On April 5, 1951 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for nuclear espionage. There was never much doubt that Julius, an electrical engineer, had been a Soviet agent since at least 1942 when he was in the Army Signal Corps at the Engineering Laboratories at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. During that time, he passed on secret research on electronics, communications, radar, and guided missile controls to the Soviets, then American Allies against the Nazis. Julius was fired in 1945 when his pre-war membership in the Communist Party surfaced but remained an intelligence agent charged with building a spy network with particular interest in the super secret development of the atomic bomb.
The extent of his wife Ethel’s involvement in all of this was open to question. Some believed she was completely innocent and had been duped by her husband. Others believed she was marginally involved as a sometimes courier and errand runner. The most damning accusation was simply that she typed up some notes on the development of the implosion-type atomic bomb—the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki. But she did connect her husband to her brother in law David Greenglass who was working on the top-secret Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
When Greenglass was arrested for stealing atomic secrets, he implicated his brother in law saying he had passed documents to him on a Manhattan Street Corner. Shortly before the Rosenbergs went on trial Greenglass and his wife Ruth, Ethel’s sister, suddenly changed their story and claimed that the information had been passed in the Rosenberg apartment and they had watched Ethel type up Greenglass’s handwritten notes. That was enough for Federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for Ethel as well as her husband.
Ethel, the mother of two young sons, was always a more sympathetic character than her husband even as she loyally stood by his side. Not only did she refuse to testify against him, but she echoed his stand on the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and refusal to either acknowledge membership in the Communist Party or name Party associates and/or other members of the spy ring. Her participation still seemed so limited that almost no one expected that she would receive the death penalty. And yet she did.
Deputy Attorney General William P. Rogers later said that the death sentence was imposed on Ethel in an effort to extract a full confession from Julius, but “She called our bluff.”
There may have also been the subtle effects or anti-Semitism—or the fear of stirring up anti-Semitism during the already superheated hysteria of the Post-war Red Scare. Both the prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Irving Saypol and Judge Irving Kaufman were Jewish. Another rising young Federal prosecutor, Roy Cohn, soon to be notorious as the ruthless chief council to Senator Joseph McCarthy, claimed that he had influence over both men and convinced them that unless both were found guilty and given the maximum sentence a wave of anti-Semitism would sweep the U.S. and fundamentally endanger Jews. Of course, Cohn was a notorious liar, and his account may not be reliable.
In this country outside of the besieged far left the Rosenbergs got little support. Communists, “fellow travelers” and the labor left were all under heavy attack and the well-oiled defense committees with decades of experience in high profile cases were both overwhelmed with cases of persecution and themselves the targets of investigations and prosecutions. The liberal American Civil Liberties Union was falling all over itself to get disentangled from the Communists and flatly refused to support defense efforts. No major American Jewish organization including the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith spoke out for them and many publicly denounced them. Only the most steadfastly loyal of the old Jewish Labor left, especially the New York needle trades kept up the motions of defense work.Abroad defense of the Rosenbergs became an international cause celeb especially in France where leading intellectuals appeared a huge rallies like this one in Paris.
In Europe, especially France, where virtually the entire artistic and literary intelegencia was Marxist of one stripe or another, the Rosenbergs became a great cause celeb. Charges that they were victims of anti-Semitism were widespread and their case was compared to the famous French travesty of justice, the Dreyfus Affair. Jean-Paul Sartre scathingly wrote that the case was:
…a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation. By killing the Rosenbergs, you have quite simply tried to halt the progress of science by human sacrifice. Magic, witch-hunts, autos-da-fé, sacrifices—we are here getting to the point: your country is sick with fear ... you are afraid of the shadow of your own bomb.
International artists including Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and writers Nelson Algren, Bertolt Brecht, and Dashiell Hammett were all vocal in the defense movement. Albert Einstein, who probably knew that the Rosenbergs had not given the Soviets anything of real value, lent his enormous prestige to the effort and staunchly anti-Communist Pope Pius XII even made a direct appeal to President Dwight Eisenhower for clemency. Ike was unmoved. He refused to intervene.
Finally, after all appeals had been exhausted Julius and the Ethel were transferred to New York state’s Sing Sing prison because the Federal Bureau of Prisons no longer operated any means of execution. On Friday June 19, 1953 at 8 pm—before sundown marked the beginning of the Jewish sabbath, Julius was strapped into the electric chair and died after the first jolt. Ethel proved tougher. Her heart was still beating after three shocks. Two more needed to be applied after which witnesses saw a puff of smoke escape from her skull.
In retrospect, America turned out to be pretty queasy about executing a woman. Ethel was, after all, the only the second woman ever executed by the Feds. The other was Mary Surat whose Maryland inn had been used as a meeting place by John Wilks Booth and his accomplices in the plot to kill not only Abraham Lincoln but the Vice President and Secretaries of War and State.
As the Cold War dragged on and other high profile Soviet spies escaped the death penalty—some traded in spy swaps—the nagging suspicion that anti-Semitism may have played a part after all. The Rosenbergs were the only spies executed.
By the early 1960’s legal scholars were swinging to the opinion that, as one put it, they were guilty, but lynched meaning that the evidence did not support the severe penalty and that there were several improprieties by the government in their rush to get the desired out-come.The Rosenberg sons Michael and Robert were not kept sheltered from their parents' ordeal. The experience became a life long obsession for both.
Meanwhile the Rosenberg’s two orphaned sons were adopted and raised by a sympathetic family. When they grew up Michael and Robert Meeropol, spent years trying to prove their parent’s innocence including co-authoring the widely read We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1975.
After the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union, KGB files revealed that Julius Rosenberg was, indeed, at the center of a large and active espionage ring and that Ethel was rather marginally involved but aware of the activities. But the sketches and notes on the Fat Boy bomb turned out to have little or no value to the Soviet atomic program.
The sons now acknowledge that but maintain their parents did not deserve to die. Robert wrote an additional memoir, An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey in 2003. Michael’s daughter Ivy Meeropol directed a 2004 documentary about her grandparents, Heir to an Execution, which was featured at the Sundance Film Festival.
The case has been explored in several cultural media. E.L. Doctorow’s 1971 novel The Book of Daniel was based on the case as seen through the eyes of a fictional son and was made into 1983 film Daniel. Another novel, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, also covered the case and was partially narrated by Richard Nixon. In Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels in America the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg haunts Roy Cohn, now a bitter repressed homosexual dying of AIDS. The main character in Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, is morbidly fascinated with the Rosenberg case. Bob Dylan wrote one of his early ballads about them.A lithograph of Ethel and Julius Rosenburg made and signed by Pablo Picasso in 1952.
And many poets have also been inspired. But we will start with Ethel herself, penned for her sons after being transferred to Sing Sing to await execution.
If We Die
You shall know, my sons, shall know
why we leave the song unsung,
the book unread, the work undone
to rest beneath the sod.
Mourn no more, my sons, no more
why the lies and smears were framed,
the tears we shed, the hurt we bore
to all shall be proclaimed.
Earth shall smile, my sons, shall smile
and green above our resting place,
the killing end, the world rejoice
in brotherhood and peace.
Work and build, my sons, and build
a monument to love and joy,
to human worth, to faith we kept
for you, my sons, for you.
Ossining. N.Y., January 24, 1953
I love this piece by a semi-anonymous high school student named Eileen from Troy, Michigan who contributing as Misseilli has had over 100 verses published in the online version of Teen Ink and several selected for their print editions. I can see why. I loved the poem but was taken aback by the reference to heaven, which did not seem to jibe with the Rosenbergs’ good Marxist atheism. Then in my research for this blog entry and found the report of the puff of smoke over Ethel’s head at her execution. Ah, Grasshopper, you are deeper than your years.
The lightning tore through
The guilt and the shame,
Scorching the veins until
They were burnt black.
The fire serrated the lungs
But the heart stood whole
And ebbed the storm that
Ravaged the rosy brain.
Peace slipped through the
Pores and before she felt it,
They saw her soul rise from
Her skull and sway the
Empty steel rafters that hid
Heaven from men’s eyes.
Adrienne Rich was 82 when she died in California in 2012, a long way from the life of privilege and learning into which she was born in Baltimore on May 16, 1929. She had gone on to be one of the pioneering female voices of the Beats and a prophetic feminist voice, poet, and activist. In For Ethel Rosenberg, she richly entwined personal memoir with the sacrifice of the woman who fascinates her.
For Ethel Rosenberg ·
convicted, with her husband, of “conspiracy to commit espionage”; killed in the electric chair June 19, 1953
throughout my random sleepwalk the words
scratched on walls, on pavements painted over railway arches Liberez les Rosenberg!
Escaping from home I found home everywhere:
the Jewish question, Communism
a question of loyalty or punishment
my Jewish father writing me letters of seventeen pages finely inscribed harangues
questions of loyalty and punishment
One week before my wedding
that couple gets the chair the volts grapple her, don't kill her fast enough
Liberez les Rosenberg!
I hadn’t realized
our family arguments were so important
my narrow understanding of crime of punishment
no language for this torment
mystery of that marriage always both faces
on every front page in the world
Something so shocking so unfathomable
it must be pushed aside
She sank however into my soul. A weight of sadness I hardly can register how deep
her memory has sunk that wife and mother
like so many
who seemed to get nothing out of any of it except her children
that daughter of a family like so many
needing its female monster
she, actually wishing to be an artist
wanting out of poverty possibly also really wanting
that woman strapped in the chair
no fear and no regrets
charged by posterity
not with selling secrets to the Communists but with wanting to distinguish herself
being a bad daughter a bad mother
And I walking to my wedding
by the same token a bad daughter a bad sister my forces focused
on that hardly revolutionary effort Her life and death the possible ranges of disloyalty
so painful so unfathomable they must be pushed aside ignored for years
Her mother testifies against her Her brother testifies against her After her death
she becomes a natural prey for pornographers her death itself a scene
her body sizzling half strapped whipped like a sail
She becomes the extremist victim described nonetheless as rigid of will
what are her politics by then no one knows
Her figure sinks into my soul a drowned statue
sealed in lead
For years it has lain there unabsorbed first as part of that dead couple
on the front pages of the world the week
I gave myself in marriage
then slowly severing drifting apart a separate death a life unto itself
no longer the Rosenbergs
no longer the chosen scapegoat the family monster
till I hear how she sang a prostitute to sleep
in the Women's House of Detention
Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg would you have marched to take back the night collected signatures
for battered women who kill What would you have to tell us would you have burst the net
Why do I even want to call her up
to console my pain (she feels no pain at all) why do I wish to put such questions
to ease myself (she feels no pain at all
she finally burned to death like so many) why all this exercise of hindsight?
Since if I imagine her at all I have to imagine first
the pain inflicted on her by women
her mother testifies against her
her sister-in-law testifies against her
and how she sees it
not the impersonal forces not the historical reasons why they might have hated her strength
If I have held her at arm’s length till now if I have still believed it was
my loyalty, my punishment at stake
if I dare imagine her surviving
I must be fair to what she must have lived through I must allow her to be at last
political in her ways not in mine
her urgencies perhaps impervious to me defining revolution as she defines it
or, bored to the marrow of her bones with “politics”
bored with the vast boredom of long pain
small; tiny in fact; in her late sixties liking her room her private life living alone perhaps
no one you could interview maybe filling a notebook herself with secrets she has never sold
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