These are program notes I've written for CATCO/PHOENIX's production of James Phillipp's play The Rubenstein Kiss-based on the trial and execution of Julius an d Ethel Rosenberg. See www.catcophoenix.com
JULIUS AND ETHEL ROSENBERG
By Christopher Purdy
“I was with Ethel in the women’s house of detention. When the van came to take us to court, Ethel and Julius would be in there. It was pitch black. One time a prisoner lit a cigarette, from the flare we could see Ethel and Julie trying to kiss between the gate.”—Miriam Moskowitz
At first glance, there was nothing remarkable about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They married in 1939, and lived a lower middle-class existence not far from where they each grew up on New York’s lower east side. Both sets of parents were immigrants from the pale of Eastern Europe. Families grew up in unheated tenements with toilets down the hall. It was a crowded life, and a poor life.
Julius Rosenberg disappointed his parents who hoped he’d be a rabbi. He graduated City College in electrical engineering, near the bottom of his class. Morton Sobell, a classmate and later a co defendant with the Rosenbergs, said, “As an engineer, Julius would have made a very good rabbi”.
The high point of Julius’s life was his first meeting with Ethel Greenglass in early 1936. Ethel worked as a secretary in a Manhattan shipping firm. But the stage was her passion. She dreamed of a career in opera-and her heart was not with shipping but with the amateur dramatic societies she joined, and with New York’s prestigious Schola Cantorum, to which she aspired. There no encouragement at home. “There’s no room in life for arty people”, sniffed her mother.
But there was Ethel, pacing a corridor before going on at an amateur night to sing ‘Ciribiribin”. And there was Julius, introducing himself and talking quietly to encourage her. The two were an item from that night. They married in 1939. There were two children, Michael born in 1943, and Robert in 1947. The young family eventually moved to a three room apartment at 10 Monroe St. Ethel’s dreams of the stage receded (she never stopped trying). Julius went to work in the U.S. Army Civilian Signal Corps.
In 1942, Julius was fired. It was discovered he had been a member of the Young Communist League at City College. Ethel had joined before their marriage. Julius for years told everyone how proud he was that Ethel, then 18, had led a strike at her job, which left her unemployed.
If Julius and Ethel were penalized for membership in the YCL, so most of half the lower east side must have been indicted. Julius went further, and the couple moved from the hum drum to the dangerous. Julius was recruited by a Soviet agent early in the 1940s. He was chosen as a “friend of the party” and because he had one important recourse, Ethel’s kid brother, David Greenglass.
“Doovey” was adored by his older sister and was the pet of the family. He married Ruth Prinz in 1942. The army sent David to the machine shops at the nuclear testing facilities in Los Alamos. There he made sketches of fission lenses which were passed to Julius who presumably passed them on. Julius was arrested by the FBI on June 17, 1950; Ethel was arrested seven weeks later. They never left prison.
The charges were “Conspiracy to commit espionage”. Over the years it’s been argued that the Russians received from Julius nothing they didn’t already have. David Greenglass was told by the authorities, confess or you and your wife both will be prosecuted-1950 was not a time to be a political radical in the United Sates. A deal was made. David testified of Julius’s involvement and went on to say that Ethel was present and typed his notes. This testimony was crucial to the government’s case. The Rosenbergs were convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair. David Greenglass got ten years and served seven. Ruth was never prosecuted. Appeals for the Rosenbergs ran out in the summer of 1953. Pablo Picasso and the Pope were among those who asked for clemency. Pro Rosenberg rallies were held all over the world. There was a vigil in New York’s Foley Square on the night of June 19, 1953. It was the Rosenberg’s 14th wedding anniversary. At Sing-Sing there was a last mintue appeal. The executions had been scheduled for 11 PM. But it was Friday. Honor the Jewish Sabbath and give them one more day. Instead the executions were moved forward to 8 PM. Julius and Ethel were allowed to spend thirty minutes together, with a heavy mesh screen between them. The guards came for Julius and he touched Ethel’s finger through the mesh-until they both bled. Thirty minutes later the couple was dead. Their sons had been sent to live with a kindly foster family. Michael was playing outside on that terrible night. He knew about the 8 PM deadline. “I stayed outside until it was two dark to see the ball. Went I went in I was told the television stations all said the same thing.”
Debate over the couple's guilt never stopped. In 1995 the VENONA report was released. These were encrypted cables between the U.S, and the Soviet Union. From these we learn that Julius Rosenberg was indeed a spy for the Russians and had involved David and Ruth Greenglass. Ethel’s role was considered minimal. She may have been put to death for typing.
Not surprisingly, the Rosenberg case has long encouraged writers, composers, film makers and dramatists. Ethel comes back to haunt Roy Cohn on his deathbed in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. E.L. Doctorow’s 1971 novel The Book of Daniel tells the story from the point of view of the Rosenberg children. Sidney Lumet directed the 1983 film Daniel, with Timothy Hutton, Mandy Patinkin and Lindsay Crouse. Donald Freed’s play Inquest starred George Grizzard and Anne Jackson on Broadway in 1970. Billy Joel references the case his song, We Didn’t Start the Fire. The Rubinstein Kiss by James Phillips was first performed in London, in 2005.
David Greenglass has lived under an assumed name since 1960. He surfaced briefly in 2001 on 60 Minutes II, (disguised) where he contradicted his trial testimony against his sister, but expressed no remorse to her fate. Sam Roberts’s book The Brother tells the tale form David’s perspective. Ruth Greenglass died in 2008. Neither had any contact with the Rosenberg sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol. The brothers co-authored We Are Your Sons in 1975; Robert’s memoir An Execution in the Family was published in 2003. That same year a video indispensible to anyone wishing to know more about the Rosenberg case, Heir to an Execution, was produced by Michael’s daughter, Ivy Meeropol.
Most recently, Walter Schneir has updated Invitation to an Inquest, co- authored with his wife Miriam in 1965, with Final Verdict, What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case, published shortly after Walter’s death in 2009. This book discusses the Venona cables at length, and admits to Julius’s role as a spy-but makes clear that Ethel’s involvement was minimal, and argues that in neither case did the terrible punishment fit the crime.