Seventy years ago, in June 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted at Sing-Sing prison in New York — 15 minutes before Shabbat began out of respect for Jewish tradition. It is an anniversary that Jewish organisations in the Diaspora have chosen to ignore — and one that they may not wish to be reminded of.
The zeitgeist in the summer of 1953 was a deep fear of the Soviet threat and many US Jewish organisations worried about Jewry being tarred with the brush of Judeo-Communism. Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz in Johannesburg and Rabbi Alexander Altmann in Manchester were honourable exceptions — and appealed to President Eisenhower for clemency for the couple. Luminaries such as Sartre, Brecht, Einstein, Picasso and even the Pope appealed, but to no avail. According to a Gallop poll, 76% of Americans believed the Rosenbergs deserved their fate.
Convicted of espionage in 1951 and sentenced to death by Judge Irving Kaufman — who had spent several hours beforehand at his Temple, Park Avenue Synagogue, meditating on his verdict — the Rosenbergs became a cause célèbre for the international Left. As Anne Sebba remarks in her recent biography of Ethel Rosenberg: “The Rosenbergs remain the only Americans ever put to death in peacetime for conspiracy to commit espionage, the only two American civilians executed for civilian-related crimes committed during the Cold War.”
The Rosenbergs left behind two young sons, six and 10 years old, who did not understand why their parents had been taken away from them. A kibbutz in Israel offered to take in the boys and look after them.
Two recent books, Martin J. Siegel’s Judgement and Mercy (2023), a biography of Judge Kaufman, and Anne Sebba’s Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy (2021), demonstrate the ambiguities and machinations behind the death sentences. In short, the verdict on the Rosenbergs can be viewed historically on how Jews understood Jewishness and the American dream in post-war US.
The Rosenbergs were second-generation American Jews who had gravitated to a secular identity and found a spiritual haven in communism. As Ethel wrote in a letter to Julius in September 1951: “Life has taught me that theory (Jewish prayer) without practice can be a pretty empty, meaningless gesture, lip service simply does not bring about peace and goodwill and security that all decent humanity so bitterly craves; we must not use prayer to an Omnipotent Being as a pretext for evading our responsibility to our fellow human beings in the daily struggle for the establishment of social justice.”
The couple believed their quest for social justice resided in an unquestioning loyalty to the Soviet Union. They regarded themselves as “Soldiers of Stalin,” ideologically stuck in the time groove of the war against Nazism when the USSR and US were allies. They were seemingly oblivious to the antisemitic excesses of the USSR such as the “Doctors’ Plot,” where a group of predominantly Jewish doctors was falsely accused of a conspiracy to assassinate Soviet leaders.
Julius Rosenberg formed a spy ring of relatives and friends — almost all of whom were Jews who felt that passing classified material about the atomic bomb to their Soviet handlers would prevent a nuclear catastrophe and initiate a stand-off between the superpowers.
In 1995, after the fall of the USSR, the US released transcripts of the Venona Project, the decryption of Soviet intelligence messages which demonstrated that Julius had indeed been a spy — and that the decades-long campaign to exonerate him as an innocent bystander was well-intentioned wishful thinking.
This revelation raised further questions. Was the secret material passed to the Soviets important? Did the Rosenbergs “give the atomic bomb to the Russians” as depicted in the populist rhetoric of the time? General Leslie Groves, who was in charge of the Manhattan Project at the time, believed the material handed over was of little value — but that it may have hastened the Kremlin’s drive to attain nuclear weapons. This was also the view of Julius’s Soviet handler, Aleksandr Feklisov in a book, published in 2001 — although such memoirs should be read critically.
Was Ethel guilty? The consensus of opinion today is that she may have known about Julius’s activities but was not an active participant. She was betrayed by her brother, David Greenglass, who lied to the prosecution to save his own wife from imprisonment.
Did the Rosenbergs deserve the death penalty? Few expected the verdict of death in the electric chair — not even Greenglass.
Yet as Martin Siegel demonstrates in his book, Judge Kaufman had decided that this was an appropriate sentence long before its actual delivery. President Eisenhower refused to grant clemency in the aftermath of the Berlin Air Lift, Mao Zedong’s conquest of China and the onset of the Korean War when communism was advancing on all fronts. Many in the United States believed that World War III was imminent.
The Rosenbergs proclaimed their innocence to the last — perhaps this is how they perceived themselves ideologically. Unlike others in the chain, they refused to confess and name names. Julius was the last link in that chain — and the penalty was death. All the others spent long years in prison instead. Morton Sobell, Julius’s college friend, spent almost 18 years in prison. He died in December 2018, aged 101, the last surviving member of the Rosenberg network.
This Cold War tragedy should, according to Martin Siegel, be understood in a wider context of Jewishness. Judge Kaufman, the son of Zvi Hirsch bar Shlomo, from Galicia, grew up in an immigrant family on New York’s Lower East Side. He wanted to become a respected Jewish American who had made good despite the racism, snobbery and discrimination of the time. He gravitated from Orthodoxy to Reform, from Isadore to Irving Robert. At 40, he was one of the youngest federal judges — and badly wanted the Rosenberg case.
Like him, the Rosenbergs also came from a humble Jewish background but unlike him, they remained in the ghetto. The Rosenbergs projected a parallel American Dream — one that eliminated racism, antisemitism and the corporate exploitation of working people. Martin Siegel argues that for Judge Kaufman, “it was his America that the Rosenbergs wanted to end, the Promised Land that Jews like him had searched for — for millennia and finally found”. It also reflected an embarrassment with the ostjuden from the East European shtetl. For Judge Kaufman, the Rosenbergs were a disgrace to the Jewish people.
In contrast, for the Rosenbergs and their circles, Judge Kaufman and his ilk from Park Avenue were regarded as nothing less than a Judenrat — comparable to those Jews who worked for the Nazis during the war.
Judge Kaufman’s summing up played to the anti-communist populism of the time and effectively condemned the Rosenbergs for treason — and not the stated charge of espionage. He commented that he considered the Rosenbergs’ crime “worse than murder” and that it had caused the Korean conflict.
The trial itself was very much a Jewish affair. The judge, defendants, prosecution and defence were all mainly Jews. One non-Jewish juror later commented: “I felt good that this was strictly a Jewish show. It was Jew against Jew. It wasn’t the Christians hanging the Jews. Any other judge would have been more lenient than Kaufman.”
Irving Saypol, also from the Lower Side, led for the prosecution. His assistant was the notorious Roy Cohn, known for his overriding ambition and opportunism. Cohn later became senator Joseph McCarthy’s fixer during the “Reds under the Bed” period of the 1950s and the House Un-American Activities Committee, whereby those who did not accept the prevailing political wisdom were hounded out of office and employment.
Judge Kaufman held frequent “secret back-channel discussions” with the prosecution and apparently had regular afternoon meetings with Cohn to discuss the Rosenbergs during the trial.
Cohn went on to represent both Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch in lawsuits in the 1970s. As an exasperated president Trump cried out in 2017, “Where is my Roy Cohn?”
The tide of public resentment against the Rosenbergs began to turn when their sons came of age and began to campaign. Their stock rose as Cohn’s began to falter.
Judge Kaufman went along with this changing zeitgeist and even ruled against John Lennon’s proposed deportation from the United States, which was much desired by the Nixon White House. He enjoyed the respect and approval of his legal colleagues and was feted in wider society. He attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace and enjoyed watching tennis at Wimbledon.
The fate of the Rosenbergs continues to haunt their sons even though they are today well into their seventies. They appealed recently to President Biden to exonerate their mother.
Judge Kaufman remained a symbolic figure of hate and derision. During a memorial service in his synagogue when he died in 1992, protesters disrupted the ceremony with cries of “He murdered the Rosenbergs — let him rot in hell.”
On the evening of the execution, a Broadway theatre staged Arthur Miller’s The Crucible depicting the hysteria of the Salem witchcraft trials and the demand to confess under the threat of death. When the main character refused to recant and was led to his death, the theatregoers stood and bowed their heads. No one applauded at the end of the play on that night.
Plus61j 21 July 2023