Joe Bruno on the Mob – Ethel Rosenberg – Part 3
For the next several months, Feklisov met “Libbi” almost every week. Rosenberg and his cronies would steal classified materials and then, through Rosenberg, pass them on to Feklisov. The transactions between Feklisov and Rosenberg usually occurred in the next to the last row of a movie theatre (the last row was reserved for lovers). Back at his office at the Russian Embassy, Feklisov would microfilm the information and return the originals to Rosenberg the following day. With the quick turnaround, Rosenberg’s employers never realized anything inappropriate had taken place.
Soon, Feklisov taught Rosenberg how to microfilm the documents himself – with a small Leica camera – so they could eliminate the second meeting and reduce of chances of being discovered. Feklisov was concerned, that if it were up to Rosenberg, “Libbi” would have stolen classified documents every day and delivered them to Feklisov. Feklisov was amazed Rosenberg was intent on helping Russia and, and was unconcerned about the possible adverse effects on the United States.
Rosenberg told Feklisov, “Listen Alexander (he enjoyed calling Feklisov by his first name).Your country has achieved such great things and now everything is in ruins. You have to rebuild all that. I want to help you, but you must help me help you.”
Feklisov tried to explain to Rosenberg that he (Feklisov) was being watched closely by the FBI, but Rosenberg seemed disinterested.
“When I told him this, he just shrugged his shoulders,” Feklisov said. “He felt he was
doing nothing wrong!”
Feklisov recalled the time Rosenberg was crossing the street to meet Feklisov. Rosenberg was smoking a big cigar, he obviously wouldn’t afford, and smiling like a loon. When he reached where Feklisov was standing, Rosenberg blurted out, “Hello, Comrade!”
Feklisov was mortified.
A few minutes later, while they were sitting in a small cafeteria near the East River, Feklisov told Rosenberg he had made a huge mistake addressing a Russian spy in public as “Comrade.”
Feklisov put down his bagel, reached across the table and grabbed Rosenberg’s wrist for emphasis. He told Rosenberg, that to avoid detection, it was best for “Libbi” to tone down his overt Communist activities. Feklisov urged Rosenberg to stop subscribing to left-wing magazines and not to attend Red Army rallies. Feklisov made it clear to Rosenberg that for Rosenberg to be valuable to the Russian cause; he must maintain a low profile.
Rosenberg was crushed. He sipped his tea, took off his the eyeglasses, and cleaned them with a napkin.
Rosenberg told Feklisov, “I know you may not be aware of this, but our meetings are among the happiest moments of my life. I have a wonderful wife and a son whom I adore. But you are the only person who knows all my secrets, and it is important to be able to confide in someone.”
To placate Feklisov and his NKVD (Communist Secret Police) superiors, Rosenberg abruptly quit the American Communist Party. However, in 1944, Rosenberg’s previous communist activities were exposed and, even though he was no longer a member of the American Communist Party, Rosenberg was fired from his job at the U.S. Army Signal Corp.
Undaunted, Rosenberg quickly took a position with the Emerson Company, and through his position at this private sector company, Rosenberg continued to give the Russians valuable technical information.
In mid-1944, Rosenberg stole sensitive documents from Emerson which laid out the complete details of Emerson’s production of a “proximity fuse.” This fuse was a revolutionary device which changed the way a bomb shell exploded. Until the invention of the proximity fuse, bombs only exploded when they made actual contact with their target. However, the proximity fuse was designed to make the bomb explode at a short distance from its target. The fragments then scattered into balls and at least some of these fragments were “guaranteed to cause irreparable dame to its target.” The proximity fuse also automatically corrected the path of the explosive charges towards the location of the target itself, making it a precursor of future missile homing devices.
In 1960, an upgraded model of the proximity fuse was used by the Russians to shoot down an American spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers. So, in effect, even though he was dead for several years, Rosenberg’s treachery in aiding the Russians still caused direct damage to American property as well as to American military personnel.
What surprised, and sometimes irked Feklisov was that Rosenberg, true to Socialist ideals, put very little value on material things. When Feklisov offered him monetary compensation, Rosenberg absolutely refused. No matter how hard Feklisov pushed, Rosenberg would not take any money from him except for his travel expenses and for restaurant bills for Rosenberg’s colleagues, who had become informants for the Soviets.
“Even though I barely gave Rosenberg $25 a month for expenses,” Feklisov said, “Rosenberg’s contribution was such that even millions would not have compensated him for his true value to us.”
Feklisov got an even bigger surprise when he cajoled Rosenberg into the idea of them exchanging Christmas presents (Rosenberg was Jewish but he still celebrated the winter holidays). Feklisov insisted that he must buy two presents; one for Julius and one for his wife Ethel. Feklisov decided to give Rosenberg an expensive wristwatch; an Omega stainless steel watch with a stainless steel bracelet (for some reason, Rosenberg hated gold). However, Feklisov was unsure what to give Ethel. So he asked Rosenberg.
Rosenberg replied, “You know what she’d really like? She’s been dreaming for some time about a new handbag. The one she has is old and out of fashion.”
Feklisov asked his wife, Zina, to help him pick out Ethel’s present. They went to the woman’s department in Gimbels and bought a large, brown crocodile handbag for Ethel; one that Feklisov’s wife said she would buy for herself. They placed Julius’s watch into the handbag, along with a fluffy teddy bear, and then set the handbag into a large box decorated with wrapping paper and ribbons.
The exchange of Christmas presents took place on December 24, 1944 at the Horn & Hardart cafeteria on West 38th Street, near Broadway. Feklisov felt Horn and Hardart was the perfect place to conduct secret meetings and to make document transfers.
Most importantly – there were no waiters on the premises.
Horn & Hardart was dotted with automatic food distributers; you put in the proper amount of coins, pressed a button, and a small glass door opened, giving access to the plate of food or beverage you selected. Also, this Horn and Hardart had two exits; one on 38th Street and the other on Broadway, so Feklisov had two options in case a quick getaway was needed.
Feklisov arrived fifteen minutes early for their meeting. Rather than enter Horn and Hardart right away, Feklisov stood on the sidewalk across the street and waited. Soon, he spotted Rosenberg entering the restaurant. Through the large glass window of the restaurant (which Feklisov said was like looking through an aquarium), he watched as Rosenberg put his hat and coat on a rack and set down his package on a low window sill. Rosenberg poured himself a cup of coffee, sat alone at a table, and began reading the New York Times.
A few minutes later, Feklisov entered Horn & Hardart. He took off his coat and placed his package on the window sill next to Rosenberg’s. Feklisov served himself what he felt was a cup of bad American coffee, and to kill the taste, he bought himself a ham sandwich on rye. Feklisov sat at the same table, across from Rosenberg, and began reading his own copy of the New York Times.
Without looking up from his newspaper, Feklisov said, “Don’t forget to take the box I brought you. Those are your Christmas presents.”
Their eyes met for an instant, and Rosenberg smiled. “Thank you. Your present is in the big cartoon. Be careful; it’s pretty heavy.”
That said, Rosenberg chugged down the rest of his coffee, and put on his coat and hat. Rosenberg laid his newspaper on top of the box Feklisov had brought for him, picked up the box and exited the restaurant.
Not to draw attention, Feklisov calmly read his newspaper, while finishing his coffee and sandwich. Fifteen minutes later, Feklisov stood up from the table, put on his coat and hat, and after waiting for the two ladies talking near the window to leave, he picked up Rosenberg’s package by the string wrapped around it and exited the restaurant.
While trudging down Broadway, Feklisov was struck by the immense weight of the package. It had to weigh at least 15 pounds, and Feklisov was afraid the string would break while he was walking to the subway a few blocks away. Suddenly, Feklisov spotted a cab. He hailed it and directed the cabby to drive him to his office in the Russian consulate.
Inside the Russian consulate, Feklisov took the package to a common meeting room, which was now empty because of the impending Christmas holiday. Feklisov tore open the package and came face-to-face with a fully assembled proximity fuse.
Feklisov said, “I was totally flabbergasted! This was the short-range fuse, the one that exploded when it got close to a plane, guaranteeing it’s total destruction. It was the very item the Center had designated as being a priority in intelligence gathering. What I had now was not drawings or descriptions, but the complete metal device. It was in working order, brand new, smelling of metal and oil, with an additional supply of miniaturized replacement metal tubes fastened to the top.”
Feklisov knew Rosenberg was foolhardy to take such a risk, but, incredibly, Rosenberg had apparently pulled off the heist without a snag.
A few minutes later, Feklisov’s NKVD boss, Kvasnikov, appeared in the conference room. When Feklisov told him the source of the object on the table, Kvasnikov’s eyes narrowed.
“How could Rosenberg walk out with such a large object?” Kvasnikov said. “In his secret factory, the smallest part, even if defective, is under control. Can you give me an explanation?”
Feklisov said he could not.
Feklisov‘s face felt hot while Kvasnikov read him the riot act for not having complete control over his agent. Kvasnikov told Feklisov an agent acting by himself without Soviet direction was not what the Russians wanted. Too many things could go wrong.
At their next meeting, which took place outdoors on the top level of the Staten Island Ferry, Feklisov pressed Rosenberg for an explanation. With the winter wind whistling through the night air and no one in hearing distance, Rosenberg told Feklisov, months before, Rosenberg had assembled the proximity fuse at Emerson Radio, but it had been rejected as defective by his superiors. Instead of discarding the rejected fuse, Rosenberg hid it in a corner, and little by little he replaced the defective parts until it was in perfect working order. He then hid the fuse behind a box on a shelf where spare parts were kept. The problem now was how to smuggle the fuse out of Emerson without being detected.
On December 23, Rosenberg was selected to ride in the van which was designated to get rid of all defective parts accumulated throughout the year. With the driver humming a holiday tune playing on the van’s radio, Rosenberg sat quietly in the passenger’s seat. He had hidden the proximity fuse in a box in the back of the van; a box identical to all the other boxes in the van. He was waiting for an opportunity to smuggle the fuse out of the van to a safe place: his apartment in Knickerbocker Village.
While the van bounced on the cobblestones on Essex Street near Grand Street, Rosenberg asked the driver to stop at a grocery story so that Rosenberg could purchase food for the holidays. The driver shrugged his shoulders and did what Rosenberg had requested. Rosenberg jumped out of the van and into the grocery store.
Minutes later, Rosenberg emerged from the grocery store carrying a box of food identical to the box that contained the fuse in the back of the van. Rosenberg opened the back of the van and placed the two boxes next to each other.
“Can you make a stop at my apartment so that I can give my wife the groceries” he asked the driver.
Five minutes later, the driver stopped the van on Monroe Street, in front of the west court of Knickerbocker Village. Rosenberg went around to the back of the van, picked up both boxes – one filled with food and the other with the fuse – and headed toward the entrance of Knickerbocker Village
As Rosenberg was tottering away, the driver asked, “Can I help you take them upstairs?”
Rosenberg, both boxes pressed against his chest, turned to the driver and smiled weakly. “No thanks,” he said. “It’s not that heavy.”
Five minutes later, Rosenberg, whistling a holiday tune, returned to the van.
“Thanks. Now we can go,” he told the driver.
After Rosenberg finished his incredible tale, Feklisov shook his head. His emotions flipped back and forth between anger and disappointment. Leaning forward against the chest-high railing on the top deck of the Staten Island Ferry, Feklisov stared at the Statue of Liberty in the distance; its bright torch illuminating New York Harbor. The sight of Lady Liberty increased Feklisov angst. He turned toward Rosenberg, who was also staring out over the frigid water banging against the bottom of the ferry, causing whitecaps to tickle the sides of the boat.
“Julius, you should have never gone into this crazy scheme!” Feklisov yelled at Rosenberg. “It could have gone very wrong! Next time you feel like jumping headfirst, let me know in advance! We’ll think about limiting the risks!”
Rosenberg’s anger matched Feklisov’s.
“It was not a crazy scheme at all!” Rosenberg bellowed. “I planned my moves step by step and I brought them to fruition at the moment of least risk. The day before Christmas people are only thinking about the holidays. One week before or after and it never would have worked.”
Rosenberg then smiled and lowered his voice. He put his hand on Feklisov’s shoulder and said, “Honestly, I wanted to set up my own operation that would be, well, not so heroic, but at least daring. Millions of Russians are taking even bigger risks every day and I don’t want to live off their sacrifices.”
Feklisov tried to convince Rosenberg that acting in such a manner without confirmation of his superiors was not acceptable, but Rosenberg stood firm in his beliefs. When the ferry returned to the South Ferry terminal in Lower in Manhattan, the men disembarked separately and set out in different directions. Feklisov turned and watched Rosenberg dissipate into the night. He had the firm impression his lecture to Rosenberg had been a waste of time. Rosenberg was a militant Russian spy, and short of cutting him loose, there was nothing Feklisov could do to control “Libbi.”
Years later, Feklisov discovered that of all the technical innovations created by the Americans during the Second World War, the proximity fuse was second in cost only to the atom bomb. In order to create and enhance the proximity fuse, America had spent over a billion dollars. And in a wink, Julius Rosenberg had stolen this very device from under the Emerson scientist’s noses; at no cost to the Russians.