Joe Bruno on the Mob – Ethel Rosenberg – Part 2
In their next meeting, Rosenberg gave Semyonov several hundred pages of classified documents, which Rosenberg, along with two more communist pals he had enlisted, had stolen from the U.S. Army Signal Corp. Delighted; Semyonov brought this information to Feklisov.
Feklisov wrote, “Since contacts among Americans were less risky, He (Rosenberg) collected the information they produced and handed it to us for a few hours. Rosenberg was not just a very valuable source himself, he was also the linchpin of a network growing in importance from month to month.”
In 1942, Semyonov came across the radar of the F.B.I. When the Russians discovered Semyonov was hot, they withdrew him from handling any more agents and immediately sent Semyonov back to the motherland: Russia. This presented a dilemma to Feklisov since he needed Rosenberg’s continued information, but had never met Rosenberg himself. And with Semyonov back in Russia, it was impossible for a personal introduction.
At first, Feklisov’s bosses thought the best way to reestablish contact with Rosenberg was to simply phone him at home. However, they rejected this idea, knowing that since Rosenberg was handling sensitive information his phones could be tapped. They finally decided that a personal visit to Rosenberg at his home at 10 Monroe Street, in downtown Manhattan’s Knickerbocker Village, would be the best course of action.
(Editor’s Note: I lived in Knickerbocker Village from 1964-96 and I met several Jewish people who had known the Rosenbergs. Most liked Ethel; most disliked Julius and considered him pompous.)
“I began by exploring the location,” Feklisov said. “I discovered that to gain entrance into Knickerbocker Village you needed a code or had to use the intercom at the front door of Rosenberg’s building.”
Feklisov decided the best time to visit the Rosenberg’s was on a Sunday afternoon, around 2 p.m., a time Rosenberg would most like be at home.
Knowing he could be followed by American secret agents, Feklisov took a circuitous route to Knickerbocker Village. He started by strolling along Central Park “like someone who doesn’t know how to kill time on his day off.”
Suddenly, Feklisov darted across the street, looking both ways to detect if he was possiblly being followed. He saw nothing amiss.
Feklisov then went to Columbus Circle and took the subway to the Canal Street station near Little Italy, which is a 10 minute stroll from Knickerbocker Village. Feklisov hesitated before making the trek, then, not totally satisfied he was not being followed, Feklisov did an about-face and jumped on a bus that took him uptown to Grand Central Station.
“I had a hot dog in the midst of a busy crowd, where idle individuals stand out conspicuously,” Feklisov said. “I had no further doubts: I could go! I took the bus downtown once again.”
Finally, Feklisov stood at the front door to Rosenberg’s apartment building. He pressed the intercom button to the Rosenberg apartment.
“Yes,” a man’s voice answered.
“Hello, I’m looking for Julius Rosenberg,” Feklisov said.
“That’s me,” Rosenberg said.
“I am a friend of Henry’s (Semyonov’s code name),” Feklisov said. “May I come up for a minute?”
Rosenberg hesitated. “Okay, come in.”
The electric lock buzzed and Feklisov entered the building. He took the elevator to the 8th floor, and when the elevator door opened, Feklisov came face-to-face with Julius Rosenberg.
Feklisov told Rosenberg why Semyonov had disappeared. “I’m the one who will come to see you from now on,” Feklisov said.
Rosenberg told Feklisov they could not go back to Rosenberg’s apartment. He said, “We’re entertaining friends.”
Feklisov told Rosenberg that he was only there to set up an appointment. However, Rosenberg became so excited at being back in the game, he told Feklisov he’d come with him immediately.
“Let’s take the stairway down,” Rosenberg said. “I’ll explain things to my wife later.”
Outside in the fresh air, Feklisov told Rosenberg it would be wiser if they separately took the subway uptown.
Rosenberg suddenly seemed nervous at the thought of being followed. He started to sweat profusely and his hands shook like he had Parkinson’s.
Feklisov calmed Rosenberg down and told him to meet him at Childs Restaurant on East 30th Street, a dive where Rosenberg used to meet Semyonov. However, Feklisov was wary about Rosenberg being followed; Rosenberg did not know how to detect or shake a tail like Feklisov.
“I stood on the sidewalk across the street from Childs and pretended to look in the window of a bookstore.” Feklisov said. “When Julius arrived, I watched him enter the restaurant, and after making sure no one was following him, I pushed opened the lacquered wooden door. A little bell announced my arrival.”
They sat facing each other at a small table at the end of the dining room; tension cutting through the air like a hot Russian saber. Feklisov thought the man facing him looked like he wanted to be anyplace else but in the restaurant talking to a Russian spy.
An aged, stooped waiter took their order. Feklisov was careful not to say anything in the presence of the waiter, knowing full well that waiters and bartenders were working undercover for either the local police, or the FBI.
As soon as the waiter took their order and departed to the kitchen, Feklisov put Rosenberg at ease. He started talking about his life in Russia, painting a rosy picture of his homeland.
Rosenberg listened, and then shook his head. He clenched his fist and said, “Why do the Germans hate us so much? What harm did we do them?”
The drinks arrived; both men had ordered red wine. A few sips and Rosenberg seemed to calm a bit. Soon he became entranced with Feklisov’s patter.
“I spoke to Julius of my childhood in Moscow, my family, my two brothers at the front, and my two sisters who had the hardest time reaching Moscow after digging trenches near Bryansk, which was encircled by the German offensive,” Feklisov said. “Julius listened to me with great interest, showing he was clearly amused, worried, relieved, and sympathetic as I spoke. Julius then began speaking about his wife Ethel, who he obviously adored.”
Rosenberg became so emotional speaking of Ethel; he blew a kiss into this hand to show Feklisov how much he loved his wife
Feklisov sipped a bit of cold borsch, which was not quite as chilled as he wanted. He pushed the dish away and leaned forward. It was time to get down to business.
“Tell me about Barr and Perl,” Feklisov said. “I know nothing about them and Semyonov could not vouch for them either. Are you sure they can be trusted?”
Rosenberg had previously recruited Joel Barr and William Perl as Russian spies. And although Feklisov needed Rosenberg as a spy recruit as much as he needed him as a spy, he wanted to be sure Rosenberg’s two American pals were loyal to the Soviet cause.
Rosenberg was clearly flustered. He leaned across the table; his voice a whisper and his eyes tearing under his spectacles. He whined, “No, there is nothing suspicious! My friends are in place. Since I had no further contact from Henry (Semyonov) I asked them to stop bringing me anything. But they are ready to start again!”
Feklisov pursed his lips and imperceptibly shook his head. Feklisov was worried Rosenberg was too eager to help and this type of man sometimes makes mistakes.
Still, Feklisov understood Rosenberg, and the men Rosenberg had recruited for the cause, could be of monumental importance to the Russians. Feklisov knew that America was spending tens of millions to produce more advanced military equipment. Feklisov also knew that Rosenberg and his friends were working on the production of new planes, artillery pieces, shells, radar, and electronic calculators. At this first meeting, Feklisov didn’t realize how involved Rosenberg would eventually become in helping him, and how impatient Rosenberg was to do more. Futhermore, if Rosenberg was sincere about his intentions, Feklisov knew the good things Rosenberg could do for Russia was immeasurable.
As he reflected later on his first meeting with Rosenberg, and how nervous and unsure of himself Rosenberg had been, Feklisov marveled that Rosenberg would become Russia’s most valuable American spy. In the ensuing months, the problem wasn’t motivating Rosenberg to do more; the problem was holding Rosenberg back, so that he could continue to be of value to the Russians and not caught in the trap of over-zealousness.