Through a feminist filter

Gaby Rubin reviews 'Ethel Rosenberg: a cold war tragedy' by Anne Sebba

This book about the life of Ethel Rosenberg has been reviewed in glowing terms by The Guardian (June 26) and The Observer (June 27). The Guardian had, the previous week, featured a two-page interview with the Rosenbergs’ sons, Michael and Robert.

I was a young child growing up in the USA during the trial (1951) and execution (1953) of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, yet I remember it vividly. My parents and grandparents were very active in helping their defence and I was taken on protest demonstrations by my parents. What is more, my father had the entire trial transcript and I read it when I was 10, so I am not a disinterested reviewer. But I have to say that, despite the glowing tributes, I find this book sadly lacking in politics.

The Rosenbergs were two Jewish New Yorkers who were arrested for spying for the Soviet Union. Specifically, they were convicted through innuendo for helping the Soviet Union develop the atomic bomb, although the actual charge was conspiracy to commit espionage. After a trial filled with misogyny on the part of the judge and prosecutors, not to mention hysterical anti-communism and just a tinge of anti-Semitism (the real kind, not the ersatz type currently on offer by the Labour right), they were found guilty, sentenced to death and, three years later after many appeals, died in the electric chair. They were the only civilians executed in the USA for conspiracy to commit espionage in peacetime.

The author, Anna Sebba, sees herself as bringing Ethel out from behind Julius’s shadow and she claims this is a “feminist” biography. While I have no problem with a book about Ethel as a person, I do have difficulty with the “feminist” part. To the author, it seems to mean that real politics must take a back seat in preference to Ethel as a singer, dancer and mother. Very little is said about her as a communist - the reason for holding communist views before and during World War II, according to the author, was to combat Hitler, rather than to fight for a totally different global order.

As a way of trying to understand Ethel, Sebba starts with her appearance: “She was unexceptional to look at … she had neither the money nor any interest in fashionable clothes” (p15). And Sebba comes back to Ethel’s clothing at the trial, emphasising that she did not doll herself up - as if her conviction rested on her appearance.

After a lengthy introduction to Ethel’s family background (they were eastern European Jewish immigrants), the author describes Ethel’s love of learning and school, where “even the poorest children had a chance … to escape their background and live the American dream of prosperity and personal fulfilment” (p72). Some 50 pages previously, Sebba had described the leftwing politics of many of the Jews who came from eastern Europe, but then appears to drop the idea, as if it could not possibly have had any effect on someone like Ethel.

She had a miserable home life - her mother was not interested in her and was very dismissive of anything she did (something not completely unknown in that generation, where boys were much more valued in the USA, as elsewhere). This lack of attachment became clear when Julius and Ethel were murdered by the state: none of her family would take in her children. In the end they were adopted by two complete strangers (and given a wonderful childhood).


In one of her first jobs, as a clerk, Ethel led a strike. One of her fellow workers later said that, although at first she was timid, Ethel seemed to gain strength from the experience. The New York Times reported that she lay down in her raincoat to stop trucks from entering the premises and “dared the drivers to move”. After the strike was over (it ended inconclusively), nine members of the union were fired, including Ethel. They appealed against their dismissal and won, and she said later that this strike was one of the formative experiences of her life.

According to her friend, Helen Yelen, Ethel started to move in communist circles, but, says Sebba, “Like so much else that was said about Ethel by former acquaintances … Helen’s testimony must be treated with caution.” Why? She does not explain. One gets the idea that anything said about communists by communists must be taken with a grain of salt.

By the mid-1930s there was a large communist presence in the Lower East Side of New York - an area mostly populated by Jewish immigrants. Unfortunately, this meant that communism became equated with Jews. In 1939 when a poll asked Americans if they would support bringing 10,000 German refugee children into the country, the result was two to one against (even in very Jewish New York, that was the case). When my father applied to medical school in 1932, he was rejected on the grounds that the university already had their quota of Jews.

Ethel and Julius met in 1936, and he also came from a poor eastern European background, but his family encouraged him to go to university (unlike Ethel’s family, in which no-one had a higher education). He became an electrical engineer, studying at City College of New York, where the Young Communist League was active. Although electrical engineering could lead to well-paid jobs, young men of Julius’s stamp faced prejudice from corporations - considered too radical, too Jewish (or both).

Sebba speculates as to whether they had a physical relationship before their marriage, but never explains why she thinks this is important. She does this on several occasions - something I find intensely irritating. And she is agnostic as to whether Julius and Ethel were actually members of the Communist Party. She finds no evidence either way, but then the Communist Party USA was very cautious about keeping records for many decades and in fact many members joined under assumed names. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, Sebba states: “Whatever their private feelings, they appear to have accepted the CPUSA’s absurd line …” (chapter 2). How does she know this if they never made a statement on the matter? And if they were not members of the CPUSA, why would their non-comment be important?

Later, because of Julius’s work commitments, Ethel gave up a job to move back to New York, and Sebba comments: “in line with how a dutiful wife was supposed to behave … Yet for Ethel … this must have hurt.” Evidence? None.

Later Sebba says: “… although communism theoretically championed the equality of the sexes, it was not theory that interested Ethel.” Surely, a woman as thoughtful and active as Ethel must have had some reason for believing in a communist future. If she was as dynamic a person as Sebba makes out and as committed to communism, did she really have no interest in theory?

Still later - and for this I find it difficult to forgive her - Sebba quotes Ronald Radosh as evidence that Julius was, as they say even now, a “card-carrying member” of the Communist Party (although the party never issued cards). Radosh wrote a book in which he stated categorically that both were guilty and deserved their fate. Why Sebba would use Radosh’s evidence is a complete mystery to me.

In an effort to ‘prove’ that Ethel was prepared to jettison her communist beliefs when it suited her, Sebba cites Ethel getting married in a synagogue, giving up her job to move back to New York for her husband’s job, and seeing a psychotherapist. (Psychiatrists and psychotherapists were viewed with great scepticism in the CPUSA up until the 1980s and, although some were party members, their membership was always seen as somewhat tainted.) But, of course, many communists are prepared to make their parents happy - including getting married in a church or synagogue, despite being atheists.

When Hitler’s Germany attacked the Soviet Union, many on the left were euphoric, convinced that Nazism would soon be destroyed. Praise of the Soviet Union, seen as a valuable friend, was now more acceptable. The forces of the right did not go away, however. Sebba, for instance, points out that one of the reasons given for not bombing the railway lines leading to Auschwitz was that it would allow the right to argue that America was fighting a Jewish war.

And even towards the end of the war, anti-Soviet and anti-communist feeling was widespread. My uncle, who was in the US navy throughout the war, was in 1944 ordered by his superiors to fill in a 10-page form, which included questions pertaining to where in Russia his great grandmother was born. He was told quite firmly that all who came from Russian families would be so questioned, as ‘We know who our enemies will be when the war is over and we’re going to be prepared.’

At another point Sebba describes Julius as wanting to be part of a scheme to buy land outside New York. She claims that, because he wanted to provide for his family, this “might have led him astray from communism”. From where does this idea come? The book then goes on to describe how Julius became involved in passing secrets, including his handler telling him not to advertise his party membership (Sebba does not comment on this statement).

At the end of the war, and after Franklin D Roosevelt’s death, the tide turned against liberals of all stamps - and most obviously against communists. Sebba compares Ethel to Hilda Bernstein, the South African Communist Party activist - but the comparison relates to motherhood, not political activism! Hilda is quoted as saying that what bothered her (Hilda) most about being in prison was being away from her children. Sebba herself states that Ethel had given up any activism, because she identified as a mother and a homemaker, and that, through psychotherapy, Ethel began to think freely and independently - although her belief in communism remained strong. Is this what Sebba believes is a “feminist” explanation?

The trial

Sebba explains in detail how the Rosenbergs were eventually identified. She is at her best and most acerbic in describing the roles (and personalities) of Senator Joseph McCarthy and J Edgar Hoover. She also describes in detail the drawbacks of having as their legal representative Emmanuel (Manny) Bloch - a civil, not a criminal, lawyer.

The case against Ethel relied upon (1) the view that, as she was Julius’ wife, she must have known and approved of what he was doing; and (2) the testimony of her brother, David Greenglass, and his wife, Ruth, that she typed out an important paper that was to go to their Soviet “handler”.

In fact, accusation 1 was never proven and, in any case, “for that you don’t kill people” (in the words of Morton Sobell, who had worked politically with Julius and was tried and imprisoned in the same trial), whereas accusation 2 was an outright lie. David Greenglass admitted as such in an interview in 1996: “My wife put her in it. So what am I gonna do, call my wife a liar?” And he also said that he didn’t regret sending his sister to the electric chair, because it was either his wife or Ethel. In the event, his wife went home to her children and David went to prison for a few years.

When the Soviet files were opened later, it was clear that Julius had been an industrial spy. His Soviet handler, Aleksandr Feklisov, said that Julius had passed on military secrets, but that he did not understand anything about the atomic bomb and could not help on that question. Feklisov also said that Ethel had never taken part in anything Julius did and was completely innocent.

While being questioned, Julius denied everything, and the authorities wanted to bring as much pressure as possible on him. They wanted names, which he refused to give. The FBI had no evidence against Ethel, but wanted to use her as a lever against Julius. J Edgar Hoover agreed and believed that she should be convicted and given a stiff sentence.

In her grand jury questioning, Ethel repeatedly refused to answer questions, citing the fifth amendment (the right not to incriminate oneself). She was then arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. She was, in effect, according to the evidence, indicted for having had conversations with her husband and brother.

From before the trial, the proceedings were prejudiced against the Rosenbergs. One of the assistant state attorneys (prosecutors, in other words) gave an interview to the press, in which he stated quite openly that the crime that Ethel was charged with had caused the Korean War. Ethel’s mother suggested that she divorce Julius and cooperate with the government, while most of her family were also against her, urging her to become a government witness against her husband.

In different prisons, Julius and Ethel began to write letters - to each other and to their sons. Many of them were eventually published to raise funds for appeals. (I remember reading the letters in tears - they were beautifully written and full of parental concern and love for each other.)

Manny Bloch had little help and many of his legal colleagues refused to speak to him. Virtually all of the Rosenbergs’ friends deserted them, afraid of being tarred with the same brush. The Communist Party did nothing to help them during the trial - although after they were convicted there was a concerted effort to campaign for a commutation of the death penalty. The official ‘Jewish community’ turned their backs on them, believing that Jews needed to be seen as ‘good citizens’, not as ‘commie sympathisers’.

As previously mentioned, Sebba emphasises Ethel’s clothing at the trial, again concentrating on her looks. She compares Ethel to Ruth Greenglass, who testified in expensive clothing and makeup. Although Sebba does not specifically say so, she appears to believe that Ethel’s clothing prejudiced the judge and jury against her. Would she have preferred Ethel coming in expensive clothing and lying, as Ruth did?

Both Ethel and Julius were condemned as traitors who had helped Stalin ‘steal the secure future’ that the US establishment claimed would be theirs in 1945. Actual evidence was thin on the ground, but the FBI, attorneys for the prosecution and the judge did not let that stop them. One of the lawyers was Roy Cohn - in my (non-prejudiced, of course) view, one of the most evil Americans who ever lived. Those with a good memory will remember Donald Trump saying, “Where is my Roy Cohn?” during his lies about the election.

There are interesting facts to relate about the jury too. For example, there was not one Jewish person on it - all Jews in the jury pool were excused from taking part by the prosecutors. Anyone who objected to the death penalty was also excused, as was anyone who had attended City College or who had family members who had gone there. All women except one were excused (on the grounds that a housewife might have some sympathy with Ethel?). And so it went on.

During the trial the prosecution repeated no fewer than 18 times that Julius and Ethel had committed “treason” (even though technically, because the US and the Soviet Union were not at war during the time of the passing of the information, that crime could not have applied).

Sebba sees every attempt by Ethel to ‘take the fifth’ as an error. Although she admits that this is a constitutional right, she also explains at each point that it allowed the judge to comment negatively on Ethel’s truthfulness and credibility. On this question Sebba does not seem to know which side of the fence to sit on.

Behind the scenes

It is clear that Judge Kaufman had spoken to both the prosecution and the FBI before deciding on the sentence, although he claimed otherwise. J Edgar Hoover did not think that executing Ethel was a good idea - she was both the mother of two small children and, as Julius’ wife, “in a sense she would be presumed to be acting under the influence of her husband”. But Cohn wanted the death sentence for both, and it was his view that eventually won out.

Sebba describes the various appeals, including to the Supreme Court, an appeal for clemency from the pope, the various letters and petitions. All to no avail. The US government still hoped that the Rosenbergs would talk and ‘name names’. The statement the Rosenbergs wrote after a meeting with a government agent is eloquent and dignified:

We will not help to purify the foul record of a fraudulent conviction and a barbaric sentence. We solemnly declare, now and forever more, that we will not be coerced, even under pain of death, to bear false witness and to yield up to tyranny our rights as free Americans.

The president of the time, Dwight Eisenhower, refused clemency and his popularity rose. Apparently he believed that Ethel had been the ring-leader and Julius the weak one - both in their relationship and in passing secrets. He also believed that, if Ethel’s sentence was commuted, the Soviet Union would recruit only women spies. According to a poll at the time, 70% of Americans agreed with him that both should be killed.

Another part of the government and the FBI, however, had hoped it would end differently and that they would have the names of other spies. Clemency for Ethel was offered to both defendants if Julius would cooperate with the government. Both adamantly refused. After their execution, a deputy attorney general commented: “She [Ethel] called our bluff.”

Sebba describes in some detail the aftermath of the executions and the recollections of some of those involved. Julius’s ‘handler’ - back in the Soviet Union after five years recruiting in the US - was in despair. Although Sebba again urges wariness because “recollections … have to be treated with extreme caution, given that he was a Soviet intelligence officer”, she quotes his memoir, in which he says he partially blamed the Soviet Union, convinced that his country should have stepped in and been honest about Julius and Morton Sobell - making it clear that, although they passed on secrets, they did not pass on anything about the atomic bomb.

I was pleased that Sebba describes the end of Roy Cohn - an example of evil incarnate under McCarthy, as was particularly demonstrated in the case of the Rosenbergs. He died of complications from Aids, having hid his homosexuality until the end. Before his death he was disbarred for unethical and unprofessional conduct. It was a fitting end for such an odious person.

Anne Sebba’s book is like the curate’s egg - interesting in parts, infuriating and irritating in others. Her detailed descriptions of the trial are fascinating, as they fill in the gaps missing from the official transcript. Her attention to Ethel mostly as a wife and mother and her inability to understand why Ethel and Julius believed in a communist future leaves a yawning gap. Those who are communists obviously understand why they believed as they did, and continued to do so even to their deaths. Those who are not communists will not be any the wiser. In that respect, Sebba has played right into the hands of the American right.

I believe Ethel was a communist because, irrespective of the nature of the ‘actually existing socialism’ she supported, she wanted a better future for her country, her children and the world. If Sebba sees this book as a feminist biography, she is misguided. Feminism is not about contrasting approval of being a homemaker with disapproval of being a communist.

Sebba’s book has added to what I know about Ethel Rosenberg’s life and death, but added nothing to my understanding of her politically. It is an interesting failure, but a failure nonetheless.

Gaby Rubin