SIXTY-NINE YEARS after their execution, what more can possibly be said about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg? They are a haunting presence, and books keep appearing about them. The Rosenbergs are the subject of Francine Prose’s new novel The Vixen, and Anne Sebba’s biography of Ethel Rosenberg was published last year.
I recently revisited interviews I conducted in the 1980s with Julius Rosenberg’s sister Ethel Goldberg Appel; with Herman Starobin, who was director of research at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the “surrogate uncle” of the Rosenberg sons; and with other activists. These interviews have stayed with me all these years. At the time, I was working on my novel about the Rosenbergs, Red Love (1991). Part of what I was doing in the 1980s was an excavation project — an attempt to understand my own involvement in the Communist Party in the late 1950s and why I was drawn to it. The Rosenbergs were at the center of my search. As a boy coming home from school on the day of their execution, I remember how the sky seemed to darken for me. I sought out anyone involved in the case who would talk to me.
“I met Julie Rosenberg in the fall of 1938 at City College,” Herman Starobin said.
I knew him for two semesters, in the alcoves mainly and in the Young Communist League. He was there early and late. He was not too bright. A very strange, unhappy young man. Lonely, always there in the alcoves, always away from home. He didn’t have depth. I see Julie’s face before me. A young guy with a moustache, which struck me as strange. My concept of a yeshiva bocher [an eternal Talmudic student], not somebody who had come of a cultured background. He wore a suit. Most likely he had one suit. I understood him better when I met his mother. To me, Sophie Rosenberg was difficult. She spoke against Blacks. I think he couldn’t go home. What was he going home to? Unless he could see Ethel.
The Rosenbergs were also a Jewish story, and as a Jewish writer, there were many tripwires for me in writing it. As I look at pictures of the Rosenbergs now — Ethel in her plain coat, standing in her kitchen, Julius in his black suit — I find them haunting. They look like prototypical Jews of a certain hue — poor, Lower East Side Jews. Ashkenazi Jews with roots in Eastern Europe, they look almost as if they could be immigrants just off the boat. And they look defenseless.
Images float up of tenement buildings on Orchard Street where, as a child, I accompanied my grandmother shopping. Clotheslines on fire escapes and backyards. Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers. The potential for sentimentality and identification with the Rosenbergs was there for American Jews whose families had suffered poverty and oppression in Eastern Europe. At the same time, in American Jews of Germanic origin (usually of a much more privileged economic and social status), the opposite reaction might be engendered: contempt and distancing from these embarrassing poor relatives with scruffy clothes and poor manners. This would, I think, turn out to be the attitudes of the Jewish judge and prosecutors of the Rosenbergs.
The stigma of associating with the Rosenbergs and with communism affected the Jewish community for many years even though few American Jews were communists, and just a handful were spies. The American Jewish community was opposed to the communists and to the Soviet Union. Yet there was identification, fear, and shame as well. “I was a boy on a trolley in the Bronx in the 1950s,” a doctor told me.
My parents were seated in front, and I was seated in the back with an aunt and uncle. The Rosenbergs had been electrocuted that day. I wanted to talk about it, and everyone said “Shhh! Shhh!” They were afraid because of the association of Jews with communism. And I was ashamed of them for not speaking out and protesting.
Dec 27, 1952 […] It was cold in the yard this morning. Winter was asserting itself. Gusts of icy wind blew across the yard, stinging my ears and carrying to my nose the pungent fishy odor of the Hudson River. A soaring seagull was sailing upward in wide circles lifted by the strong wind and gracefully, without effort, covered the expanse of the wide open sky that my eyes could see. Yes, my spirit, too, took wing with that bird. […] The exercise guard gently reminded me my fifteen minutes yard period was finished. I breathed once more deeply of the fresh free air and then I went to my cell. The steel door closed, a key turned in the lock, the padlock snapped and I was once again shut in my cubicle of concrete.
— Julius Rosenberg, Death House Letters (1953).
While memories of my interviews have made the Rosenbergs more real to me each passing year, it’s a recent dream of mine that has joined those memories with a new revelation, one that has helped me begin to have a deeper understanding that eluded me all these years about why the Rosenbergs might have acted as they did.
The writer Dorothy Rabinowitz once wrote to me that as one got older, the Holocaust became closer. The Holocaust becomes very real in my dream: I am walking on the street in Europe during World War II and I hear breathing. I realize that it is the breathing of Jews in the sewers beneath the sidewalk. I hear them. I hear their desperation. Jews did in fact hide in sewers from the Nazis, in Lviv, Poland, and elsewhere. They hid not only from the Nazis but also from common folk in the neighborhood whom they’d known and considered their friends and who were now eager and enthusiastic to denounce them. To the Jews, the rats were better than the Nazis. The world was largely indifferent at best; there was nowhere to turn.
For the American Rosenbergs in the 1930s, the Soviet Union — despite the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, despite any potential disillusionment — must have seemed even better than the rats. At least the USSR seemed to express the right sentiments, supposedly banning anti-Semitism and bearing the brunt of the fight against Hitler. The United States was staying out of the war and would not fully enter it until December 10, 1941, three days after Pearl Harbor. Where else was there to turn? For American communists like the Rosenbergs, to accept the truth about the USSR was to abandon all hope.
Yet almost all Jews facing the same reality did not share the faith of the Rosenbergs or act as they did. As soon as Julius began working for the Army Signal Corps in 1940 as an inspector of electronic goods, he had approached the American Communist Party and expressed an eagerness to be put in touch with Soviet intelligence. He was recruited by the KGB on Labor Day, 1942. By the fall of 1942, he had assembled his network of spies, many of them former classmates at City College specializing in classified military technology research. “To American Communists, the Soviet Union was the salvation of the world and capitalism was a terror; fascism was really, in party lingo, ‘capitalism with an evil tail,’” Theodore Lit, a former communist writer, told me. He continued:
The Rosenbergs had an incandescence about them, worthy of a better cause. It was the stuff that martyrs and saints were made out of. There’s something about them that infuriates me, even though at the same time I recognize a kind of peculiar, displaced nobility. I don’t hate them the way I hate the Nazis.
When I was in the Party, deep down was the feeling that, come communism, there’d be no anti-Semitism. But it would also be a world without Jews, without Christians! Yet they didn’t look at it that way.
But what I find most amazing about these types is that even though they know they’re guilty, they write such letters that you think only an honest person could talk that way. I can understand everything about such a person except that seemingly sincere self-righteousness when they really knew he or she killed that guy. The same with the Rosenbergs. They seem to write with such fervor and sincerity and passion, like the broken heart of a man who’s been wronged.
If I’d done those things, I can’t see myself talking with that glow in my heart. Since the charges against them were that what they did was ignoble, and they knew they did a noble thing, therefore the charge was a lie. There was that genuine feeling of being put upon even though they knew that what they were accused of was true. But it was only “technically” true in their minds. Yet if someone accuses me of stealing money and he’s technically right, I can’t get myself to say that it’s an accursed lie. I would never dream of doing that, so how could they jump to that conclusion?
The Rosenbergs had grown up during the Depression. Who was listening to the Jews then? Julius was 15 years old in 1933, Ethel was 18. A poor Jew on the Lower East Side, turning away from his rabbinic studies, Julius saw poverty on every side, a burgeoning anti-Semitic movement in the United States, rampant racism, and in Germany the rise of Hitler.
What triggered his transformation to communism was the Tom Mooney case. One day on a street corner, he encountered a Communist Party rally in support of Mooney, a militant labor leader who had been framed (along with Warren K. Billings) on the charge of planting a bomb at a war-preparedness rally in 1916. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1918. A retrial was refused for 20 years despite worldwide protests that drew the support of celebrities like George Bernard Shaw, Sinclair Lewis, and Sherwood Anderson. He was finally released from prison in 1939.
And now, 37 years later, I am listening to Julius’s sister on a scratched tape almost decimated by time. I fictionalized some of her comments in Red Love, yet it seems to me now that that diminished their impact and that there is a greater immediacy in presenting them nonfictionally.
We were seated in the kitchen of her apartment in Co-op City, a Housing Authority project in the Bronx. “When Julius and Ethel were arrested, I just stuck my head in the ground like an ostrich. Foolishly,” she told me.
That was such a stupid thing to do. But I had fear. My husband and I were doing nicely. He was terribly frightened by the whole thing. We were in business. I had a baby on my hands. I remember going with my two-year-old to see Ethel in the House of Detention. But I couldn’t take Ethel and Julie’s kids under my wing. Joynie [Julius] wanted me so much to take them over.
After he was arrested, Julie had such a straight wall to climb. He had a tremendous mountain to climb, and he couldn’t make it. Julie was poor. I mean, they were schleppers. They didn’t even have a decent bed. Every piece of furniture was given to them.
I loved my brother. Nothing but pride. You could be proud of a character like that. He was knowledgeable, he was well-read. Worldly-wise. His Bar Mitzvah was really something. He might have been a rabbi if he stuck to religion, but he didn’t. When he graduated from the Talmud Torah, he got up and made a speech. People said he spoke better than the rabbi. He was so good in Hebrew. He was someone you could listen to. Knew what he was talking about.
A little boy, Jules, I remember him. He was a blond. He was the youngest of all of us. Little gold curls. And blue eyes. If you look at me, you’ll see Julie, but you’ll see a much handsomer man. A tall fella, slender. As he grew up, he had loads of friends. Before you knew it, he went to Hebrew school. Put his whole heart into it. When he did something, he did it with a full feeling. He put me wise to a lot of little things — like he says about Dave Greenglass, “You can make a diagram of a nail and show it to a layman and say it was the atom bomb. Would they know any different?” The first time Julie introduced me and my mother to Dave Greenglass was in 1945. My brother was very proud of him. He said to my mother, “Ma, do you know that Dave worked on the atom bomb?’”
He sold lollipops on the Shabbos, and he wouldn’t take money for the lollies. He would come back to collect the penny the next day. He had a very close friend, Miltie. They were like brothers, the two of them, through high school. He was just plain Julie. We all spoke Yiddish in the family and didn’t know English when we entered school. Something happened to Julie. He became a radical. It was a wrench for our father. Julie went to an extreme. He kept shouting against any unjust factor; he came right out with it. He was just blowing his top about it. In the yeshiva — he went afternoons after school — he had been a hundred percent religious. Took a keen interest in Hebrew. Put his whole heart into it. He was a born leader, a brilliant boy.
Julie had faith in everything at 13, just like young girls who haven’t reached maturity or gone out into the world yet. But he lost all his faith after a while. I think Ethel was his first girlfriend. He was her first and she was his first. These boys were so pure, these Yiddish boyeles. It was a happy childhood. It was like a shtetl. You were happy, you walked out, you were among friends, relatives, it was just a haimeshe [cozy] atmosphere. Jewish girls went with Jewish girls and Jewish boys went with Jewish boys. We used to walk by the river and throw our sins away on Tashlikh, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, wasn’t it? Like crumbs or something … You say a prayer.
We had culture from my father. He was a self-educated man. He educated himself to read the Forward. My mother didn’t have any education, she couldn’t read, but she knew to daven [nodding the head while praying], which amazed me. In shul, the way she davenned! You’d think she was reading from the book, but she knew it by heart.
My father told us stories about his boyhood. His parents died from hunger in Bialystok [Poland]. They had 11 children. Eight died. The three survivors were sent to America, my father and his two brothers. He told us stories, how they discriminated against Jews, the hardships they went through. I couldn’t believe these things: I was American-born. We didn’t see this in America.
We lived first on Stanton, then Pitt, then Columbia. A step upward — you had hot water and steam. The radicalism was so common among the poor children.
Julie didn’t ask for much. Neither did Ethel. The little things she had, she made them so big. They didn’t know what television was yet. Poverty didn’t bother them. When they married, they rented a room in a woman’s apartment; that’s all they could afford. They had each other; they were in love.
Ethel won’t hurt a fly! She won’t talk mean against anyone. I would come into her cell. Her apple would be on the metal window, a round of toilet paper, pictures of the children. She was short. Without shoes, she was even shorter. She’d been alone; she had to speak her heart out, so I allowed her.
I used to take their boys out, take them to the park, for candy, ice cream. I took the young one in the carriage with my child, and Michael would walk beside me. Then I had to leave them after two hours. The little one, Robbie, when I’d leave, he was afraid, you could see the fear, he jumped up and down with his little shortie pants. They were very good parents. My God, the devotion they gave to those children.
Not once did Judge Kaufman look at Julie’s face when he sentenced him. He made a big speech and my brother almost keeled over. Ethel grabbed him. I want to tell you that Julie never made the chair alive. He must have died before they bolted him to it. Ethel’s the stronger emotionally of the two, that’s why Ethel went second to the chair.
When I went to visit Julie in the House of Detention the last time, I heard the guards talking outside. I heard one of them say, “When the atom spies are put on the slab …” I wanted to run in there and say, “They’ll never die, never die.” But I held myself back. I didn’t want them to know I was Julie Rosenberg’s sister. This is what always kept me in the background. I never told Joynie about what the guards said.
They were hopeful, though, when the stay of execution came through. They had that little can of chicken that Ethel set aside, and we celebrated.
The very last day, I went to see Ethel; then I went to see Julie. I didn’t know they were calling the judges back [to vacate the stay granted by Justice William O. Douglas]. But Julie evidently got wind of it through the radio. I was with Julie; Mama was with Ethel. Julie said to me, “Take Mama home, take Mama home.” He cut it short. He didn’t want to see her because he would break down. I didn’t understand; I was happy about the stay. He didn’t tell me anything. “Just take Mama home,” that’s all he said to me.
When my husband walked in the door, he said, “I can’t believe that they did it.” A half hour before the execution, I couldn’t take it anymore. My little son who was 12 years old got up on the chair and turned the clock around so I couldn’t watch it. My mind was so frozen up, just paralyzed.
This was my brother’s Hebrew book, signed by him. June 12, 12 o’clock, room seven, five o’clock. He was a little boy then. Written by Jules. That’s his handwriting. It’s upside down. Why did he write it upside down? No, wait, he’s right! This is the right way to hold it. My brother’s Hebrew book … held in my brother’s hands. This is precious; maybe someday the world will see it. I had envelopes addressed by Julie and Ethel to their friends. I kept them. Where did I put them? Goddamnit … I’ll find them … I’ll find them …
I felt that [the Soviet Union] contributed a major share in destroying the Hitler beast who killed six million of my co-religionists, and I feel emotional about that thing.
— Julius Rosenberg, testifying at his trial.
“When the Rosenberg boys were adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol,” Herman Starobin said,
they looked for people who had knowledge of the Rosenbergs. They wanted to provide continuity and not treat the parents as outcasts. I saw the boys quite often after the execution. I played chess with Michael. He had played chess with his father. So, I was Uncle Herman.
I didn’t have a kid of my own. What do you do with children? You play. I became the uncle. I’d do multiple accents. I’d wear my glasses on my head.
Now Michael was growing a little stubble of a mustache. He turned his profile and said, “Who do I look like?” I said, “You look like Michael.” He said, “No, no, no.” And I said again, “You look like Michael.” And he said, “Come on now.” I said, “You want me to say that you look like Julius? You look like Julius. Does that make you happy?” He said, “Yeah, it does make me happy.”
If the story had ended in 1945, with the end of the war and Nazism defeated, my dream of the sewers might at least explain, but certainly not justify, why Julius had acted as he did. During an interim period in 1945, when the KGB suspended the activities of Julius’s network for fear of exposure, Julius in his zeal resisted the ban and continued to work with his network until his arrest. Julius clung to his dream.
And my dream? It helped me to understand and to feel, without solving a thing.
David Evanier is a former senior editor of The Paris Review and a writer for the Anti-Defamation League. He is currently writing the biography of Morton Sobell, co-defendant with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Featured image: Joseph Schillinger. Study in Rhythm: Red and Gold, 1934. Painting. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Schillinger.