Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Madame Butterfly

Mar 06, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



           As Jell-O conforms to its mould children often adhere to the values of their parents. However, in a 1950s love story which involved Julius Rosenberg, it was a Jell-O Box and a Remington typewriter which made a woman’s path stray far afield from what her family, or anyone else, ever envisioned.

        Ethel Greenglass, born in 1915 in New York’s Lower East Side on Sheriff Street, was the daughter of Russian, Jewish immigrants Barnet and Tessie. Her father was barely able to support his family through his sewing machine repair shop and they lived in a cramped, unheated tenement. Ethel attended the Downtown Talmud Torah, followed by Seward Park High which she completed at fifteen. As college was usually not in the horizon for females, especially destitute ones, she worked at a shipping company. However, Ethel’s dream was to have a career in the arts and the highlight of her youth was when her vocal group performed at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House.

      Ethel was exposed to fellow workers who encouraged her to join the Communist League where she could fight for economic equality and against European fascism. When her union organized a strike she was one of four members of its committee; Her mother, Tessie disapproved, but Ethel felt her rebel nature had found its cause. 

        In 1936 Ethel was invited to perform at a New Year’s Eve party for the Seaman’s fund-raiser; very shy, she was agitated as this time she was not singing as part of a group. A young man there sensed her fear and, introducing himself as Julius Rosenberg, inquired why she looked upset. They retreated to a private room where he bolstered her courage and won her heart when he told her to imagine, while on stage, she should sing for his eyes only. Before the evening was over they were a couple and she had promised she would support him while he completed his electrical engineering degree, a career of which his father disapproved, preferring he attend rabbinical school. This innocuous meeting of boy meets girl would lead to a notorious end..

         In 1939, when Julius graduated from City College in New York, Ethel became Mrs. Rosenberg. When she was fired from the shipping company because of her part in the strike she was enraged, but with new role as wife, and later as mother to sons Robert and Michael, she devoted herself to family, abandoning any interest in music, jobs or the Communist Party. Ethel and Julius doted on each other and their children. Julius’ position at the Army Engineering Laboratories in New Jersey provided a steady, comfortable income for the young family. Photographs from their first years as man and wife show an ordinary-looking Lower East Side couple idling on the grass in Central Park and carrying their boys on their shoulders at the beach.

       The first rung in the ever ascending horror came in 1945 when Julius was fired after his membership in the Communist Party was discovered, (his subscription to the Communist paper, the Daily Worker did not help matters.) Ethel was frantic since both of them had now been branded as Red and thus would be unable to obtain employment. As their savings dwindled and with two young boys to support, she felt things could not get worse. 

       On July 15, 1950, as the couple was watching television with their sons, FBI agents filed into their apartment and clapped handcuffs on Julius in front of his terrified family. With the boys crying hysterically for their father, Ethel was beside herself. ..

    Her husband was charged with leaking atomic secrets to the Soviet Union which carried the ultimate “Et tu, Brute:” cooperating with America’s Cold War arch-enemy.  In prison Julius was steadfast in his refusal to name names. His stoicism led to a journalist likening Rosenberg to the Lone Ranger, the masked ex-Texas Ranger who was a self-appointed fighter against injustice in the Old West. When incarceration did not break him, the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, issued a memorandum to the Attorney General that by taking action against Rosenberg’s wife it “might serve as a lever in these matters.” Accordingly, Ethel was arrested the following month as she walked to catch a subway after spending the afternoon testifying before a grand jury. She was denied the opportunity to arrange care for her sons who had been left with a baby-sitter. Metaphorically the prosecution put a gun to Ethel’s head and said, “Talk or we kill her.” She was incarcerated in the Women’s House of Detention but her husband gave no indication his wife’s threatened prosecution would make him cooperate. Although the lever did not work the government was now committed to the prosecution of Ethel as an equal partner in espionage.

       The state v Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was dubbed “The Trial of the Century,” and the eyes of the world were riveted on the proceedings taking place in a Manhattan courthouse. From the beginning the deck was stacked against the defendants: it occurred against the backdrop of Americans frantically building bomb shelters in case of Soviet attacks and the popular catch-phrase of the times, ‘Better dead than Red.’ The trial, which began two years after the Soviet Union had exploded its first atomic bomb, posed the question of whether the Rosenbergs had accelerated by five to ten years the end of the American nuclear monopoly by providing critical secrets to the Russians. The courtroom drama was played out against the backdrop of the Iron Curtain, behind which the Soviet Union was supporting North Korea in its nuclear efforts. The pieces of the chess-board were in place. The outcome? The  fate of the world.

The star witness for the prosecution was ironically Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who had worked as a machinist for the Manhattan Project and who provided the eleven male and one female jury, (none of whom were Jewish,) with incriminating evidence implicating his brother-in-law. He claimed Julius cut a Jell-O box in two for use as a signal so he could be recognized by other Soviet agents. In a moment of courtroom drama Greenglass was given a Jello-O box to demonstrate how it had been used and on whose flap listed a recipe for Coconut Bavarian Cream. (The box is now housed in the National Archives.) 

Ethel’s brother became the 1950s counterpart to the Bible’s Cain when he implicated his sister, providing the prosecution with the only evidence against her. Greenglass testified he and his wife Ruth had visited the Rosenberg’s home in Knickerbocker Village where he provided Ethel with his hand-written notes concerning secrets from the Manhattan Project which she transcribed on a Remington typewriter intended for  transmission to Moscow. Julius then burned the original notes in a frying pan. The reason behind David’s damning testimony was  self-aggrandizement; for the first time the unassuming man had garnered the spotlight. He also named names to save his wife Ruth (who was also charged) from prosecution and himself from a lengthier prison sentence or even a death sentence . To add insult to injury, he exaggerated Julius’ role as a Soviet spy to cover up his own. 

        In contrast to her brother who had no problem pointing fingers at everyone but himself, Ethel invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify. It was a move which precluded implicating others; however, it was also a move which did not garner sympathy from the jury. Had she presented herself as she was in actuality, a mother who spent her days baking cookies, (not Jell-O,) she might have convinced them she was merely a typical 50s housewife caught  in a sinister web.

        In sharp contrast to her silence, the prosecutor delivered a  thunderous denunciation.  “She sat at that typewriter and struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country,” he stated. The jury made no recommendation for mercy; the judge showed none either. The judge said that by handing over America’s mightiest weapon-the atomic bomb---to the Soviets, they had precipitated the Korean War which had claimed 50,000 lives. As he spoke the church-bell of near-by St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church tolled the hour of noon, its longest toll of the day. Julius swayed slowly back and forth on the balls of his feet. Ethel, five feet tall and100 pounds, stood at his right. When the judge described her as a full-fledged partner her right hand clamped  the chair in front of her in a white knuckled grip. Tessie Greenglass, sobbed when she heard her daughter’s death sentence and David’s fifteen-year sentence (his testimony spared his life.) Tessie told the press, “I blame the Russians for poisoning my children.”

       The death sentence did not mean an end to the love story of the Romeo and Juliet of the Lower East Side. Ethel and Julius were sent to Sing Sing Prison, an ironic name considering singing had led to their introduction. On the evening after they had received their duel date with the electric chair, when confined in adjoining cells, Ethel sang to her husband from the operatic tale of the geisha who had stabbed herself with a dagger, preferring death to a life lived in shame. Julius responded, though not as well nor as romantically, with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” On another occasion, locked in a police van, separated by a mesh screen, they locked lips in a stolen kiss. When they were moved to separate detention facilities their letters bespoke their love, “Dearest Julie, they’ll be putting out the lights soon and then I’ll be alone with you. So I pretend, anyway. Oh, how I miss you and long to be in your arms where I belong. Good night darling.”  In the death house where two of their three years in jail were spent, they were permitted to see each other, behind a visitor’s screen, every Wednesday- “wondrous Wednesday” as Ethel referred to it. On one of these occasions they were permitted a face to face encounter in which they rushed into each other’s arms and Julius’ face was so covered with lipstick it looked as if he were bleeding. The guards wrestled them apart and Ethel took her seat, weeping. The photographs from this time were in marked contrasted to the earlier family albums: Ethel and Julius in a jail van, their sons ambling along the walls of Sing Sing.

    The Rosenberg trial was one that polarized the country: one camp contended they should be fried immediately; the other claimed the couple was a victim of a witch hunt. Jean-Paul Sartre called the sentence “a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation.” Thousands of Rosenberg supporters demonstrated, among them were Robert and Michael holding signs: Don’t kill Mommy and Daddy. An avalanche of letters asking for clemency poured into the White House, including ones from Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, Dashiell Hammett, Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso and Pope Pius XII.

       At the end there was one last chance for physical intimacy, albeit a painful one. On the evening of their execution, Julius and Ethel were permitted to sit on opposite sides of a mesh screen. Before he was led away Julius touched his finger to his lips and pressed them through the opening  as Ethel did the same.  In the moments following his death the prison rabbi implored Ethel to save herself, at least for her children’s sake,  by giving last minute testimony implicating her husband and others. She replied, “No. I have no names to give. I cannot wrong my conscience.” By her refusal, Michael and Robert became the country’s most infamous orphans. When strapped in the electric chair in Sing Sing, perhaps she found courage, once again, by conducting her final performance-with dignity for Julius’ memory.

 In later years David recanted his testimony, saying he condemned his sister in order to cut a deal to save his wife Ruth, the one who had typed his notes. He explained rather callously, “My wife is my wife. I mean, I don’t sleep with my sister, you know.” His confession sealed his reputation as Rat Rosenberg. For Woody Allen fans out there, it also explains the allusion from Allen’s character in Crimes and Misdemeanors musing about an odious relative, “I love him like a brother-David Greenglass.” Greenglass was released in 1960 after serving a decade in prison, changed his name and vanished into the New York night. Then he agreed to be interviewed for 60 Minutes, perhaps in a bid to recapture the spotlight. He stated, “I sleep very well…Every time I’m haunted by it, my wife says, ‘Look, we’re still alive.’” He also stated if he ever met his two nephews-orphaned by the state and their uncle, he would tell them he was sorry their parents had been executed.

       On the 50th anniversary of the Rosenberg’s execution, journalist Clyde Haberman visited the couple’s adjoining graves at Wellwood Cemetery on Long Island. A groundskeeper, observing the interred had died on the same date, asked, “An accident?” The answer to his question is no. Ethel was doomed because of her name, her beliefs and her steadfast decision to prefer death to a life lived in shame-the American Madame Butterfly.