Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Rosenbergs: A Case of Love, Espionage, Deceit and Betray

Julius and Ethel

Friends and observers attest to their passion. When the two were being transported in a police van to their trial, separated by a strong wire grid, they clasped fingers between the grid, and tried to kiss one another through the barrier. On their first reunion in a conference room at Sing-Sing, they embraced each other so passionately, so lustfully, that guards separated them. They were never able to embrace again.

One of the saddest elements of the Rosenberg Case is the cruel manipulation of their love by the government, encouraged by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. After having been found guilty, Ethel was placed on Death Row in Sing-Sing, the sole occupant in a small cell in a dreary corridor of four cells. The separation of Julius and Ethel was intended as a lever to force Julius to confess, to name the members of his espionage ring. For a month, Ethel and Julius were sixty miles apart, communicating only through their lawyer, Emanuel Bloch, and by letters, written in pencil.

The Rosenbergs after trial (AP)
The Rosenbergs after trial (AP)

At the urging of Bloch, who was rightly concerned about Ethel's mental state, Julius and Ethel were reunited at Sing-Sing. Still, they were separated by a concrete corridor and heavy metal doors, and they only saw each other on Wednesdays. They continued to communicate mainly through their letters.

At times, Ethel sang, and Julius could hear her. Her thin, sweet voice would cheer her husband, who greatly admired and praised her singing. She would sing arias, German lieder, and popular songs of the day. One of Julius's favorites was "Good Night, Irene," and on one occasion, after Ethel had sung it, Julius responded by inexpertly singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." These two lovers, condemned to death and separated by thirty feet, singing to one another from their cells, is a particularly poignant image.

Their singing, monthly visits with Bloch, Michael, and Robert, and their letters were all that they could look forward to.

Their letters to one another during the three years they were in prison are remarkable. These letters, copies of which they made for their lawyer, Emanuel Bloch, clearly confirm their devotion to one another. Their letters appear in We Are Your Sons, written by Michael and Robert Meeropol (their adopted name) and in the volume edited by their sons. The Meeropols have been steadfast in their refusal to allow these letters to be quoted in any other books other than their own or in their edition of their parents' letters.

But, curiously, these letters for all of their passion have an artificial quality to them. True, they are expressions of love, encouragement, fondness, and even (in the case of Ethel) lust, but they were written for a wider audience. They are strange combinations of affection, political righteousness, defensiveness, and self-delusion. It is difficult to find fault with these inconsistencies considering the dire nature of their plight but they are at times so overwritten that they are embarrassing. While they reveal the unconditional love the Rosenbergs had for one another, as well as the emotional pendulum between hope and despair that they both felt from time to time, they seem, for the most part, artificial.

The letters have moments of great and honest emotion. They also have a stilted language, particularly Ethel's, who fancied herself as a writer of some gifts.

They reveal the family conflicts and the scars of existence that shaped both of them. Contrary to some of the rhetoric of the time, the Rosenbergs were not middle-class traitors selling out the country that had been so good to them. They were products of the Bronx Jewish ghetto, a world of walk-up cold-water flats and marginal existence, damaged by the horrors of the Great Depression.

Ethel, an aspiring actress and singer, was disparaged by her mother, Tessie Greenglass, all through her childhood and young adulthood. Indeed, right up to her execution, Tessie berated her for getting her younger brother, David, "in trouble." Tessie was not only unloving favoring Ethel's brothers over her but psychologically abusive. After her execution, Bernie wrote his brother David, reassuring him that he should not feel guilty about Ethel's death, that she had brought it on herself.

Forced to work for a shipping company as a secretary, Ethel became involved in labor disputes, eventually becoming a member of the Young Communist League. By the time she met Julius in 1936, she was a committed communist.

Julius, while not embittered as the result of an abusive family, also grew up in urban poverty. His ardor for religion led his family to believe that he would become a rabbi. Eventually, he drifted away from religion and earned an engineering degree from CCNY. He too joined the Young Communist League, became active and a leader, and there, at the age of eighteen, he met Ethel Greenglass. It was love at first sight. Three years later, in 1939 when Julius graduated from CCNY, they married.

Neither of them had ever dated much. They found in each other not only love and passion, but a spiritual kinship in politics. Shortly after they were married, Julius obtained a position as a junior engineer with the Army Signal Corps. For five years, until 1945, Julius had the most financially rewarding existence of his life, allowing the Rosenbergs to live in very modest comfort. Then, as a result of a loyalty investigation, he lost his job with the Signal Corps. A copy of his Communist Party membership card from 1939 had been discovered. The Rosenbergs, with a young son, Michael, born in 1943, and a second son, Robert, born in 1947, fell on hard times.

Never again would the Rosenbergs know financial security. Despite their alleged work as spies, they never appeared to profit financially from espionage. Contrary to the rumor easily accepted by President Eisenhower, when he rejected their plea for clemency, Ethel was not the "strong one," the brains behind the operation. Whatever had happened, Ethel was the loyal wife, lover, and help-mate.

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