Ethel Rosenberg was a 37 yr old mother when she became the first and only woman ever executed for espionage in the United States. Her sons were only 3 and 7 yrs old when their parents were arrested. They were 6 and 10, when their parents were executed. Now mature men, Michael and Robert took their adoptive parents’ surname (for obvious reasons).
It would appear that their mother was scapegoated and treated very unfairly. The prosecution laid all of the blame on her as the older spouse. Ethel’s younger brother, David Greenglass, had been arrested first for that same crime of espionage. A month after her husband, Julius was arrested on July 17 1950, Ethel was seized by the FBI and charged. She called Michael at home and told him that she, like his father, had been arrested.
“So you can’t come home?” he asked.
“No,” she replied.
The seven-year-old screamed.
Historian Anne Sebba (author of Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy) likes writing about women who have been misunderstood and she says, few have been more misunderstood than Ethel Rosenberg. Her brother, David Greenglass had briefly worked as a machinist at Los Alamos. He was arrested as a link in the chain of persons passing secrets about atomic technology on to the Soviets. David quickly admitted his guilt. His lawyer advised him that the best thing he could do for himself (and to give his wife immunity) would be to turn someone else in. And actually, it was his wife, Ruth Greenglass, who said that Ethel had typed up the information David had given Julius to pass on to the Soviets. David then changed his story the week before his trial to corroborate his wife’s version.
Michael and Robert never saw the Greenglasses again after the trial. Robert says that when he thinks of his family before his parents were arrested – he has, “this feeling of a golden age, of a wonderful loving family before it was ripped apart.” Ethel Rosenberg was a particularly devoted mother, with a progressive interest in child psychology. Though at first the boys were sent to live with Ethel’s mother Tessie, she resented the situation. So the boys were sent to a children’s home. Julius’s mother Sophie tried to rescue them but she was too frail to handle young boys.
On June 16 1953, the children were brought to Sing Sing prison in New York State to say goodbye to their parents. Ethel kept up her usual brave appearance, but on this occasion Michael – who was 10 yrs old by that time understood what was happening. Her outward calm upset him. Afterwards, Ethel wrote a letter to her children: “Maybe you thought that I didn’t feel like crying when we were hugging and kissing goodbye huh… Darlings, that would have been so easy, far too easy on myself… because I love you more than I love myself and because I knew you needed that love far more than I needed the relief of crying.”
Because no extended family was willing to look after the boys, they were eventually adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol, an older leftwing couple. They could finally grow up in anonymity among loving people who told them their parents had been brave and admirable. On this Juneteenth, it is interesting to know that Abel Meeropol wrote the civil rights era song Strange Fruit. The boys enjoyed a happy, academic, leftwing upbringing as Meeropols. They told almost no one their real surname, and Robert, who was a toddler when his parents were imprisoned, never considered reverting to it. It was more complicated for Michael, who could remember playing ball games with his father in their apartment.
In 1973, local media unmasked the boys’ identity, ignoring pleas to respect their anonymity. The boys then wrote their memoir, We Are Your Sons. They sued the FBI and CIA under the Freedom of Information Act and obtained more than 300,000 pages of once secret documents. In 1995, the Venona papers were declassified. These were messages sent between Soviet intelligence agencies that had been intercepted and decrypted by US counterintelligence from 1943 to 1980. It is clear that Julius Rosenberg and the Greenglasses were definitely spying for the Soviets. There was very little about Ethel. She didn’t have a codename like Julius and the Greenglasses. She was simply “a devoted person” (ie a communist) but it was stressed that “[she] does not work” (ie she was not a spy). With these, the boys began to believe in their mother’s innocence.
The boys realized reading the Venona transcript that Julius and Ethel didn’t do the thing they were executed for. Ethel didn’t work for the Soviets and Julius wasn’t an atomic spy but more accurately a military-industrial spy. Although Julius passed on weapon details, he wasn’t passing on details about the atomic bomb. Morton Sobell – who had been convicted for espionage along with the Rosenbergs, served 18 years in Alcatraz – eventually he gave an interview to the New York Times. He said that he and Julius had been spies together, and confirmed that Julius had not helped the Russians build the bomb. “What he gave them was junk,” Sobell said of Julius, probably because he didn’t know anything about the bomb. Of Ethel, Sobell said, “She knew what he was doing, but what was she guilty of? Of being Julius’s wife.”
In 1996, David Greenglass finally admitted he lied about his sister: “I told them the story and left her out of it, right? But my wife put her in it. So what am I gonna do, call my wife a liar? My wife is my wife. I mean, I don’t sleep with my sister, you know. I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don’t remember.”
Robert launched a campaign for Ethel’s exoneration in 2015 – not for a pardon, because that would suggest she had done something wrong, but a full exoneration. Anne Sebba says, “I think she just had other concerns: she was looking after her children and trying to be present for them. She gave up activism when her children were born. Her main identity was as a wife and a mother, and that’s what mattered to her.” In 2019, Michael’s daughter, Ivy, made a documentary about Roy Cohn, who was the prosecutor of the Rosenbergs. In Bully Coward Victim, she made the connection between her grandparents’ execution and Trump.
“There’s a very binary idea of the political world, in which people are guilty or innocent, right or wrong. But understanding nuance is essential to understanding how politics work and how society works,” says Robert. He is hoping that President Biden will look at exonerating Ethel favorably. “That the US government invented evidence to obtain a conviction and an execution is a threat to every person in this country, and to not expose that is to become complicit in it. The personal stuff is obvious, but the political stuff is equally powerful,” Robert says.
Anne Sebba finds the two sons delightful to talk to: wildly intelligent, always interesting, completely admirable. She wonders how on earth did they triumph over such a traumatic childhood? Sebba says the two men have an extraordinarily high level of intelligence. Second, she finds that they had amazing adoptive parents. And now knowing how important those early years of life are, she believes Ethel must have given those two boys so much in the few years she had with them, enough to last all their lives. She believes that Ethel must have been an extremely good mother.
I love history and found this story fascinating and in that it intersects with adoption made it irresistible for me to share with you today in my blog. The much longer story, from which this blog was excerpted, can be read here in The Guardian by Hadley Freeman, The Rosenbergs were executed for spying in 1953. Can their sons reveal the truth?