Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Julius (Yonah) Rosenberg (1918-1953) and Ethel (Etel) Rosenberg (nee Greenglass, 1915-1953) were convicted in 1951 of spying for the Soviet Union, including providing top-secret information about American radar, sonar, jet propulsion engines and nuclear weapons designs. They were executed by the federal government on their fourteenth wedding anniversary on June 19, 1953, the first and only American civilians to face the death penalty for espionage during the Cold War. Ethel remains the only woman ever executed for a crime other than murder (Mary Surratt was executed for conspiring to murder Abraham Lincoln).



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The guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs continues to be a hotly contested subject seventy years after their execution, and it is well beyond the scope of this article to examine this question in detail. J. Edgar Hoover called their case “the crime of the century,” but the real crime was arguably the trial itself, which was marked by inconsistencies and irregularities including flimsy evidence, coaxed and coerced testimony and illegal and unethical government conduct. Nonetheless, the greatest likelihood based on the totality of the evidence today is that Julius was indeed guilty but was also framed by false evidence.

As to Ethel, although Myles Lane, one of the Rosenberg prosecutors, admitted that the case against her was “not too strong” – which most people familiar with the case knew very well – she was largely merely a tool to get at her husband; Hoover wrote that “proceeding against the wife will serve as a lever” to make Julius talk. At the end of the day, the government used Ethel as a pawn even though she was, at most, a peripheral figure who played no part in spying or conspiracy, and her execution was a grave miscarriage of justice.

Julius was born in New York City to a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia who moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he grew up zealously embracing Judaism and planning to study for the rabbinate. However, he became enamored with leftist and Communist theology (I use that term intentionally) while attending City College of New York, from which he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. He joined the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1940, where important research on electronics, communications, radar and guided missile controls was undertaken during World War II. He worked there as an engineer-inspector until 1945, when the U.S. Army discovered his previous membership in the Communist Party and discharged him.

Julius allegedly was originally recruited to spy for the NKVD, the interior ministry of the Soviet Union and precursor of the KGB, on Labor Day 1942. In January 1950, the U.S. discovered that Klaus Fuchs, a German refugee and theoretical physicist working for the British mission on the Manhattan Project, had given key documents to the Soviets throughout World War II. Fuchs identified his courier as American Harry Gold. When David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother who had worked as a machinist at Los Alamos, was arrested on June 15, 1950, for espionage, he confessed to having passed secret information on to the USSR through Gold. He also claimed that Julius had convinced David’s wife, Ruth Greenglass, to recruit him in 1944 and that Julius had passed secrets to a Soviet agent.

After Julius’s arrest on June 17, 1950, and Ethel’s arrest later on August 11, the Rosenbergs encountered great difficulty in finding counsel to represent them; few lawyers wanted to represent an avowed Communist in a case of broad public interest involving alleged espionage against the United States. They ultimately retained Emmanuel and Alexander Bloch, who were both Jewish; ironically, the prosecution team (Irving Saypol and Roy Cohn) and the trial judge (Irving Kaufman) were also all Jewish.

David Greenglass originally maintained that Ethel had played no part in the espionage, but ten days before the start of the trial, the Greenglasses, who proved to be among the greatest villains of the entire affair, were persuaded to change their original stories, and they now claimed that Ethel, at Julius’s request, had taken his notes and “typed them up.” (As a result of this revised testimony, all charges against Ruth Greenglass were dropped.)

Later, in 2001, David Greenglass admitted that he had been coerced by the prosecution to perjure himself and that he agreed to do so only to protect himself and his wife: “My wife is more important to me than my sister. Or my mother or my father, OK? And she was the mother of my children.” He refused to express remorse for his decision to betray Ethel, saying only that he did not realize that the prosecution would push for the death penalty. Moreover, when the grand jury testimony was released in 2008, Ruth testified, “Yes, I wrote [the information] down on a piece of paper and [Julius] took it with him.” But at the trial, she committed perjury by testifying that Ethel typed notes about the atomic bomb.

On August 11, Ethel testified before a grand jury and, repeatedly invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, she refused to answer questions. On August 17, the grand jury returned an indictment against both Rosenbergs and others and the trial commenced on March 6, 1951, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York with Judge Irving Kaufman presiding. The Rosenbergs were convicted of espionage on March 29 and were sentenced to death on April 5.

In imposing the death penalty, Kaufman found that the Rosenbergs were responsible not only for espionage but also for American deaths in the Korean War (!):

I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country.

The U.S. government offered to spare the lives of both Rosenbergs if Julius provided the names of other spies and if they admitted their guilt, but they refused, saying that they were innocent and would not bear false witness. After their execution, several Jewish cemeteries refused to accept their bodies for burial, and the funeral services were finally held in Brooklyn on Sunday, June 21 (Jewish burials must take place as soon as possible, but they are not permitted on Shabbat) and the Rosenbergs were buried at Wellwood Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in Pinelawn, New York. The ceremony was attended by 500 people with an additional 10,000 standing outside in the searing heat.

Judge Kaufman’s correspondence on his sentencing the Rosenbergs to death.

In the April 14, 1951, correspondence exhibited here written on his U.S. District Court Chambers letterhead – just over a week after he sentenced the Rosenbergs to death on April 5 – Judge Kaufman thanks a writer for his “thoughtful note concerning the sentence in the atom bomb spy case” and for his “kind expressions which it conveys and the spirit that prompted you to write.” Ironically, Kaufman’s improprieties in the Rosenberg trial were legion, including communicating ex parte with the government prosecutors, even going so far as to coach them on how to best present their case.

Despite a distinguished career of nearly 43 years on the federal bench, Kaufman’s (1910-1992) reputation is forever linked to the Rosenberg trial. As discussed, debate continued over the death sentence even after their execution, and while, even to date, many criticize Kaufman’s fairness, and the death sentence remains highly controversial, many others – including our correspondent and President Reagan, who awarded Kaufman the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1987) – considered him to be a brave defender of judicial independence and protecting America against treason and espionage.

Under pressure from the Justice Department to end the Rosenberg case quickly, Kaufman set their death for a Friday, which created an unanticipated complication: If New York were to carry out the execution at the traditional hour of 11:00 p.m., the Rosenbergs would be put to death several hours into Shabbat. Defense counsel Bloch asked for more time, filing a complaint that execution on the Sabbath offended the defendants’ Jewish tradition; Kaufman sought the advice of a rabbi to ascertain the exact time when the Sabbath began, and the defense strategy backfired when Kaufman moved the execution up to 8 p.m. – before sunset and the onset of Shabbat.

Kaufman later reported that, agonized over the sentencing, he had gone to synagogue several times to pray before issuing the death sentence, which enraged Justice Felix Frankfurter (who, it should be noted, was Jewish). Frankfurter later wrote, “I despise a judge who feels G-d told him to impose a death sentence,” and he reportedly intentionally remained on the Court long enough to prevent Kaufman from taking his place on the Supreme Court’s so-called “Jewish seat.” Kaufman remained displeased throughout his life at the prominence given the Rosenberg case, considering the many other significant cases he handled, including particularly his issuance of the first order desegregating a Northern public school in Taylor v. Board of Education (1961).

Julius died from the first electric shock but Ethel’s execution did not go smoothly; after she was given the normal course of three electric shocks, attendants found that her heart was still beating and, after two more electric shocks were applied, eyewitnesses reported that they saw smoke rising from her head; as a result, Ethel was executed three minutes after Shabbat had started.

In this June 30, 1953, correspondence on his Supreme Court letterhead written eleven days after the execution of the Rosenbergs, Justice William O. Douglas writes to journalist Cornelius Vanderbilt:

Justice Douglas’ correspondence on the “Rosenberg matter.”

Your letter of June 18th about the Rosenberg matter touched me deeply. It was good of you to write me. I do hope we can get together soon. I’ll look at your book, soon. I thank you for the fine compliment you paid mine.

Douglas played an interesting role in the saga of the Rosenberg case. After the Supreme Court refused to hear the Rosenbergs’ appeal on June 13, 1953, their counsel petitioned Douglas for a stay of execution and, notwithstanding a “gentleman’s agreement” amongst the justices that no judge would issue a stay on his own, Douglas granted a stay on June 17 because the jury had failed to recommend a death sentence – which recommendation was necessary under the law for the imposition of capital punishment in such cases. In addition, the Rosenbergs were tried for conspiracy but sentenced for treason. In response, for only the third time in history, a Chief Justice (Fred Vinson) reconvened the court after it had already adjourned for vacation and, for the first time ever, the Supreme Court vacated a stay granted by a justice (on a vote of 6-3).

Douglas, a great friend of the Jews and Israel who claimed to have been “converted to Zionism” by Justice Brandeis, promised to “continue my sympathies for Israel and to do whatever I can for its welfare.” He often contrasted the oppression of people in other Middle Eastern countries with the revitalization of the land and the people in Israel. Awarded the 1960 “America-Israel Friendship Award” by the Mizrachi Women’s Organization of America, he was cited for the “distinguished contribution he has rendered toward fostering understanding between the peoples of the United States and Israel, and toward the promotion of the Biblical ideals of peace and social justice among nations and peoples throughout the world.”

In this August 31, 1954, correspondence (likely also a demurral to a solicitation for funds) to Irwin Edelman written one month after the death of his wife, Frieda Kahlo, Diego Rivera writes:

Diego Rivera on the Rosenberg case.

I have received the material that you sent to me about Rosenberg case. Under separate cover, in postal package, I am sending you back your manuscripts.

Unfortunately, among the list of possibilities and unconvenients [sic], that I could have for your proposition it is precisely the personal problem that put me out of any possibility in that direction.

As side that, by more than the ten last years of my life does not differ at all of the Party line, of which I try to be a good friend and any contribution I could do for common forces I do through the organization. On the other hand, my personal resources are extremely limited.

A Communist who ironically painted murals for some of the great capitalists of his day, the controversial and charismatic Rivera (1886-1957), considered the greatest Mexican painter of the 20th century, is credited with reintroducing fresco painting into modern art and architecture. Seeking to create a new national art in the wake of the Mexican revolution, he blended elements from European masters and Modernists with pre-Hispanic forms and designs to create his unique style. Using simplified forms and vivid colors, he proudly reinterpreted Mexican history from a revolutionary and nationalistic point of view. Though a professed atheist, Rivera privately and publicly acknowledged his Jewish ancestry.

During the trial of the Rosenbergs, the leftist National Guardian began a campaign to clear their names, claiming antisemitism and a government frame-up, and a grassroots movement, referred to in this letter, sprang up leading to the formation of the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case. In 1952, mainstream American newspapers began to take notice of the growing international movement on behalf of the Rosenbergs, and their coverage equated the movement with “Communism and anti-Americanism.” Partly due to the highly charged atmosphere in Cold War America, the protests did little to change public opinion.

Agitator Edelman, who had been expelled from both the Communist Party (1947) and the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, believed that the party preferred martyrs to a stout legal defense and that the Rosenberg defense committee, with collusion from the “Anglo-Jewish and Jewish press,” had covered up important evidence that would have exonerated the Rosenbergs. He published a pamphlet that criticized the Rosenbergs’ defense team and outlined his own legal strategy for reversing their convictions, theorizing that the government had convicted under the wrong federal statute, a point never raised by the Rosenberg lawyers.

For Jews, the most important aspect of the Rosenberg case was the Jewish background of all four of the major defendants. American Jews feared the Rosenberg trial would be a gift to antisemites; in the long shadow of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, what better proof could there be of the Communist sympathies of Jews and their support for the Soviet motherland?

At the time, many believed that the Rosenbergs were innocent victims of antisemitism and Cold War paranoia and hysteria. Prominent defenders included Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Pope Pius XII, W.E.B. DuBois, Linus Pauling, Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Harold Urey and artist Diego Rivera, as discussed above. Sadly, however, American fears about communism at the time were high, and the mainstream Jewish organization conspicuously failed to provide any support, to the point that the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) expelled communists from their membership and supported the death penalty for the Rosenbergs. The National Jewish Community Council went so far as to issue a formal statement denouncing any suggestion that the prosecution of the Rosenbergs was attributable to antisemitic animus, and a representative of the AJC added insult to injury by emphasizing in testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities that “Judaism and Communism are utterly incompatible.” The ADL and the Jewish War Veterans also cooperated with HUAC and opened their files to the committee.

Leading Jewish journals like Commentary and the Forward also supported the death penalty for the Rosenbergs. Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times and a practicing Reform Jew (and a staunch anti-Zionist), said “they must be executed” because “any Jew who is a communist deserves to be executed.”

Some Jewish leaders attempted to contain any damage resulting from the Rosenberg case, launching a propaganda campaign to convince the general public that American Jews were not tainted with Communism and that the Soviet Union was hostile to Jews, Judaism, Jewish culture, Zionism and Israel. The Rosenbergs’ supporters charged that antisemitism was behind the government’s prosecution and execution, noting that, for example, the New York City jury that convicted them was intentionally kept devoid of Jews, notwithstanding the fact that the city’s population was 30 percent Jewish and the original jury panel of 156 citizens included 15 names that were obviously Jewish. (The jury foreman would later comment that the case was “Jews against Jews,” and not “Christians hanging Jews.”) They also argued that even if the Rosenbergs were guilty as charged, their crime had been committed during World War II, when the Soviet Union was not an enemy of the United States; as such, they argued, at worst the Rosenbergs had provided information to an ally, and this did not warrant the death penalty.

However, although there was great support for the Rosenbergs in various Western European capitals – for example, the French called it “the American Dreyfus Affair” – American media and public opinion were staunchly anti-Rosenberg, and President Eisenhower ignored the overseas demands.

For two years Julius and Ethel Rosenberg lived in death cells within about a hundred feet of each other and were permitted to be together only during brief weekly visits or when their lawyer came to confer with them; as such, they were frequently forced to communicate through letters, with much of the subject matter dealing with arrangements for caring for their children, Michael, age ten, and Robert, age six. A selection of their letters to each other, together with some letters to their lawyer, Emanuel Bloch, has been brought out by the “Jero Publishing Company,” many of them containing specifically Jewish themes.

The Rosenbergs were descended from a generation of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who sought freedom from antisemitism and political repression; like many of these immigrants they were predisposed to left-wing radicalism, which they saw as consistent with their secular Jewish values and as a way to fight poverty and racism, and to create a just society. They were not practicing Jews, but they were married in a Jewish ceremony and they came to America with a sense of their identities as Jews and an inherent respect for the age-old Jewish observances practiced by their ancestors.

While in prison awaiting execution, during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur Ethel wrote to Julius:

I was unutterably moved to hear the shofar… sounding through our stark surroundings… Truly am I proud of the inheritance of an ancient people who made an eternal contribution to the civilization of mankind and with whom I shall ever be privileged to be identified.

In an April 19, 1951, letter, she wrote of “our upbringing” that “the full meaning of our lives, based on a true amalgamation of our American and Jewish heritage, has made us what we are.” In various letters back and forth, one or the other she wrote:

In a couple of days the Passover celebration of our people’s search for freedom will be here. This cultural heritage has added meaning for us, who are imprisoned… by the modern Pharaohs… our fellow Jewish expression summarizes my feelings for [Emanuel Bloch]. Ich shep nachuss und quell fun ihm

At Hebrew school… I absorbed quite naturally the culture of my people, their struggle for freedom from slavery in Egypt. I found the same great traditions in American history. The Jewish services were impressive…

What solace to hear your voice during the Jewish services… It is amazing how intellectually stimulating Jewish services can be… I’d appreciate it if you would give the question of the Jewish holidays and their special significance for us, as part of a prison congregation, your serious consideration between now and our next talk…

This holiday [Chanukah], signifying the victory of our forefathers in a struggle for freedom from oppression and tyranny, is a firm part of our heritage and buttresses our will to win our own freedom. The heritage of our Hebrew culture has served our people throughout the ages and we have learned its lesson well…

In a “P.S.” in her final letter to her children written on the day of her execution, Ethel told Manny [i.e., Manny Block, the Rosenberg’s defense counsel, who also served as guardian for the Rosenberg children after the execution of their parents] that “the Ten Commandments religion medal and chain I wish you to present to our children as a token of our undying love.”

Interestingly, the Rosenberg correspondence makes no reference to the claim that they were victims of antisemitism, although Julius did mention the possibility that the entire affair could lead to increased antisemitism by encouraging the belief that all Jews are Communists.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].