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.
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.
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.