Joe Bruno on the Mob – Ethel Rosenberg – Part 5
With the money given to him by Feklisov, Rosenberg and his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, opened a small machinist shop on the Lower East Side. However, this business went belly-up after two years, leaving both Greenglass and Rosenberg out of work. This was especially hard on Rosenberg, since, in 1947, his wife, Ethel, bore him a second son, Robert. Ethel, although she had a strong personality, was not physically able to work. As a result, the amounts of cash Rosenberg now received from the Russians, nor matter how sporadically, allowed the Rosenbergs to pay their bills.
For the next several years, Rosenberg laid low; trying to keep under the FBI’s radar. However, he occasionally met with his Russian contact, doing whatever he could to further the cause without exposing himself as a spy. Since Rosenberg’s old crew was no longer under his supervision, Rosenberg was reduced to acting as a go-between for the transfer of American top-secret documents to the Russians. By this time, Rosenberg was in the habit of accepting whatever remunerations offered him by his Soviet bosses.
Plainly, he needed the cash to survive.
In June of 1948, Rosenberg met with fellow spy Max Elitcher and his old pal Morton Sobell on Catherine Slip, behind Knickerbocker Village and 20 yards from the East River, to exchange microfilm important to the Russians. The microfilm was originally given to Rosenberg by his Russian contact. Rosenberg took the microfilm to his Knickerbocker Village apartment, where he made photographic copies of the microfilm, using a living room coffee table/film developing unit given him by the Russians.
In February 1950, following the arrest of German-born British scientist Klaus Fuchs, the Russian spy-ring dominos began tumbling. To reduce his sentence, Fuchs immediately gave up Harry Gold, who was arrested on May 23, 1950.
When Rosenberg heard about Gold’s arrest, he told David Greenglass to leave America immediately and to hide in Mexico, until he could arrange Greenglass’s escape to Switzerland, which did not have an extradition agreement with the United States. Rosenberg told Greenglass that he had made arrangements with the Soviets for Greenglass to report to the Czechoslovakian Embassy in Switzerland, where he would receive diplomatic immunity; then passage to Russia. Greenglass balked at doing so because his wife, Ruth, was six months pregnant.
According to the July 23, 1950 New York Times, “Greenglass vacillated between fleeing and killing himself until the Federal agents put an end to his indecision by arresting him.”
On June 15, 1950, in his first interview with the FBI, Greenglass caved under pressure. Greenglass not only admitted, that in 1945 as a U.S. Army soldier stationed in Los Alamos, he had passed secret government information to Harry Gold, but that his wife, Ruth, and his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, were also Soviet spies. Greenglass insisted it was Julius Rosenberg who had recruited him to do espionage work for the Russians. Greenglass did not say his sister, Ethel, was also involved, but that would soon change.
Greenglass told the Feds when he finally decided to accede to my brother-in-law’s request to be a spy, “it was like jumping into a cold lake.”
When asked why he had decided to become betray his home country, Greenglass said he considered it “gross negligence on the part of the United States to withhold atomic date from its ally, Russia.”
The noose closed on Julius Rosenberg’s neck, when on July 1, 1950, the Feds raided his Knickerbocker Village apartment and, in front of his wife and two sons, slapped the cuffs on Rosenberg, charging him “conspiracy to commit espionage.” Rosenberg told the Feds he was a merely a hard-working electrical engineer, who owned and operated Pitts Engine Product Inc., at 370 East Houston Street, and that he had no idea what they were talking about.
J. Edgar Hoover, the headline-grabbing director of the F.B. I., announced Rosenberg’s arrest, describing Rosenberg as “another important link in the Soviet espionage apparatus that includes atomic scientist Dr. Klaus Fuchs, Philadelphia biochemist Harry Gold, and David Greenglass, former United States Army sergeant.”
Rosenberg was hauled before Judge John F.X. McGohey in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York City. Rosenberg was represented by top New York City criminal attorney Emanuel H. Bloch, of 270 Broadway. Judge McGohey set Rosenberg’s bail at $100,000 and remanded Rosenberg to the Federal House of Detention, located on the corner of Eleventh and West Streets.
Bloch, who had contacts in the press, soon released a statement contradicting Greenglass’ claims about Rosenberg’s Soviet spy involvements, and especially Greenglass’s claim that it was Julius Rosenberg who tore off the top of a Jell-O box, and gave half to Greenglass and half to Harry Gold, as a means of them identifying each other in New Mexico.
According to the July, 20, 1950 New York Times, “Bloch quoted his client as saying the Government’s version of the Jell-O box-top episode was ‘fantastic,’ – something like the kids heard over the television on the Lone Ranger program.”
Bloch also said that Rosenberg claimed his “brother-in-law must be crazy”; there was no truth in the charges, and that he wanted to meet his accuser “face to face.”
On August 11, 1950, 34-year-old Ethel Rosenberg was arrested on the courthouse steps, outside the Federal Court Building in New York City, after she had testified under oath she knew nothing about her husband, Julius, or her brother, David Greenglass, being involved in a Soviet espionage ring. The newspapers described her as a “dark-haired housewife with Russian ancestry.”
Ethel seems “disinterested” during her 15-miniute court appearance after her arrest. While being led from the courtroom in handcuffs, she told reporters, “I have nothing to say.”
Like her husband, Julius, Ethel was held under $100,000 bail. She wasn’t even afforded the opportunity to arrange for the care of her two children, who had spent the afternoon with neighbors.
Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Miles J. Lane told the press the Rosenbergs had made arrangements to leave the country after the arrest of Harry Gold. In fact, Lane said, they had already succeeded in “obtaining passport photos from a private Lower East Side photographer.”
The main evidence against Ethel Rosenberg were statements by her brother, David Greenglass, who said Ethel was present every time he met Julius Rosenberg at their Knickerbocker Village apartment to discuss their espionage activities. Greenglass also said that on several occasions, Ethel had typed notes concerning classified government information.
The truth was – the Feds had very little on Ethel Rosenberg. However, by arresting her they figured it might force her husband to crack and start naming names.
In fact, J. Edgar Hoover urged his Federal agents to build a “triable case” against Ethel, saying, “There is no question, if Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities, it would be possible to proceed against other individuals. Proceeding against his wife might be a lever in this matter.”
While the FBI was closing their net around Greenglass, Gold, and the Rosenbergs, several other Rosenberg comrades were doing their best to avoid arrest.
Joel Barr, who was a college classmate of Rosenberg, and just as much a lefty, disappeared in Paris leaving most of his worldly possessions behind. He soon resurfaced in Czechoslovakia, where the Soviets gave him a new identity: Joseph Berg.
After Greenglass was arrested, Morton Sobell fled to Mexico, where he lived under an assumed name until the Feds caught up with him in August of 1950.
The day after Rosenberg was arrested, a third Rosenberg crony, Alfred Sarant, was interrogated by Federal agents in Ithaca, N.Y., where Sarant ostensibly lived. The agents claimed Sarant was keeping an apartment to conduct espionage activities at 65 Morton Street in New York City. Sarant adamantly denied the Feds allegations, and before he could be arrested, Sarant absconded with Carol Dayton, the wife of an Ithaca neighbor. They fled to Mexico and as far as the FBI was concerned, Alfred Sarant and Carol Dayton had disappeared into thin air; never to be seen again.
Finally, in the summer of 1950 William Perl, another one of Rosenberg’s spy recruits, was called before the Rosenberg Grand Jury. Perl denied he had any relationship with Rosenberg. He was immediately arrested and charged with perjury. At his 1953 trial, Perl was found guilty of two counts of perjury and sentenced to two consecutive five-year terms, which he served at the New York House of Detention; claiming his innocence to the very end.
Ethel Rosenberg adapted to jail life quite well. She did whatever chores were required of her, and more importantly, to the dismay of the Feds, she kept her mouth shut. The government’s hope to scare her into naming names didn’t work. Her husband, Julius, was just as much a rock, refusing to say anything at all – even to save his own wife from the electric chair.
Yet, the key to the government expanding its net to catch more spies was Ethel, and she played “the innocent woman” part to the hilt, making the Feds, and especially J. Edgar Hoover, look foolish, inadequate, and most importantly – downright mean.
William P. Rogers, who was the deputy attorney general at the time, later said, “She called our bluff.”