Off the Shelf: Injustice and Ethel Rosenberg

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

During my childhood, I was taught that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were innocent of spying. For those unfamiliar with the case, the Jewish couple was convicted and executed for passing U.S. atomic secrets to the U.S.S.R. Both proclaimed their innocence and my father believed them. Then in the 1980s, a book was published (I can’t recall the title) by someone who was going to positively prove the Rosenbergs were innocent. Unfortunately for the author, what he discovered was that, while Ethel had never been a spy, Julius had passed secrets to the Soviets. The U.S. charged Ethel in an attempt to make Julius confess his crime, something he never did. Because of his silence and Ethel’s refusal to condemn her husband, they both died in the electric chair on June 19, 1953, two years before I was born. 

I mention my personal history because it explains my interest in Anne Sebba’s wonderful biography “Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy” (St. Martin’s Press). What makes this work so remarkable is that Sebba not only allows readers to clearly understand Ethel’s decisions, but paints vivid pictures of two different periods of American history that explain what happened to the Rosenbergs. To know why Julius was attracted to the communist cause, readers need to understand how many on the Lower East Side of New York City believed the Soviet Union was creating a workers’ utopia. To understand what occurred during their trial, it’s necessary to explain the Cold War hysteria that swept through the U.S. during the Korean War, when anyone with communistic/socialist leanings was considered a potential enemy to our country.

Sebba discusses Ethel’s early life, particularly her difficult relationship with her mother. Although Ethel wanted to be a performer, she needed a job to support herself. It was through that employment that she became involved with union activities and socialistic causes. After Ethel married Julius, who was two years younger than her, her main focus, though, was on being a wife and mother. That was typical of the times: women were expected to put aside any personal ambition in order to be a support to their husbands and children. Taking care of her two young children was not always easy for Ethel: she suffered from back pain and headaches for years. But she worked hard to be a good mother and a good wife. Her own desires were sublimated into family life.

During World War II, when the Soviet Union was an ally of the U.S., Julius passed on information given to him by Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass. Julius never accepted money for this: he did it because he believed in the communist cause. At that time, Stalin and the Soviet Union were greatly admired by many in the U.S.: this country was still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and capitalism favored the rich, not the poor. People were unaware of the failures of the Soviet Union’s policies because its propaganda machine was so successful. 

The recent release of David’s original grand jury testimony shows that, while he mentioned that Julius was giving information to the Soviets, he said his sister had not taken part. However, when he realized his wife, Ruth, might also be arrested, David testified that Ethel had played an important role. In return, Ruth was never arrested or charged. Ethel’s being two years older than Julius allowed her to be painted as the impetus for the spying: she was called an older woman who manipulated her husband.

Sabbo discusses how, although the government and the prosecutors knew that Ethel was innocent, they felt pressing charges against her would make Julius speak. They also hoped that Ethel would name others who were involved in the socialist movement. But Ethel refused to confess to a crime she had not committed, nor would she betray her friends: her idea of justice and truth would simply not allow her to do so. While not a saint by any means, Ethel comes across as an admirable woman who refused to bend her principles, even when it meant losing her life. 

Sabbo also discusses the split in the Jewish community about the Rosenberg trial, how the world reacted to the trial, others who were arrested for spying and what happened to the Rosenbergs’ two children. “Ethel Rosenberg” is perfect for book groups because there is a great deal to discuss, including whether offering deals to those accused of crimes if they implicate others really leads to justice. Ethel’s brother, David, spent 10 years in jail and his wife, who had participated in his spying, was never even charged with a crime. Instead, his sister was put to death because he wanted to spare his wife prison time. The questions Sabbo raise linger long after reading the last page of her moving work.