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Annual Annoyance

I write this on April 5th, exactly 64 years after Federal Judge Irving R. Kaufman sentenced Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to death. I can’t help being annoyed that today the New York Daily News, and the TV news station New York 1 both incorrectly reported that my parents were convicted of “espionage.”

Ethel and Julius were actually charged with and convicted of “Conspiracy to Commit Espionage.” Lawyers will tell you that there is a significant difference between conspiracy and espionage charges. The former requires that two or more people get together, plan espionage and take one act in furtherance of their scheme, while the latter requires the actual commission of espionage.

But wait a minute, you ask. Why should it matter now? After all, in 2008 Morton Sobell admitted that he and Julius committed espionage in the 1940’s. So while accurately reporting the details of the charge might matter to legal scholars, what is the political consequence now?

It might not matter in Julius’ case, but it’s a game-changer for Ethel.

David and Ruth Greenglass’ testimony at trial was the only evidence against my mother. The Greenglasses claimed that Ethel was present at a September, 1945 meeting and that she typed David’s handwritten espionage notes. In 2001 David admitted that this testimony was perjury and we now know that the September meeting never took place. Ruth Greenglass also testified that when Julius asked her to help enlist David in a spy ring, she was reluctant and Ethel pressed her by saying let David decide. However the KGB files indicate that Ruth was enthusiastic, and that Ethel just said “be careful.” While giving encouragement might qualify as an act in furtherance of a conspiracy, the ambiguous statement “be careful” is subject to a range of interpretations.

And to be clear, those statements are the only evidence presented against Ethel. Beyond that, both the US and USSR governments’ files indicate that Ethel was never an active espionage agent. Our government knew Ethel was not an agent but held her as a hostage to coerce her husband into cooperating with the authorities. The FBI files never claimed she was guilty, but consistently described her as “cognizant and recalcitrant.” Whatever Julius did, Ethel was neither charged with, nor did she commit, espionage.

Given this, I hope you can understand my annoyance when the media gets it wrong. New York City area mainstream media outlets have reiterated this “mistake” for 64 years. To repeat inaccurate information – without mentioning that we now know Ethel never committed espionage – is outrageous.  Read More 
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Strange Convergence: Billie Holiday and Ethel Rosenberg

If Billie Holiday and Ethel Rosenberg were alive, they’d both celebrate their 100th birthdays this year. At first glance they may seem an unlikely couple, but a closer look reveals surprising parallels.

They were each born into poverty six months and a hundred miles apart. Billie in April 1915 in Philadelphia, and Ethel in September in lower Manhattan. Both had extraordinary singing voices, although Billie’s vocal genius eclipsed Ethel’s. Still, Ethel’s teachers considered her voice so special that they called her out of class to sing the national anthem at assemblies.

Both girls were precocious. Ethel graduated high school at 15 and tried to pursue a singing and acting career. At the height of the depression, she could only find work as a clerk-typist in New York’s garment district. There she helped organize and lead a strike at 19. Billie was singing in clubs in Harlem at 17, and made her mark as a recording artist before she was 20.

Both got in trouble with the law. Billie first ran afoul of powerful forces for singing “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching anthem. Her performances generated threats, even riots. Josh White also sang the song and was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy period. He bowed to their demands that he stop. Billie defiantly refused and continued singing “Strange Fruit.” Many believe that her resistance led law enforcement to hound and arrest her in 1947 for drug possession. She served almost a year in prison, and her conviction disrupted her career for the rest of her life.

In 1950 Ethel was arrested with her husband Julius and charged with Conspiracy to Commit Espionage; they were convicted and sentenced to death. The government knew she had not committed espionage, but they held her as a hostage to coerce her husband into cooperating with the authorities. She refused to confess to something she did not do and backed her husband’s refusal to implicate others. The FBI files never claimed she was guilty, but consistently described her as “cognizant and recalcitrant.”

You might conclude that Billie and Ethel had similar talents and defied similar enemies.

Both died prematurely, victimized by law enforcement. Ethel was executed in 1953 at age 37, and Billie died in a hospital bed at age 44, while awaiting arraignment after another drug arrest.

Billie and Ethel followed different paths in life and probably never met, but they converged in death. High school English teacher, poet, and songwriter Abel Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” after seeing a photograph of a lynching. He played it for Billie Holiday in 1939, when she was performing at Cafe Society. Fourteen years later, Abel helped carry Ethel Rosenberg’s coffin to her grave site. Within a year, Abel and his wife Anne had adopted Ethel and Julius’ sons. The man who abhored lynching adopted Ethel’s orphans, my brother and me.

We remember Billie Holiday for singing about lynching and we remember Ethel Rosenberg for being legally lynched.  Read More 
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The Knowledge That Others Will Carry On

In her final hours my mother, Ethel Rosenberg, wrote, for her and Julius: “[W]e were comforted in the sure knowledge that others would carry on after us.” Many years later, these words sparked the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC).

Last weekend I spoke in Toronto at a reception to re-launch the Mary Pitawanakwat Fund (MPF). The MPF is similar to the Rosenberg Fund and was, for a number of years, an RFC Canadian sub-fund. Now, after being taken under the tax-exempt wing of the Toronto-based Winchevsky Centre of the United Jewish People's Order, it was finally 100% Canadian.

Mary Pitawanakwat, a First Nations Ojibway woman, was hired by the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 1979. In 1984, she filed suit because, among other things, her boss called native people’s “savages” and sexually harassed her. In response, her supervisor claimed he was only testing the “smaller personal space” of natives. In 1986 the Commission fired her for “incompetence.” She spent the rest of her life battling to vindicate her rights. By the time she won her legal claim she was dying of breast cancer. She continued to organize on behalf of others until she died at the age of 45, confident that the struggle would continue.

Her fight took a toll on her teenaged children. Mary did what she could to protect Brock and Robyn, including applying for RFC support. Although we do not normally give grants outside of the United States, the RFC made an exception in her case.

Mary was already quite ill when I met her, but she left me inspired with her powerful spirit of resistance. In the 18 years since, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Brock and Robyn, as they became an important part of the RFC community.

Speaking before many supporters last Sunday, including Brock, Robyn, their partners, and their five children (Robyn has three, Brock has two), my mother’s final words echoed. Those words are rich in political, social and personal meaning. Some view them as a political prediction, but I read in them an expression of faith that a community would protect and guide my brother and me. She was expressing her trust that despite the great loss their deaths would cause us, we would find our own way and ultimately benefit from our parents’ resistance.

I believe that the lives of my brother and me, of our children and now our grandchildren, bear witness to that trust. Visiting with Brock and Robyn, and their families gave me a profound sense that it was happening again. Mary’s family still lived with the great pain of her loss, but Brock and Robyn have benefited from her legacy, just as I have benefited from my parents’. Mary’s children are leading loving and productive lives, and raising wonderful children. They are proof that Mary’s spirit survives.

Whatever else is wrong with human society, this one thing is decidedly right. I thank my parents, Mary, Robyn and Brock for this priceless gift.

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