When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were brought to trial in the federal courthouse at Manhattan’s Foley Square in March 1951, at least one local resident was watching closely.
“Mine was the generation of the Rosenbergs,” said 94-year-old Miriam Moskowitz, who has long been active in the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case. The group will hold its 57th annual memorial meeting on June 17.
“The trial was a mockery,” said Moskowitz, author of the forthcoming “Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice” and a resident of Washington Township.
It was also an ordeal for American Jews, who feared the case would exacerbate already blatant displays of anti-Semitism.
Moskowitz pointed out that while the Rosenbergs were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, “they were really tried and convicted even before they set foot in the courtroom because of the prosecution’s powerful publicity machine,” she said. “And while the charge was conspiracy to commit espionage, in effect, they were tried for treason.” The couple were executed in 1953.
|Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in 1953, were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage but, “in effect, were tried for treason.”|
This year’s memorial meeting will unveil a new initiative, said Moskowitz, noting that the eight-member committee will formally launch a campaign to exonerate the Rosenbergs “of the false charge of atomic spying.”
Among other accusations, the Rosenbergs were accused of passing to the Soviet Union information that could be used to build an atomic bomb. Two years ago, their co-defendant, Morton Sobell – released in 1969 after serving more that 18 years in prison, five of them in Alcatraz – admitted that he and Julius Rosenberg had passed information to the former Soviet Union in the 1940s but said it had nothing to do with the atom bomb.
“Julius gave defensive weaponry information to Russia because he felt they were bearing the brunt of the war,” said Moskowitz.
“They were leftists and they believed in the war effort against Nazis,” she said, pointing to strident anti-Semitic voices in the United States such as Father Coughlin, who was lauding Hitler on the radio.
“They were young and unsophisticated,” she said of Julius Rosenberg and Sobell. “They knew they were wrong but they did not intend and did not think to harm their own country. They never thought it would be regarded with such antagonism.”
She likened the case to that of Jonathan Pollard, “who gave unauthorized information to Israel because [then Defense Secretary] Caspar Weinberger refused to give Israel” classified information. Pollard was sentenced to life in prison.
In both cases, she said, the sentences were “way out of proportion.” (Ironically, Tibby Brooks, executive director of NCRRC, pointed out that “the Rosenbergs were executed … just before sundown [since] the authorities didn’t want to desecrate the Sabbath.”)
Moskowitz further noted that in both cases – and in many of the trials that took place during the 1950s – “being Jewish was an important factor.”
“It’s not an accident that the judge and prosecutor were Jewish,” she said. “That was to make sure that they would not be accused of anti-Semitism; but there’s no question that it lay behind these prosecutions.”
Judge Irving Kaufman’s pronouncement at the end of the trial demonstrated the hostility directed toward the defendants, said Moskowitz: “I consider your crime worse than murder,” he said. “I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason?”
Moskowitz recalled, “You don’t remember the picket lines against the Rosenbergs organized by anti-Semites. They used signs reading ‘Fry them and send the remains to Stalin.'”
Moskowitz had been involved in a similar trial just four months before the Rosenberg hearings, charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice.
“It was the same judge, same prosecution team, and same two witnesses” as those in the Rosenberg trial, she said, adding that she was found guilty in a “kangaroo court.”
She and her co-defendant, Abraham Brothman, were accused of influencing Harry Gold – a laboratory chemist who was convicted of being the courier for Soviet spy rings – to lie under oath to the grand jury.
Tried in the southern district of New York at age 34, Moskowitz was found guilty and sent to prison for two years. In her new book, due out in October from Bunim & Bannigan, she chronicles her experiences during this time.
“The book is about how my trial was run and my experiences as a political prisoner and a Jew,” she said, noting that the prosecution had referred to her trial as a kind of dress rehearsal for the Rosenberg trial, testing the believability of the witnesses and the strength of popular prejudice.
Moskowitz said her initial incarceration was in a New York jail – where many of those held “knew almost instinctively that not everything the press printed was believable. They knew also that truth and justice and the law were frequently unrelated.” Still, she said, “there were a few who muttered ugly threats and it was only through the protection of some of the other women that I escaped harm.”
Moskowitz finished doing her time at the Federal Reformatory for Women in West Virginia, “and the hostility there was more pronounced. Some of the women refused to pass the food to me at mealtime so I pretended I wasn’t hungry,” she said. “When anyone ‘accidentally’ jostled me or took a swipe at me (out of sight of the warders), I pretended not to notice. When some called me ‘Jew bitch’ or ‘spy,’ I pretended not to hear.”
Even after her release, she said, she was “harassed” by the FBI.
“They wanted me to give information against my co-defendant, but there was nothing to tell. He was a legitimate chemical engineer conducting a legitimate business.”
At the June 17 meeting, Michael and Robert Meeropol – the sons of the Rosenbergs, young children when their parents were executed – will be featured in videotaped excerpts from a recent symposium on Sobell’s recent admissions. In addition, Dave Alman, president of the committee and co-author with the late Emily Alman of “Exoneration,” will read excerpts from his book, as will Moskowitz from hers. Dr. Jolie Pataki will read from letters Ethel Rosenberg wrote while in prison. There will also be a musical interlude.
The free program is open to the public and will take place at Musicians Local 802, 322 West 48 St. in Manhattan at 7 p.m. For information, call (212) 533-1015.