Julius & Ethel
Researching the Rosenbergs’ Story
By Virginia Gardner
Virginia Gardner (1904-1992) was a journalist and biographer of Louise Bryant. She was raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas and graduated with a B.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1924, then worked at several Midwestern newspapers before joining the Chicago Tribune in 1930. Gardner gradually became a radical, joined the Communist Party c.1937, led the small Newspaper Guild group at the Tribune, and was fired for her union activism in March, 1940. In 1952 Gardner moved to New York. She went to work for the Daily Worker, where she covered the Rosenberg case in 1953, and later wrote “The Rosenberg Story,” which was published in 1954. Gardner died in 1992. The story below is excerpted from her unpublished autobiography. It is reprinted her courtesy of the Taminent Library.
In all my years of reporting, the only time I felt that I had definitely deprived my son of needed care and attention was the period in which I gathered the material and wrote a series for The Worker on the lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. It was a demanding and consuming work, and it would have been impossible for me to concentrate on this quest for such a protracted period of time except that Johnnie was interested in the Rosenberg case and he was unusually patient and understanding with me. Ever since our arrival from the West Coast he had done leafleting on the Rosenberg case with the Gordon boys, Nicky and his older brother, and they had taken him to the big rally on the Rosenbergs’ behalf on Randall’s Island. Luckily for me, Johnnie did not feel deprived, as he vastly preferred to his mother’s cooking, a hot dog sandwich or a pizza.
Erik Burt, who gave me the assignment to do the series within days after they were electrocuted as “atom spies” on June 19, 1953, freed me of all other work. I came and went on my own, reported only to him, giving him a memo every few days at least, talking to him as I needed to. He kept my memos locked in a safe and no one else asked me anything about what I was doing–thanks to Erik, presumably.
Except for Erik, an editor with imagination and vision, I had very little encouragement. I went early on to see Manny (Emmanuel) Bloch, attorney for the Rosenbergs; I had known him as a reporter in Washington. He felt that people were too frightened to talk, and that I would get little of worth, but despite his pessimism, he tried to be helpful, and was: he gave me the name of a psychiatrist who Ethel Rosenberg had seen regularly in Sing Sing. From the psychiatrist I obtained a valuable tip: an experience she had had in a strike had changed Ethel’s viewpoint around, so that she was no longer primarily involved in a singing career for herself, but in activities with others.
The only thing the psychiatrist could tell me about the strike was that women lay in the street to block trucks. He did not know the year, or whether she was one of them, or if it was a thing she observed that aroused her to the meaning of actions with others. In a search of The New York Times indexes I found that such a strike took place in 1935. Eventually I went to a friendly lawyer’s office and looked up the entire story of the strike in the first volume of the National Labor Relations Board cases, of 1935. I learned that Ethel Greenglass was one of several who were found by the NLRB to have been fired in violation of the NLRA, and her company was ordered to reinstate her with back pay; she was the only woman among four who became NLRB cases.
I considered it quite a scoop that, after three months, I had obtained the facts on the strike, especially when it was responsible, according to the psychiatrist, for altering the tenor of her life.
Nevertheless, this came late in the day of my searches, it still was not fleshed out, and I had had many weeks of investigation that seemed a refutation of the impressions I had had at the time of the funeral. I had been assigned, with F. David Platt, to cover the funeral as Ethel and Julius lay in their coffins in a chapel in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Outside, in the blazing sunlight, 10,000 men and women lined the streets, unable to get in. I had had a horrible time getting there. Not that I ever had an easy time getting anywhere in Brooklyn. I was aware I had only so much money in my purse, but I was trying to get there by surface lines, and the streetcar seemed to inch along. At last I said to the conductor-driver, “I want to get to the Rosenberg funeral, I must get there, I’m a reporter, but can I ever make it this way?” And he said, “Lady, if I was you I’d get out and try to flag a cab, or a friendly car. The crowds are only going to get worse.” I took his advice–at the time wondering how there could be this outpouring of people when there was so much said of how fearful people were. Their determination to be there outweighed it, that was certain.
It was Manny Bloch who spoke the words the hushed crowd wanted to hear. He told the packed house that President Eisenhower, Attorney General Herbert Brownell were responsible for the murder of the Rosenbergs. “They did not pull the switch. But they were the ones who directed the one who pulled the switch.” Dry-eyed, the graying attorney continued:
This is not the time to grieve. Neither Ethel nor Julius would have wanted it that way. They were hurt but they did not cry. They were tortured but they did not yield…Two very simple, sweet, tender, intelligent and cultured people have been killed…But let us take solace in the fact that for the first time in three years Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are among their friends–among the people from whence they came…
Once the funeral was over and I had begun on my assignment, it seemed different. I was almost ready to believe Manny’s wholly understandable pessimism–that few would be brave enough to talk to me in a significant way. It was hard going. And at night I read the court record once I did get home–in itself a chilling occupation.
So, meanwhile, because its importance overshadowed all other leads I had, I continued to work on the strike. I located a man who had been a striker at the National New York Packing and Shipping Company with Ethel Greenglass and who identified her as one of the women who lay down in the street. She was 19 then, he said, “–a youngster, and quite excitable.”
For added color on the strike, I went to the files of the Daily Worker and The New York Times. The Times of August 31, 1935, described how 140 young women pickets moved in squads through the garment district. Wearing raincoats, some of them “lay on the pavement in front of trucks and dared the drivers to move.” As in many of the strikes of the ‘thirties, there was never a dull moment. Each day strikers were arrested, and promptly released by municipal judges. A young woman chained herself to a lamppost and police had to saw through the chain. A scab emerged from a taxi “naked as the day he was born,” the Daily Worker happily reported, with the words “I am a scab” written in lipstick on his back. The Daily Worker of September 5 named the shop at 327 West 36 Street, where Ethel worked, as among those “where the strike was most effective.”
I found and interviewed three women who had known Ethel well in Seward Park High School, none with more insight that the one I called Gertrude. She had married Sam, who also knew Ethel, and they formed a foursome with Julius Rosenberg several times. This was after the strike and before any marriages. Gertrude often visited Ethel at 64 Sheriff Street, where she lived with her family. Together the young woman acted in several plays presented by the Clark Players, a dramatic group attached to the settlement, Clark House, a friendly old brick building on Rivington Street, later taken over by the Grand Street Neighborhood Center. Ethel liked to attend Friday night lectures by actors and others from the Group Theater held at the Lavanburg Players, attached to one of the early housing developments. Julius resided there, said Sam, and he remembered seeing him call for Ethel at some of the lectures.
She was an unemployed musician at the time. He recalled having introduced Ethel at a small mass meeting around Loyalist Spain when she sang, “most movingly.” Sam and Gertrude and I had been talking for hours, the interview had produced riches, I felt. They looked at each other, absently, then Sam said:
“If you hadn’t been crazy enough to burn all those programs and things in your ‘memory book’–just because Ethel’s name and yours were on them–”
Stung by the reproach, Gertrude answered: “Don’t. You’re just as responsible as I am. I would give anything in the world to have those things back. It was a time of panic, and everyone lost their heads.”
“You remember,” she went on, “we heard of the FBI going to one couple who barely knew them, and–well, so I have nothing to show for all those years of association with her, nothing.”
Her husband sat staring at his cold coffee, then asked, “What about Louise? Would she have saved anything?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t go to her. I don’t think she really cared about Ethel. Just superficially. Though–” she halted, turned stricken eyes to her husband, then went on relentlessly: “At least she went to see Ethel’s mother afterward. That is more than we did. We didn’t do anything.”
I left them at 1 A.M., agreeing to return later; I’d write a memo in a few days and show them a copy of it that they might check my accuracy. But when I got to my office next day I was decidedly surprised to learn that the husband had gone to the Daily Worker office early that morning–after a sleepless night–to ask if I were legitimate. This, despite that fact that, noting their hesitancy after I appeared, I had produced not only my Daily Worker press card but an old press card from Los Angeles, a marvelous press card as it contained not only my photo and fingerprint but a police description. When I did return and asked about it, Sam said, “But this said your hair was dark brown, and it’s light brown.”
I continued to roam through the dusty streets of the Lower East Side where Ethel had spent her childhood and youth. Those were the years when Ethel Greenglass was “the star of every dramatic program in Assembly at Seward Park High,” when she was self-centered as only youth can be, when despite her yearning for warmth and affection her relations with her family suffered from self-erected barriers, according to another friend, Laura. At bottom, Laura thought, Ethel might have wanted something out of life her family didn’t understand; beauty, perhaps.
More than once Laura had taken me on the route she and Ethel took to go to Seward Park High School from 64 Sheriff Street, and from the school back home. Always there were new things to see, to remember. Now she was leading the way, the last tour complete, towards a bus. It was only then, as she halted for a seldom-seen burst of traffic on Grand Street, that the poster loomed up. It was one of many pasted on the side of an abandoned building of ancient red brick, and it read: “CLEMENCY FOR THE ROSENBERGS!”
To my surprise, I was beginning to find a good many friends of Ethel Greenglass, and they included some who knew Julius Rosenberg, too. Several other members of the Clark Players, in addition to Gertrude, talked to me about Ethel, including a man then in business. Ted knew Ethel when he was with the Clark Players. “She was the star,” he exclaimed. “She had a passion for theater, she was a wonderful actress. There was a flame in her.”
Rhina, too, was a member, and, like Ethel, entered amateur nights and won occasional prizes. Thursday night was amateur night at Loew’s Delancey Theater, in the heart of New York’s Lower East Side, and on Thursday Ethel entered the competition; singers who received the most applause won the prizes. Ethel won-not the fabulous first prize of $5, but the second, of $2. This wasn’t so bad in 1931, and she began entering competitions fostered by one of the big exploiters of amateur talent, the late “Major” Bowes.
Rhina lost track of Ethel in 1936, before she and Julius met, and in 1931 and 1932, when they were fast friends, neither Ethel nor Rhina had begun dating boys. “We were very immature.” Rhina said. “And both of us were conscious of not having ‘been out’ and not having the right manners. All the Players went regularly to the Paramount Cafeteria on Delancey Street, near Loew’s, after rehearsal. Ethel and I were afraid to go, it seemed a dazzling place, and we might use the wrong fork or spoon. Eventually we went. Each girl took her own check, of course. When one of the boys asked to take me home, I thought he didn’t have bus fare and suggested we walk. Stiffly, he said no, we’d go by bus; he paid my fare and at the door he made a little speech and said that when a boy offered to take me home that meant he had bus fare.
“We were so young, and so romantic,” she smiled. “I remember Ethel’s saying once, when she had not given up dreams of a career, that she was not going to just get married and worry about children and shopping and meals, she was going to be different.”
The smile trembled, and she swiftly left the room; she came back, however, holding with both hands a small painting. “This wouldn’t mean anything to you, or to anyone else, but–” She left the sentence unfinished, adding a little unsteadily: “See, here we are. She’s the one with long hair.” It was a rather decorative little painting, made by one of the Players, showing two women, their heads back, a youth between them, arms encircled, walking along a road beside a river, their backs to the artist.
“We had brought our lunch, and Ethel had a whole stack of sandwiches made from homemade bread, and ate then all. ‘You will get fat’ I told her. I was not afraid of her getting fat. But for such an ethereal young woman she certainly could eat.”
When Rhina had a chance to turn professional at $40 a week, her father refused to allow it. So she had to go to work at $7 a week, and she held it against him. That is what Ethel averaged, once she had finished the shorthand and typing course she had refused to take before graduation. Actually Ethel began work February 24, 1932–in other words, as soon as her course was finished–in a clerical and checking job which was full-time and overtime and part-time.
“Ethel was in love with art, as was I,” Rhina said. “Not that we always knew art when we saw it. Most of the Clark Players’ plays were a hodge-podge of mediocrity. But we were in love with the idea of art and hardly noticed the world around us.”
About the only play the Clark Players did that was any good, said Rhina, was “The Valiant,” in which Ethel starred, as the sister of an older brother facing execution. (By H.E. Porter and Robert Middlemass, it was later made into a movie featuring Paul Muni.) Throughout the play, said Rhina, the warden–and the audience–had doubts as to his guilt. The young sister visits him in the warden’s office and the brother appears not to recognize her. She then recites their favorite Shakespeare line, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” but he conceals from her his recognition, tells her to go home, to tell her mother he is not her son, and then comes the punch line–from Julius Caesar–which he recites on his way to his death:
“‘Cowards die many times before their death; the valiant never taste of death but once.’”
Rhina said: “So, with the doubts still intact, increased, he goes to his death. Ethel was very good as the kid sister. I often thought of it, when her role was reversed and her brother had accommodated the authorities.”
I was making headway in interviewing people who had known Julius, also, including a retired teacher who taught him for four years before he was graduated, with highest honors, from the Downtown Talmud Torah, where he studied Hebrew after school hours and all day long on Saturdays. I remember my nervousness in advance, and how I twice walked around the block debating with myself before taking an elevator to his office. My first question to him assumed a hostility that never appeared; “Your anti-Communist position is well known, but since Julius was a pupil there so for so many years, would it be possible for you to tell something of his record there?”
The boy Jonah, which was his Hebrew name and the name he was called at Downtown Talmud Torah, he said, “left a very deep mark.” He came from a home not unlike those of most of his pupils. It was Jewish but not extremely orthodox; a poor home, that of a worker. Many were more cultured homes than his, but “the way he took to Hebrew” made it seem the was the product of generations of scholars.
In 1931, he said, when the Lower East Side was in the grip of the Depression, when teachers were buying milk for pupils and concealing the fact it was paid for with their own money, when many children took bundles of piece work to do at night to eke out the family income, Julie was 13, celebrating his Bar Mitzvah. His parents wanted him to quit Hebrew school but he refused.
Most of the children stayed at the school an hour and a half, but Jonah would spend four and five hours at reading and prayer. Often when he left the school the winter night would have closed in and the teacher watched the boy as he started home over the creaking snow, his head high, while in the cold stillness the hoarse whistle of tugboats sounded from the river. Or, if it was spring, it usually would be dusk when Julius set out for home, past the trees in the little park across the way, in their light new leaves, while the old tenements in the next block seemed mysterious, the tracery of fire-escapes and iron-work window balconies taking on a new character. And the teacher, following with his eyes the lone figure of the boy trudging happily homeward, worried. Like others in the school, he taught religion as meaning service on earth–and he was aware that Jonah was seeking an answer without which the brutalities and indignities of tenement life made no sense.
“I can see his face before me as I taught the Prophets, drink in all I said. Isaiah and Jeremiah were my favorites. But when I taught the Prophets it was not just to speak of what happened 2,000 years ago but what was happening around us. A strike was in progress at Ohrbach’s. I spoke of it in connection with a chapter in Isaiah. I saw Julie’s eyes glowing. That boy Jonah, as we called him, took it literally. He believed.”
“But how did you use the strike at Ohrbach’s?” I asked.
“I said, ‘Orbach is sitting in the temple now, but who wants his contributions? Let him pay his workers a living wage, then his contributions will be welcome.’ You see, I always stressed the theme of service–and that to serve was the greatest joy in life. Well, the boy Jonah believed it.”
The former teacher, who confided that he never had found satisfaction since he left off teaching because of a physical disability, placed sincerity above formal erudition. Like other teachers at the Downtown Talmud Torah, he took as his guide the saying in the Talmud, “Words which come from the heart penetrate the heart.”
He tried to explain why he felt such concern for the boy Jonah along the way. He was an especially unworldly, sensitive boy. It was not that what he had taught was untrue–it was true, but the teacher knew the world, and he feared the results for children who went out in the world without any armor of self-protection. Julius responded “so whole-heartedly” that it indicated the schoolboy in those adolescent years was “too gullible, too sincere.”
It had been suggested, I said, that as a man Julius Rosenberg was gullible in a business sense–in letting David Greenglass stay on in his shop when he had proved himself incompetent.
The former teacher’s reply came swiftly: “That David, we did not think much of him here. I am convinced–and I have told this to others–that Julius could never have obtained any information from David, because David was incapable of giving any.”
Ethel Greenglass also had been a pupil. He even thought her “more able, brighter” than Julius, but “to her it was just education in Hebrew.” With Jonah, it was something far different.
“At times I’ve blamed myself. Yes, for all this was leading up to the unfortunate thing that overtook him–to me it was much more than unfortunate, it was a tragedy,” he said huskily. “And so I have blamed myself. I can never forget that boy. If there is any accusation against him, any guilt–it is that he was guilty of one thing, he was guilty of sincerity.”
Without mentioning the words “electric chair,” he alluded to what befell his prize pupil. “I can’t bear to think of it–and for that boy.” His vibrant voice was now little more than a whisper. It was clear that he saw, not the man Julius, but the boy Jonah, in that chair.
I left him there, his figure looming large behind his desk–a man haunted by the memory of a sensitive youth fired by the Prophets’ denunciation of oppression and greed, a youth whose heart indeed had been penetrated by the teacher’s words which came “from the heart.”