‘Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy’ by Anne Sebba

2021, 250 p. plus notes

I must confess to sometimes confusing Ethel Rosenberg and Evdokia Petrov. After all, both were accused of being Russian spies, both came to public attention in the 1950s, and both were photographed being escorted under the supervision (and in Petrov’s case – the coercion) of men in images that seemed to exemplify the Cold War.

Edvokia Petrov being ‘escorted’ across the tarmac at Mascot Airport Sydney. Source: Wikimedia

But of course, they are very different women. Edvokia Petrov was Russian and her husband worked at the Soviet embassy in Canberra, and the Petrov’s exposure exacerbated Australian fears of infiltration by “foreigners”. Ethel Rosenberg was born and raised American, as was her husband and, as evidenced by the subtitling of this book for the American audience, this was “An American Tragedy” just as much as it was “A Cold War Tragedy” for Australian readers. And of course, Edvokia Petrov and her husband went on to live in obscurity in suburban Melbourne under assumed names until their deaths in 2002 and 1991 respectively, while Ethel Rosenburg and her husband Julius were executed on Friday 19 June 1953, as we learn in the opening pages of this book.

Just as in Australia we know of “The Petrovs”, in America they were known as “The Rosenbergs”. In this book, however, Anne Sebba consciously focuses on Ethel. As she says in the introduction:

In the past it has suited those who wanted to prove Julius’ guilt to refer always to ‘the Rosenbergs’; Ethel was used as a pawn in the hope that the threat to her would elicit a confession from him…Part of my task in the pages that follow is to extrapolate Ethel, to see her as an individual, perhaps a victim of her times as much as of an implacable government which found itself inert, like a cumbersome juggernaut caught at an intersection, seeing the ongoing traffic but unable to turn itself around.

p.10

Thus the book deliberately focuses on the womanly roles Ethel played during her short, 37 year life: mother, sister, wife and daughter. The initial third of the book, which focusses on her childhood and adolescence could have been written about any number of Jewish, Lower East Side families in New York. Her father, Barney Greenglass was a sewing-machine repair man, catering to the Jewish immigrants who poured into their neighbourhood with tailoring skills and little else, and they lived in a tenement building behind the Greenglass Machine Shop. Ethel was a bright girl who attended Seward Park High School in a ‘rapid advancement’ class, but her love was the stage and singing. To help the family finances, she left school in 1931 to take a secretarial course, which took her to the National New York Packing and Shipping Company, where she became involved with the Shipping Clerks’ Union, and led a picket line during a strike at the Company. Her involvement with the union and friendships with theatre friends working under the Works Progress Administration introduced her to the ideas of Soviet Communism, which at the time seemed miraculous to ‘progressives’. It was while waiting for her turn to perform at a benefit held by the International Seamen’s Union, that the 21 year old Ethel met an 18 year old engineering student, Julius Rosenberg. He had grown up on the Lower East Side too, and they lived around the corner from the Greenglasses in an apartment in Lavanburg Homes, a model affordable housing cooperative. He studied electrical engineering at New York City College in Harlem, sometimes dubbed the poor man’s Harvard. There he made many close friends, mostly Jewish and all left-wing. In the early years of their marriage, neither hid their passion for Communism, which was not illegal at the time. After the war, they moved into an apartment in Knickerbocker Village, a massive 1600-apartment federal housing project on the Lower East Side.

There they had their first son, Michael, in 1943. Michael seems to have been a difficult child who would no doubt receive some sort of diagnosis today, and Ethel exhausted herself following various child-rearing strategies. Their second son Robbie was born in 1947, and was an easier child. Her motherhood, in Sebba’s depiction of her life, places her firmly in the domestic realm, whatever her husband might have been involved in. Further, it was Ethel’s status as ‘mother’ that made even Edgar J. Hoover hesitant to execute her, conscious of how that would play out in the press internationally. This didn’t constrain the authorities from acts of deliberate cruelty in terms of her sons, removing them from foster placements in which they were happy and putting them into an orphanage. Visits from her children were allowed, but one senses that even these were less for Ethel or her sons’ benefit than as a way of leveraging emotional power over her, to encourage her to confess. Her sons’ eventual adoption by Anne and Abel Meeropol (who wrote the lyrics to Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’), despite the State of New York’s determination to institutionalize the boys, was perhaps the only bitter-sweet outcome of this grubby emotional state blackmail.

Apart from her husband Julius’ activities, it was her status as sister and daughter that most damagingly implicated her as a spy. She had a very strained relationship with her mother Tessie, who always favoured her son David, the youngest child in Ethel’s family. It was David, along with his wife Ruth, who testified against Ethel and Julius, directly accusing them of encouraging David to spy, and testifying that Ethel herself had typed information for their Soviet handler. The Greenglass family swung their support behind David and Ruth, who were also charged but became prosecution witnesses under pressure from Roy Cohn (Trump’s former lawyer). Ethel’s mother Tessie angrily urged Ethel to divorce Julius and co-operate with the government, as David and Ruth had done. Her brother Bernie offered lukewarm support, but her older half-brother Sam adopted his mother Tessie’s stance.

Much was made of Ethel’s ‘ordinariness’, both in her defence and as a warning of how insidious the ‘Soviet menace’ could be. She was a plain woman, with a round face, and she wore unflattering clothes. She rarely smiled, and seemed sullen. Just as Lindy Chamberlain was to find when she faced court over the disappearance of her daughter Azaria at Uluru, public judgements often fasten onto demeanour and clothes, particularly for women.

So unprepossessing was she that the vehemence of their love story, displayed through their correspondence after their arrests, comes as rather a surprise. The letters are not unproblematic in that Julius recognized the importance of saving the letters he and Ethel were exchanging in case they were useful in attracting public sympathy for their appeal, and indeed some of the letters were published by the National Guardian, a radical left-wing but non-Communist newspaper. As a result, the letters from May 1951 seem more self-conscious with regular crossing-outs and corrections (p.176). Nonetheless, their love and yearning for each other seemed, if anything, to increase. On the trips to court, the other prisoners shifted around in the back of the prison van, so that Ethel and Julius could hold hands through the wire separating male and female prisoners, and Ethel wrote to Julius of her “implacable hunger” for “l’amour”. Running alongside this was her increasing infatuation with her psychotherapist Dr Saul Miller, whom she had originally consulted when struggling with parenting her son Michael. Her lawyer had initially prevented Ethel’s access to Dr Miller while in jail, fearing that it would be used by the prosecution lawyers against her. Eventually Dr Miller was able to visit her again, and if transference of feeling from husband to psychotherapist occurred, it is easy to understand.

She remained unshakeable in her loyalty to her husband. It well may have been misplaced. Intercepted cables with Russia through Project Verona between 1943 and 1950 (only declassified and published in 1995) named Julius, David and Ruth and gave them code names. However, Ethel had no code name, and was mentioned only once, and then by her given name. This one reference indicated that she was “sufficiently well developed politically” and that she knew about her husband’s work. However,

In view of delicate health does not work. Is characterized positively and as a devoted person.

cited on p 216

Ethel was not going to disavow her husband, but if Julian was guilty, he could have saved Ethel. He didn’t. Her sons believed that Ethel would not have been able to live with herself had she repudiated her marriage or betrayed her friends. Sebba believes that Julius was naive, optimistic and sincerely believed that he was not guilty of treason. He did not know about the Project Verona intercepts, and as a result thought that there was no good direct evidence against him. The increasing public campaign against their execution, which spread around the world, also encouraged him to maintain their innocence. Sebba concludes that

…ultimately Ethel saw her death as inevitable. She could not confess to something which she had not done and so, in a topsy-turvy world where logic and rationalism no longer played a role, she believed she was dying for truth and justice and for her personal legacy…. In the end her story is, for me, not about a narrow definition of what is meant by innocence or guilt. It is about the multiple meanings of betrayal.

p. 250

This biography certainly succeeds in its aim in “extrapolating” Anne beyond the designation of ‘the Rosenbergs’ (I’m not sure that ‘extrapolating’ is quite the right verb). It is well written, with a judicious use of narrative story-telling techniques balanced against analysis and use of source materials. The book ends with an interesting discussion of the cultural uses to which ‘the Rosenbergs’ have been put, and traces through to their end the biographies of the main characters who acted both for and against them. We still might not be sure of Ethel’s culpability, although Sebba gives any ex post-facto certainty a good shake, but one thing we do know. Right to the end, the state hoped that by executing Julius first, Ethel might recant. But Ethel Rosenberg died, maintaining her innocence to the end.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

2 responses to “‘Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy’ by Anne Sebba

  1. Thank you for another excellent book review. As an American, I grew up knowing of “The Rosenbergs,” but have always heard rumors that the death sentence was a miscarriage of justice for both. I’m now a retired lawyer and am always leery of mixing politics with the application of the law. I will certainly read this book.

  2. Pingback: I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-31 March 2022 | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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