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October 5, 2021 in Library Corner
In 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg went to their deaths in New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison, convicted of conspiring to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. Ethel’s execution was particularly horrific. After a first session in the electric chair failed to kill her, jailers strapped her back in to be electrocuted again. The executions orphaned the couple’s two young sons. Up till the last moment, federal authorities promised to spare the couple’s lives if they confessed their guilt and identified co-conspirators. Neither one did.
Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy by noted biographer-journalist Anne Sebba presents Ethel as an individual, rather than just one-half of the Rosenberg couple. In recent years, with the release of once-classified documents, most scholars have concluded that Julius did in fact recruit spies to pass military-industrial information during World War II to the Soviet Union, an ally at the time. As to Ethel, scholars assume she was aware of her husband’s actions, but there is little evidence of her active participation. In fact, government documents reveal that Ethel’s arrest was a government ploy to force Julius to confess, and her conviction rested largely on the false testimony of her own brother, pressured by prosecutors to implicate Ethel.
Yet so many questions remain. What motivated Julius to aid the Soviet Union? Why was Ethel unwilling to bargain for her life and her sons’ future? Was any of the information Julius passed to the Soviets of value to them? Did anti-Semitism play a role in the case? In a unique virtual visit, Anne Sebba will share her research on these and other questions on Sunday, December 12, at 11 am. Register at https://www.bethelmc.org/events/anne-sebba.
As Sebba recounts, Esther Ethel Greenglass was born on New York’s Lower East Side in 1915 to a family of Jewish immigrants. She excelled in school, and her beautiful singing voice won her a spot in a prestigious chorus based at Carnegie Hall. As a young woman, she was attracted to progressive causes, taking an active role in a 1935 union strike at the shipping company where she worked. She met Julius Rosenberg, an engineering student at City College, when she sang at a benefit concert for the International Seamen’s Union, and they married in 1939.
During World War II, Ethel’s younger brother, David Greenglass, served as an Army machinist at Los Alamos, the New Mexico site where the atomic bomb was developed. He testified that he conveyed bomb information to his brother-in-law Julius and that his sister typed his handwritten notes for delivery to Soviet agents. The jury believed David, explaining in later interviews that if Ethel’s own brother testified against her, she must be guilty. But David had lied. As prosecutors knew, and as Greenglass admitted years later, he had changed his initial statements absolving his sister in order to obtain leniency for himself and protect his own wife from prosecution.
The Rosenbergs’ case unfolded against a backdrop of frightening global events. In 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, years earlier than expected. In 1950, North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea, backed by the United States. American soldiers were dying daily in this conflict. Meanwhile, Americans at home were terrified by the prospect of a Soviet nuclear attack.
As Sebba shows, this environment of pervasive fear influenced both the Rosenberg trial and its aftermath. Pleas for clemency for the Rosenbergs, or just for Ethel, were brushed aside. No American officials wanted to appear “soft on communism” when the survival of the United States was thought to hang in the balance.