her husband and then lived with her sons,” believes Sebba. “It just didn’t enter her very black and white vision of what it meant to lead a good and honest life.”
Neither the government nor the FBI had wanted to see Ethel Rosenberg perish in the electric chair. Instead, they had engaged in a “war of nerves,” hoping that under pressure the couple would crack, confess and give up names of other spies. That, however, was not to be. As the deputy attorney general, William Rogers, put it: “She called our bluff.”
But for Sebba the Rosenberg story is not without contemporary resonance.
“If there’s one thing that I would like to stand out in my book it’s the importance of the rule of law,” she says. “Whatever you think of Ethel’s politics — and I make no bones about the fact that she was a communist, and we all know that communism is a discredited philosophy at this point — but not to give her a fair trial and for a government… to see one of its citizens as expendable in the greater good, I think is something that we should all be concerned about.”
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