Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Greenglass met on New Year's Eve 1935, at a union fund-raising party. Ethel looked nervous when Julius first spotted her in a corner of the rented hall. He approached to ask her why. Ethel explained that she had promised organizers that she would sing for the party-goers, but as the time for her performance grew near she was concerned because she had rarely sung publicly. Julius suggested that they go to a nearby private room where she could practice singing to him. Before the evening was over, Ethel told Julius that she would do whatever it took to help him complete the engineering degree he had been on the verge of dropping in order to pursue fulltime his revolutionary interests. The two became inseparable. When Julius graduated in 1939 from City College in New York with a degree in electrical engineering, they were married.
The Rosenbergs' love story is one of almost "unbearable intensity." (1) The depth of their commitment to each other was approached only by their commitment to radical politics. How much love could have been left for their sons Michael, born in 1943, and Robert, born four year later?
When Judge Kaufman sentenced the Rosenbergs to death, he criticized their willingness to "sacrifice their children" for their revolutionary ideals. There is some truth to the criticism, and it must have stung all the more because of it. Ethel, in particular, was deeply troubled by the attack on their parenthood. Whether, it the two years between their convictions and their executions, either came to regret the degree to which espionage activities interfered with normal family life, we'll never know. The Rosenbergs' letters , their meetings with their children, and their private expressions to each other and their attorneys reveal both a great tenderness for their children and a steadfast determination to promote progressive politics at every opportunity, even as their date with the electric chair drew close.
It was, however, the love of Julius and Ethel for each other that made their tragedy possible, and finally, made it inevitable. Without Ethel's uncommon help and devotion, Julius probably would never have been in a position to steal valuable secrets from the United States. Without each to sustain the other, it is likely that they would have succumbed to the government's invitation to drop their death sentence in return for some level of cooperation.
The love of Julius and Ethel was manifested in a hundred, often touching, ways. Each singing to the unseen other in adjoining jail cells on the night after they received their death sentences: Ethel singing "Goodnight, Irene" and Julius singing, though not nearly so well, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." On another occasion, locked in a police van, separated by a mesh screen, Julius and Ethel locked "in an endless kiss." (2)
For a period of time following their convictions, Julius and Ethel were housed in separate detention facilities. Their letters to each other frequently included expressions of love that went far beyond those that could be expected in communications between separated spouses. For example, Ethel's letter to Julius ("My dear one") written the day following the rejection of their appeal by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ends: "Sweetheart, if only I could truly comfort you. I love you so very dearly." In another letter she writes,
"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, Julius and Ethel were permitted to see each other, behind a visitor's screen, every Wednesday-- "wondrous Wednesday," as Ethel called it. Their brief time together sustained them, as this November 1, 1951, letter to Julius suggests:
"Hello, Julie Dearest,
Since Wednesday and all the good, sweet words that passed between us, I have been walking on air. My dear one, rest easy; I am ever fortified in your love."
Ten months later, fighting depression, Ethel writes: "Sweetheart, I love you with a strength that defies my pain. Still, hold me close, my heart is heavy with wanting you...."
Julius's letters to Ethel were also full of terms of endearment. In one letter Ethel was "My dearest," in others "My Adorable Wife," "Honey," "My Pretty," "Darling," and "My Sunshine." He tells Ethel, "I need you more than anything else."
Only once after their imprisonment were Julius and Ethel permitted to see each other without the separation of a metal screen. Emanuel Bloch, the couple's lawyer, received permission from prison officials to meet with both of his clients in a private conference room, rather than in the visitor's room usually reserved for such purposes. Ethel prepared for the occasion, according to Louis Nizer, "as if she were going to a gala event."(3) Ethel and Bloch, escorted by an armed guard and a matron, were first to arrive in the room. Nizer described what happened as Julius arrived:
"Ethel!" he cried. They rushed at each other and embraced tightly, covering each other's faces with fierce kisses. Before anyone knew what was happening, they began pawing one another with wild abandon. They lost all control and wrestled passionately. The witnesses to the scene were stunned by the suddenness and violence of the out burst. They looked on in amazement at the writhing, groaning figures.
Finally, the guards and matron recovered. They pounced on them, pulling them apart. Julius was lifted bodily and plumped hard into a chair. Ethel was dragged none too gently. They were still panting....
Julius's face was so smeared with lipstick, it looked as if he were bleeding. He laced his hair back with his fingers; Ethel pulled her shirt together in a modest gesture which seemed ludicrous under the circumstances. She pulled her skirt down and demurely patted her disheveled hair. She could not see the red blotches on her face from her own lipstick smudged off from Julius'. When Bloch's face came into focus, she felt humiliated and began to cry. (4)
The conference was cancelled. The warden ordered that for future meetings they would be handcuffed and sit on opposite ends of a conference table, each next to a guard. Orders were given to the guards that the two never be allowed to touch again.
There would, however, be one last opportunity for physical contact, albeit a painful one. On the evening of their execution, Julius and Ethel were permitted to sit on opposite sides of a mesh screen. They were allowed to converse privately. At 7:20 p.m., forty minutes before Julius's scheduled execution, a guard put his hand on his shoulder. Julius touched his fingers to his lips. He pressed his fingers through the mesh screen as Ethel did the same. Blood dribbled down the screen as they finger-kissed each other goodbye. (DL)
(1) Louis Nizer, The Implosion Conspiracy (1973), p. 1.
(2) Ibid., p. 368.
(3) Ibid., p. 395.
(4) Ibid., p. 395-396.