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On Ethel Rosenberg’s 100th Birthday, a Renewed Call For Exoneration

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City hall steps, yesterday. Photo via twitter: @grapeman2010.
City hall steps, yesterday. Photo via twitter: @grapeman2010.

Ethel Rosenberg, who would have turned 100 yesterday, was honored in a ceremony at City Hall.  Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and members of the City Council unveiled proclamations lauding her bravery for leading a 1935 labor protest. The proclamations also stated that Rosenberg was wrongfully executed for helping her husband pass on secrets about this country’s nuclear program to the Soviet Union. As you probably know, the Rosenbergs lived on the Lower East Side. K Webster attended the ceremony and wrote the following accounting of her life and death:

Ethel Rosenberg, born Ethyl Greenglass on September 28, 1915, was the oldest child of Barney and Tessie Greenglass. Barney was an immigrant from Russia, Tessie from Austria. They lived in a two-room, cold-water tenement apartment at 64 Sheriff St., half a block from the Williamsburg Bridge. Barney ran a sewing machine repair shop in the front room of their apartment. Ethel lived on the LES in the 1920s and 30s and attended Seward Park High School. She took all college preparatory courses rather than the secretarial curriculum of most of the other female students. Despite being shy, she starred in school theatrical productions. She graduated in 1931, before her 16th birthday, at the beginning of the Depression.

She continued theater work with an experimental theater at the Clark Settlement House and studied music seriously. Eventually she was invited to join the celebrated Schola Cantorum – still hoping for a career in music or theater. But at 19 she went to work as a clerk at the National NY Packing and Shipping Company located at West 36th Street to help with the family’s finances.

ethel rosenberg

At her job, she met non-Jews, underpaid and exploited workers, union organizers, and active members of the Communist Party. In 1935 she helped lead a strike (the only woman on the four person strike committee) for union recognition and a pay raise. According to the New York Times, about 150 young women pickets lay on the pavement in front of the trucks preventing drivers to move. She and the other leaders of the strike committee were fired, but won on an appeal with the newly formed National Labor Relations Board.

With her coworkers, she entered into a world interested in music, theater and discussions of political philosophy. She found herself in opposition to fascism, racism, and antisemitism, and supported unionism. She entertained at Popular Front actions: relief for the needy, union organizing, and the Spanish Civil War’s antifascist movement. Ethel met Julius Rosenberg in 1936, singing for a Seaman’s Union benefit.

Julius Rosenberg also grew up on the LES, the son of immigrant parents, an ardent communist and an engineering student who embraced Judaism and later politics.

They had two sons, Michael and Robert while they lived in Knickerbocker Village. Ethel Rosenberg focused on raising her two boys, neglecting both politics and theater.

From yesterday’s City Council proclamation:

In WWII Ethel joined the East Side Defense Council as its only full time volunteer and was the first such organization in the nation and became a model for others. She organized blood donations, and gave speeches on the importance of the war effort.

julius and ethel rosenberg

In 1953 Ethel Rosenberg was executed along with her husband Julius on espionage charges.

Michael and Robert Meeropol: “It was a time of “Jew-baiting”, a time of McCarthyism, a time of anti-communist hysteria…”

David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother and a key witness in the case against the Rosenbergs, implicated his sister in the conspiracy just 10 days before the trial. Found decades later by a Times reporter, Greenglass admitted he lied to save his wife Ruth.

Atomic spies who were convicted by the FBI but not executed include David Greenglass, Harry Fuchs (a German scientist), Klaus Fuchs, and Morton Sobell (who was tried with the Rosenbergs and admitted in 2008 that he was a spy, but insisted that Ethel Rosenberg was not).

From the Jewish Women’s Archives:

In a last-minute attempt to have the case heard again before the Supreme Court, Rosenberg attorneys presented enough new argumentation that Justice Douglas granted a stay of execution on the court’s last day before its summer recess… However, in a nearly unprecedented move, Chief Justice Vinson reconvened the court to annul Justice Douglas’s stay. Massive rallies in Times Square, petitions, letters, marches, and a last-minute appeals to President Eisenhower …could not forestall the government’s haste to execute the Rosenbergs.

In a statement published in the New York Times on August 8, 2015 the Meerpols wrote: “It is never too late to correct an egregious injustice. We call on the government to formally exonerate Ethel Rosenberg.”

The family, supporters, City Council Members and Borough President Gale Brewer gathered this morning to agree: “it’s time now to begin to right the wrong of what happened to Ethel Rosenberg.”

Borough President Brewer:

Ethel Rosenberg’s life was tragically stolen from her by the US government at an early age…the mother of two boys…she was not as Soviet spy. This innocent woman was unjustly executed during a shameful period of anti-communism hysteria in our country. It is a terrible stain on our country.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg maintained their innocence to their death by execution in the electric chair. Ethel’s last written words to her children:

… my most precious children… Your lives must teach you, too, that good cannot flourish in the midst of evil; that freedom and all the things that go to make up a truly satisfying and worthwhile life, must sometime be purchased very dearly. Be comforted then that we were serene and understood with the deepest kind of understanding, that civilization had not as yet progressed to the point where life did not have to be lost for the sake of life; and that we were comforted in the sure knowledge that others would carry on after us… Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience. We press you close and kiss you with all our strength.

 

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13 COMMENTS

  1. In 2008, Morton Sobell, the co-defendant in their famous espionage trial, finally admitted that he and his friend, Julius, had both been Soviet agents.The Rosenbergs were Soviet spies, and not minor ones either. The Rosenbergs were Soviet spies, and not minor ones either. Not only did they try their best to give the Soviets top atomic secrets from the Manhattan Project, they succeeded in handing over top military data on sonar and on radar that was used by the Russians to shoot down American planes in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

  2. “This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be. There had to be a Rosenberg case, because there had to be an intensification of the hysteria in America to make the Korean War acceptable to the American people. There had to be hysteria and a fear sent through America in order to get increased war budgets. And there had to be a dagger thrust in the heart of the left to tell them that you are no longer gonna get five years for a Smith Act prosecution or one year for contempt of court, but we’re gonna kill ya!” – Julius Rosenberg from People’s World.

    There was international outrage. The French termed it “America’s Dreyfus Affair.” The all-black International Longshoremen’s Association Local 968 stopped working for a day in protest. Pope Pius XII appealed to President Eisenhower to spare the couple’s lives.

    …”a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation. … Your country is sick with fear… you are afraid of the shadow of your own bomb….…The Rosenberg business is precisely our business. Innocents who are put to death are the whole world’s business. The Vatican’s spokesman himself told you again…”civilization is faced with a choice which will determine whether it will be acquitted or condemned…” – Mad Beasts, Jean Paul Sartre

    The lies that lead to wars are well documented and ongoing.

  3. They were not innocent! The Rosenbergs were Soviet spies! They were spying for the USSR. Their spying led to the death of Americans. Good grief, you’re trying to cloud the issue with political claptrap!

  4. Ethyl Rosenberg’s execution was political. As was the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Tonkin Gulf resolution that brought us the Vietnam War, and never-found ‘weapons of mass destruction” that gave us the Iraq war. The list goes (painfully) on…

  5. The notion that Ethel Rosenberg was wrongfully executed has been debunked thoroughly by information in the Soviet archives. She was a traitor who sought to place the ultimate weapon of mass destruction in the hands of a regime that had already murdered millions of people. I cannot see how any liberal can feel compassion for this traitorous, foolish monster.

    Some issues in history are simply settled. Reopening this issue as if there is another legitimate side is perverse.

  6. The fact that the French, or Local 968, or Satre held those views in the 1950s does not exempt you or this news outlet from the facts later unearthed when the Soviet archives became available. It’s one thing to be ignorant of facts that were unavailable. It’s disgraceful to ignore facts that are plain and irrefutable.

  7. Wall st. Journal:

    By
    Ronald Radosh
    Sept. 30, 2015 7:09 p.m. ET

    The New York City Council issued a proclamation Monday honoring Ethel Rosenberg
    on what would have been the convicted Soviet spy’s 100th birthday.
    Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer joined the festivities,
    declaring Sept. 28 “Ethel Rosenberg Day of Justice in the Borough of
    Manhattan.”

    The proclamations mentioned Rosenberg’s work as a
    labor organizer. But the emphasis was on showing that she was
    “wrongfully executed,” as the council said, when she and her husband,
    Julius, were put to death in 1953 for passing atomic secrets to Moscow.
    The Rosenbergs’ sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, attended the event and issued a statement calling on the federal government to acknowledge “a terrible injustice.”

    At the City Hall ceremony, Daniel Dromm,
    a councilman from Queens, said Ethel was convicted in a “rush to
    judgment” after “a lot of hysteria was created around anticommunism.”
    Ms. Brewer decried “a terrible stain on our country.”

    The real
    stain is on New York City’s gullible representatives. Revelations over
    the past 20 years—the Venona decrypts of KGB transmissions to its
    American agents in the 1940s, and KGB files released by a Russian
    defector who now lives in Britain, Alexander Vassiliev—showed
    concretely Ethel’s involvement in her husband’s espionage ring. For six
    decades, her defenders have insisted that Ethel was an innocent
    bystander, at worst a bit player, but the evidence shows her thorough
    involvement. She helped recruit her sister-in-law, Ruth, who in turn
    brought her husband—Ethel’s brother— David Greenglass into the ring that passed secrets to KGB courier Harry Gold.

    It
    is a sad day when New York officially honors a woman whose loyalty was
    to the Soviet Union, and who martyred herself by refusing to tell the
    truth, leaving two orphan sons, because she was a firm believer in Joseph Stalin and his totalitarian dictatorship.

    Mr. Radosh, an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute, is the author, with Joyce Milton, of “The Rosenberg File” (Yale University, 1997 revised edition).

  8. Oh please, her and her husband were traitors. The historical records prove it and the facts bear this out, you are not entitled to make up your own facts.

  9. To be clear: The Rosenbergs were not charged with treason, but with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act. A treason charge would have been difficult because the Soviet Union was an ally of the United States, not an enemy, at the time that Rosenberg’s husband Julius passed along low-level atomic secrets.” – Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

    Justice Douglas granted a stay of execution in order to fully examine the evidence. The stay was annulled in an extraordinary move. Justice Douglas: “It is important that the country be protected against the nefarious plans of spies who would destroy us. It is also important that before we allow human lives to be snuffed out we be sure – emphatically sure — that we act within the law. If we are not sure, there will be lingering doubts to plague the conscience after the event.”

    The government’s rush to execute has left more than doubt. It ‘plagues’ our conscience. As well it should.

    That would be Ronald Radosh of Bill Krystal’s Weekly Standard (the neo-liberal Murdoch journal) and of the Hudson Institute (founded by Herman Kahn of the Rand Corporation)? I’ve not found them to be entirely reliable interpreters of history.

  10. My conscience is clear. You can spout YOUR version of history but you can’t revise the facts AND the facts are upheld and without a doubt have been proven true. In 1995 the federal government made public a series of cables, referred to as the “Venona” messages, which were exchanged between the Soviet government and its operatives in the United States during and after the Second World War. These messages detailed Soviet atomic espionage and unmistakably showed that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet agent, indeed had been the head of a Soviet spy ring. The new evidence set forth in the Venona cables has been supplemented by other material that has dribbled into the light of day, such as the Soviet archive of documents concerning the Communist Party of the United States, other Soviet archives besides Venona, material from hitherto secret FBI files, and the memories of Soviet intelligence operatives.

  11. From Wikipedia (but fully consistent with everything else I’ve read in the last ten years):

    In 1995, the United States government released a series of decoded Soviet cables, codenamed VENONA, which confirmed that Julius acted as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets, but did not provide definitive evidence for Ethel’s involvement. Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, whose testimony had condemned her, later stated that he had lied to protect his own wife Ruth, who had been the actual typist of the classified documents he stole, and that he was encouraged by the prosecution to do so.”

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