Discussed in this essay: Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy, by Anne Sebba. St. Martin’s Press, 2021. 320 pages.
For more than 40 years, it was axiomatic on the left that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—the Jewish couple famously executed on June 19th, 1953, as spies who turned the designs for the atom bomb over to the Soviets—were innocent victims, scapegoats of the McCarthy era. In the decades after their execution, one could be certain that each June, an article would appear in the pages of this magazine that picked apart the government’s case by pointing to apparent absurdities in the charges leveled against the Rosenbergs’ ring: What kind of spies showed up at each other’s doors using their real names? Could something as silly as a jaggedly cut Jell-O box really have been a sign by which Soviet spies recognized each other? Could a drawing by Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, who had no postsecondary education, actually have enabled the Soviets to manufacture their own bomb? The left’s consensus—clinched by book-length treatments of the case like Walter and Miriam Schneir’s 1966 study Invitation to an Inquest—was that the Rosenbergs were framed, killed not for espionage but because they were Jews and, despite their unwavering denial, committed Communists.
This theory came crashing down in 1995 when newly released Soviet files, known as the Venona transcripts, demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that Julius was not only a spy, but the head of a ring of mainly Jewish comrades, including David. But if the transcripts confirmed Julius’s guilt, they showed that Ethel’s role was limited to knowledge of the espionage ring and recommending her sister-in-law Ruth for the role of typist—thus undermining the narrative advanced by the state in Ethel’s conviction. A few years later, Julius’s Soviet handler, Aleksander Feklisov, affirmed that Ethel knew about Julius’s work but was not a spy herself. “She had nothing to do with this—she was completely innocent,” he said. David eventually admitted that his testimony that Ethel had typed up the notes he provided on the Manhattan Project—which led to her conviction—was made only to protect himself and his wife.
At the time of the case, those who believed Ethel wasn’t guilty of the charges brought against her wondered: Why would the devoted mother of two young children, knowing she was innocent, remain silent on penalty of death, leaving her children orphans? The question persists today, and Anne Sebba’s recent biography, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy, attempts to answer it. Sebba’s book rounds out the portrait of the martyr, revealing her to be both a product of her times and a rebel against them: a devoted housewife who had left her artistic hopes and work life behind to devote her days to motherhood, a political militant, the scorned daughter of a family that preferred her brother—and, in the end, a victim of mass hysteria induced by the ambient anti-communism of her era, and heightened by her violation of social norms surrounding the appearance and conduct of women. Sebba’s carefully considered account—one of the few treatments of the case to focus on Ethel—is fair and sympathetic without falling into the trap of hagiography. By detailing the contours of Ethel’s life, the book helps us understand the flesh-and-blood woman who would be transformed into a political symbol. But in failing to deeply read Ethel’s own politics, it falls short of providing a compelling explanation of her infamous silence.
Ethel Rosenberg, born Ethel Greenglass in 1915, was a product of Manhattan’s largely Jewish Lower East Side. From a young age, she sang, acted, and dreamed of a life in the arts. (Her high school classmates elected her “class actress.”) But while she was talented enough to sing in a professional choir, the reality of life as a poor Jew forced her to find office work as a way to support herself and her family. It was there that she discovered the left-wing politics that would become her dominant interest. Sebba describes how she led a strike at her workplace that resulted in her firing from her position, a job restored to her by the newly established National Labor Relations Board, which allowed workers to organize in unions without fear of retribution. She soon became one of what Sebba estimates were 3,000 Communists on the Lower East Side, probably the largest concentration of Party members in the US. In 1939, she signed a petition to put the Communist candidate for City Council, Peter V. Cacchione, on the ballot—a fact that would later be used against her at trial. (Hard as it is to believe now, Cacchione, leader of the Communist Party in Brooklyn, was eventually elected in 1941 and then re-elected twice.)
Ethel met Julius, a City College student, in December 1936, and by all accounts theirs was a story of shared love and activism. Ethel gave birth to the couple’s first child, Michael, in 1943, and the second, Robby, in 1947; in Sebba’s portrayal, her dedication to her sons was as whole-hearted as her devotion to her husband and her politics. Michael was a difficult child, and Ethel studied all the available sources in an attempt to find the best way to help him. (Sebba notes that she continued her subscription to Parents magazine even while imprisoned and awaiting trial, when she had little chance of ever spending time alone with her boys again.) The Rosenbergs struggled financially, as Julius ran a series of failed businesses, yet Ethel remained a stay-at-home mother, abandoning her lingering dreams of making it on the stage. At the same time, she deepened her political organizing, which became inseparable from her marriage; for example, the couple together campaigned for Communist Party candidates and supported the Spanish Republicans. As Sebba writes, “[A]lthough communism theoretically championed the equality of the sexes, it was not theory that interested Ethel. From now on she . . . turned instead, in her single-minded way, to political activism and Julius.”
This all came to a crashing end on July 17th, 1950, when Julius was arrested. In the weeks after her husband was taken into custody, Ethel was called to testify before a grand jury, but refused to answer their questions. In August, after a particularly bruising day of questioning, she was met at the courthouse by two FBI agents who arrested her for violation of the Espionage Act of 1917. Government officials involved in the case would later admit in private that Ethel was arrested, and then tried and sentenced, primarily as a means of pressuring Julius to talk.
Though both Rosenbergs were vilified in the press, Ethel was cast in an especially negative light—often for reasons irrelevant to the issues of the case. Her unprepossessing appearance was, as Sebba shows, often held against her, with journalists describing her as “wearing the tired uniform of the clerk or stenographer—a dark wool skirt, a whitewash blouse and a white wool sweater,” as having a “dish-face complexion,” and as “slightly dumpy.” Even her hair was critiqued; one journalist wrote that she failed “to make the best of her naturally curly dark hair. Her bob is neither long nor short and it needs shaping.” Her calm demeanor at the couple’s trial was taken by some as proof that it was Ethel who was the real brains behind the spy ring.
Though the judge and the prosecuting attorneys—who included Roy Cohn—were also Jews, there was an undercurrent of “Jew=communist” in the trial and the reaction to it. As Sebba points out, it was no coincidence that, at a time when 25% of New York’s population was Jewish, the jury contained not a single Jew. The Rosenbergs were poorly defended by their attorneys, who had no experience with criminal trials nearly as grave as this one, and who, in an effort to soften the court towards the defendants, did little to push back against testimony to which they could have objected. Pressed on their politics, both Julius and Ethel took the Fifth Amendment, which was their right. But at that time, the height of the Cold War, their silence was viewed as at best an obfuscation, and at worst an admission that they had chosen the side of the enemy. It took the jury an afternoon and morning of deliberations to find them guilty, and Judge Irving Kaufman, in sentencing them to death, blamed them for the deaths of Americans in Korea and the looming threat of a Soviet bomb.
Legal and personal appeals followed, as well as an international campaign in the Rosenbergs’ defense. (Sebba tells us that the American Communist Party shied away from the case so as not to be tainted with the charge of espionage.) Despite all this—and despite evidence that Ethel was never the government’s real target—President Eisenhower refused to grant clemency, fearing that granting Ethel a reprieve would encourage other housewives to turn to espionage. A last-ditch effort by the couple’s lawyers to delay the execution, which had been scheduled on the Sabbath, only resulted in the hour being moved up. Julius was executed first, then Ethel. The Rosenbergs had entered history.
In the end, there is no way to understand Ethel’s conduct—or Julius’s—except through the lens of their political stance: their fidelity to Communism and the Soviet Union. While Sebba recognizes this dimension, she doesn’t get to what was at the heart of their actions. Appreciating this commitment, and taking account of the specific period during which the spy ring was active and the trial occurred, is essential to comprehending how these two people—devoted spouses, dedicated and loving parents—gave their lives so stoically for their cause.
Julius’s political allegiances—which Ethel clearly shared—were formed by the fact that he was a spy during World War II, when the US and the USSR were allies in the battle against fascism. (This fact has often been held up as evidence that the trial and sentence were iniquitous, since whatever was turned over to the Soviets was technically turned over to allies.) Long before D-Day in June 1944, Communists (and many others) around the world had called for the establishment of a second front. In Europe, only the Red Army and the various resistance movements were actively fighting the Nazis. Anything that could be done to assist Stalin’s army was a blow against fascism, and that meant there was no higher calling for a Communist than to be a comrade in arms with the Soviet soldiers who fought at Stalingrad, Leningrad, and Kursk, or with the Communist-led partisans fighting and dying in France, Yugoslavia, and Greece. Feklisov wrote in his memoirs of Julius’s almost obsessive love for the Soviet Union, describing how he cherished being considered as brave as the partisans who fought behind Nazi lines. Julius further demonstrated his ideological motivations by never asking for payment, and only ever grudgingly accepting small sums from the Soviets, despite his family’s dire financial straits. As his espionage unfolded in the final years of the war, he understood himself to be at one with the fighters in Europe, risking his freedom and his life much as Tito’s Communist guerillas did by fighting the Nazis in Yugoslavia and Zhukov’s armies did as they fought their way across Europe.
Ethel was equally committed to the Soviet Union as a beacon of both workers’ rights and antifascism. While it seems certain that had she broken under pressure she would have survived, as her brother did, cooperating with the prosecution would have meant denying everything she and Julius had fought for and believed in. Even more, it would have been a betrayal of the fight against fascism. Julius himself made this manichean choice clear, writing about the trial in a 1952 letter from prison to Ethel: “If we are able to contribute something in the the great fight for peace and against fascism and I believe that we have already made an important contribution to aid in this fight, then we have turned the tables on the prosecution and have advanced the cause of justice and freedom.”
The Rosenbergs have long been cast as either nefarious villains or superhuman heroes. Both views obscure the truth: They were passionate ideologues, inspired and constrained by the politics of their particular moment. We honor them best by understanding who they were in all their humanity. Even as it fails to fully plumb the depths of the Rosenbergs’ devotion to their politics, by illuminating the couple’s choices and the historical backdrop against which they made them, Sebba’s Ethel Rosenberg takes us a long way along the road to that comprehension.
A prevision version of this review misstated the name of the judge who sentenced the Rosenbergs to death.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.