Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Ethel Rosenberg’s tragic life highlights a dark phase in post-war America. Its political and legal world was dominated by bigotry and fear, stoked by McCarthyism and the looming power of Hoover, head of the FBI.
The devastation of the atom bomb, the growing threat of Russia, then Mao’s communism gripping China, stirred unease in the American psyche. The advent of the Korean War inspired thoughts of a world becoming swamped by the expanding communism. In the early 1950s, tolerance and mutual respect were supplanted by suspicion, often irrational and paranoid. Thoughts of Russia and Communism warped the collective outlook, previously buoyed by the victory in Europe in 1945 against the Nazis and Fascism.
Then, in 1950, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were convicted as traitors and sentenced to death by electric chair.
They had been communists in the 1940s as Russia, then an ally, offered an attractive alternative to capitalism. They were very poor and Jewish. Their affiliation was based more on faith than reason, and was mostly social.
Anna Sebba’s account of their fate is heart-breaking. Meticulously researched, it portrays a woman born into a life of continual struggle. Poverty was compounded by a cold and cruel mother, Tessie, whom Ethel called ‘a witch’. Her father, a ‘Namby Pamby’ offered little support or consolation.
Ethel met and fell in love with Julius Rosenberg, an engineer employed at Los Alamos, the Atomic Research Station. There he was befriended by Feklisov who became his handler.
Julius passed sensitive material to him because he believed in sharing information to perhaps thwart conflict. He was equally besotted by Ethel whose beautiful soprano voice initially attracted him. At that time, she hoped her voice training would lead to professional singing. Music was always a great consolation.
Their lives were ruined by betrayal.
Ethel’s brother David, and his wife Ruth, themselves guilty of espionage, exposed Ethel and Julius. The Rosenbergs’ conviction was significantly influenced by their testimony. They resorted to perjury which resulted in the couple being found guilty and sentenced to death.
All her life, especially in the three years spent in prison, Ethel sought therapy to help her to cope with her emotionally deprived childhood. Dr Saul Miller was her therapist, and she became intensely attached to him.
The trial itself was not a fine example of American justice at work. The jury, broadly representative, had only one woman on its panel and ALL believed in the death penalty.
Saypol, the prosecutor, mentioned ‘treason’ 18 times. David and Ruth’s testimony was rehearsed and its damming content made more painful, delivered as it was by the brother who had been a kindly mother substitute when they were growing up.
Harry Gold, serving 30-year term for espionage, gave more incriminating evidence, even though it was known he was a confessed perjurer.
As the web of concoction grew larger, it was maintained that a charity collection tin for child victims of the Spanish Civil War was proof of their traitorous path! The jury was bombarded with exaggerated claims such as ‘they put the atom bomb in the hands of the Russians’!
Their fate decided, they were led away. In an unforgettable and visceral moment, Julius begins to sing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, then Ethel in her pure soprano, ‘One Fine Day.’ Many were reduced to tears.
The book indicates that Ethel was aware of her husband’s activities but not compliant. He did not benefit financially, but did receive a $1,000 sum from Feklisov as a kind of severance. While Julius was not segregated in prison, Ethel was in solitary for three years. Two were spent in the infamous Sing Sing. Her mother visited once.
Their devotion sustained them. Daily letters were written. Julius was caged and all touch excluded, but they could at least see and speak to each other on brief visits.
As the date for execution approached, protests and petitions grew around the world.
Millions sent letters; crowds gathered outside the White House. The Pope pleaded for clemency. Ethel was the mother of two little boys so many considered their being deprived of their mother to be criminal. Jean Paul Satre and Picasso were outraged. They identified a country ‘sick with fear, afraid of the shadow of your own bomb’.
All efforts failed.
The Rosenbergs’s predicament became viewed in a Cold War context rather than a legal or humanitarian one.
In her excellent examination of Ethel’s tragic life, it is clear that innocence/guilt is not the main focus. More powerful is the story of a life shattered by betrayal – by her mother failing to love her, Julius’s betrayal of his country, and the manner in which David and Ruth used a far from reliable justice system, itself guilty of betrayal.
Lastly, with the power to grant a pardon, both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower allowed politics to warp their judgment and choke their humanity.
Ethel’s story is thought provoking too. Misinformation breeding fear and disseminated by men such as McCarthy and Hoover, demonstrates how potent is fear and the way its spread can damage a fragile democracy.
A review cannot do full justice to the layers and complexities of Anne Sebba’s tragic account of a strong, courageous woman of integrity. It is brilliant in its achievement and riveting to read. I cannot praise its many fine attributes highly enough.
Ethel Rosenberg – A Cold War Tragedy
by Anne Sebba
Weidenfeld & Nicholson
ISBN 978 14746 1961 5