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Execution of Ethel Rosenberg

June 19, 1953

Although they were tried and executed more than half a century ago, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's names remain familiar to most Americans. Put to death on June 19, 1953, after their conviction for conspiracy to commit treason, the Rosenbergs were at the center of one of the most famous and controversial espionage cases of the twentieth century. Fifty-four years after her death, Ethel Rosenberg's role remains one of the most contested aspects of the whole affair.

Despite her sensational death, Ethel Rosenberg was not a lifelong political activist. Born to Russian immigrants on New York's Lower East Side in 1915, the young Ethel hoped for a career in theater or music. Although she went to work instead of to college after her 1931 graduation from high school, she studied experimental theatre at the Clark Settlement House and also studied music. She joined the Schola Cantorum, a vocal group that performed at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House. Even as she maintained the dream of a musical career, her work in a shipping company was leading her in a new direction.

At work, Ethel Rosenberg was introduced for the first time to union organizers and Communist Party members. Exploring radical political philosophy through music and theatre as well as evening discussions, she came to agree with many of the Communist Party's goals, such as fighting fascism and racism and supporting unions. When the workers in her union called a strike in 1935, she was one of four members of the strike committee. She continued to sing, however, and it was at a performance at a Seaman's Union benefit that she met Julius Rosenberg. They were married in 1939. After their marriage, Julius remained active in the Communist Party, but Ethel left both politics and music behind to focus on raising their two sons.

Following the arrest of a German-born physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the U.S. atomic bomb, a series of revelations led, in June 1950, to the arrest of Julius Rosenberg as an atomic spy. Ethel's arrest followed in July. The pair were turned in by Ethel's youngest brother, David Greenglass, apparently to protect his own wife from prosecution. Evidence suggests that Ethel was held mainly in an effort to force her husband to reveal further names and information.

On March 29, 1951, following a high-profile trial, the Rosenbergs were convicted of treason, in the form of passing atomic secrets to Russia. Ethel's refusal to fulfill a stereotypical feminine role by breaking into tears during the trial was thought to show that she was unwomanly and more attached to Communism than to her children. Her stoicism may have helped to turn the jury of 11 men and one woman against her.

The global political context was also a clear factor. In pronouncing their death sentence, Judge Irving Kaufman described the Rosenbergs' crime as "worse than murder ... causing the communist aggression in Korea," thus blaming them for the Korean War. The conviction and sentence were followed by a lengthy series of appeals.

Although a number of leftist organizations protested the verdict, Jewish organizations were conspicuously absent in the Rosenbergs' defense. Public condemnation of the Rosenbergs, a general identification of Jews with left-wing causes, and the shadow of McCarthyism made many Jews fear that their own loyalty was under scrutiny. Some Jewish leaders, including the American Jewish Committee, publicly endorsed the guilty verdict.

Following failed pleas for clemency to President Truman and then to President Eisenhower, the Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953. Ethel was only the second woman ever to be executed by the federal government. To the end, both Rosenbergs insisted on their innocence. Documents recently unsealed in both the U.S. and Russia show that although Julius Rosenberg was probably guilty, Ethel's role in any conspiracy was tiny at most.

While scholarly debate over the Rosenberg case continues, their names remain a touchstone for many. Playwright Tony Kushner, for instance, offered a powerful portrayal of Ethel Rosenberg's strength and humanity in his landmark production Angels in America. Heir to an Execution (2004), a recent documentary by the Rosenbergs' granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol, presents a particularly moving portrayal of how Ethel confronted her arrest, trial and execution.

Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1174-1176; Marjorie Garber and Rebecca Walkowitz, eds., Secret Agents: The Rosenberg Case, McCarthyism, and Fifties America (New York, 1995); Ilene Philipson, Ethel Rosenberg: Beyond the Myth (New York, 1988); Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth (New York, 1983); Joseph Sharlitt, Fatal Error: The Miscarriage of Justice that Sealed the Rosenbergs' Fate (New York, 1989); Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1951; New York Times, April 6, 1951, June 20, 1953; Chicago Daily Tribune, October 14, 1952, June 20, 1953.

9 Comments

Having read "The Rosenberg Letters" all the letters that the Rosenberg's wrote to each other and to other persons whilst they were in prison awaiting their execution; I am convinced that I was reading the greatest 'love story' I have ever read. The love that Ethel and Julius had for each other, and that is expressed in these letters; tears your heart out in sympathy at their plight. I am 84 years of age; for me, ETHEL ROSENBERG is the greatest woman of all. Her letters reveal she is superbly intelligent; has the greatest dignity; and the most amazing courage; of any female I have ever known. She, for me, is the greatest woman of my lifetime.

I am bothered continuously by this problem; does anyome know if the Rosenbergs were permitted private time with each other, to be able to hold, touch, and comfort each other; and, to be able to say 'goodbye'properly; before they were executed?

Gj

The Rosenbergs were tried and convicted of espionage. They were never charged, tried nor convicted of treason. "treason could not be charged because the United States was not at war with the Soviet Union" http://www.history.com/this-da... Ì¢‰âÒThe U.S. government did not indict the Rosenbergs for Treason and might have encountered constitutional difficulties if it had pursued such an indictment. Article III, Section 3, of the Constitution defines treason as giving "aid and comfort" to the enemies of the United States. During World War II, the Soviet Union was an ally, not an enemy, of the United States. Further, the Constitution requires that every "overt act of treason" be witnessed by two persons. Yet, as the trial revealed, many of the conspiratorial acts committed by the Rosenbergs were witnessed by only one person.Ì¢‰âÂå http://legal-dictionary.thefre...

Stalin favored the Russians over the Jews, and actively reduced their influence when Israel embraced America. Stalin was loved by Julius, hated by religious Jews, and his wife was simply so much collateral damage to Judge Kaufman and to religious Jews. They let the mob take her. They were complicit in their murders.

Why is there no mention of the KGB files opened after the fall of the Soviet Government. The Rosenberg's were clearly agents of the communist Soviet Union.

And that made their judicial murder justifiable?

I personally will always loathe and detest what America did to the Rosenbergs. Intent on murdering them from the outset the American Justice Department treated them abominably right up to the instant of their executions. Kept separate from each other, unable even to touch each other, each of them were held in conditions of a deploarble state. Wholly evident of a Police State hell bent on revenge. The interesting point about this entire 'communist' witch hunt that seized America at this time, is that in a true democracy it is perfectly valid to seek to undermine and revolt against government. President Abraham Lincoln's first Inaugural Address makes this very clear: "When the People shall grow weary of Government,they may exercise their democratic right to ammend it, or their 'revolutionary right' to overthrow it." Communists in America, had every right to try to undermine and overthrow existing government.

For the deaths of the Rosenbergs, for me, America lives in everlasting shame.

Gordonj

Can somebody email me or post the uncropped photograph of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg sitting in the back of the paddy wagon? There is supposedly a third person who is a man and I urgently want to see the original image before it was cropped for the newspapers. The other person in the photograph is my father-in-law who was arrested that day for being in the U.S. illegally as his visa had expired and he did not leave the country.

I was only 8 years old in 1953. But I understood what happened.

At home, it was a tragedy - this jewish woman, like us, was to be killed in the electical chair.

I remeber that she asked for a cigarrette, before her last moment.

It was so sad, and I, being only 8, came to get a complete notion of the political event,

and felt tired and upset.

smoking will kill ya.

Ethel Rosenberg with Husband Julius
Full image

Ethel Rosenberg’s Jewish identity was forged not by any ties to traditional Judaism but by her political radicalism. Indeed, when she and her husband, Julius, were charged with espionage, attempts were made by their fellow "leftists" to link their prosecution with antisemitism. But the established Jewish community, fearing any association with Jewish radicalism, rejected this charge. The couple was convicted on March 29, 1951, and sentenced to death, the only two American civilians to be executed for espionage-related activity during the Cold War.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Execution of Ethel Rosenberg." (Viewed on May 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/jun/19/1953/ethel-rosenberg>.

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