Out of the McCarthy maelstrom
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Out of the McCarthy maelstrom

Miriam Moskowitz's life a tale of tragedy and triumph

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A trove of news clippings documents Miriam Moskowitz’s story. Photos by James Janoff

The thing that changed Miriam Moskowitz’s life forever – and not at all in a good way – happened almost 60 years ago.

Moskowitz, who is now 96 years old, was unfortunate enough to be caught in one of the slow-motion tragedies in American life. Her story has tremendous resonance as a narrative of both personal resilience and communal nightmare, even though she was a minor figure in the events of six decades ago.

Moskowitz lives alone in a pin-neat, light-filled house in Washington Township, where she has lived for 35 years. Recently, she sat in her kitchen, offered a visitor coffee and oven-warm scones, and told her story.

Miriam Moskowitz was born to Hungarian immigrant parents in Bayonne in 1916, the oldest of four siblings. Her father, who was 16 when he came to this country, was a cofounder of Congregation Ohav Zedek Hungarian. The shul still exists, “but they dropped the Hungarian from the name,” said Moskowitz. Her father was a butcher; because the town largely was non-Jewish, his wares were not kosher, but their home was.

After she graduated high school, Moskowitz crossed the Hudson to get a job. “I wasn’t fit for anything but clerical work, but I heard about free education at City College.” She rented a room in what were then the wilds of West 86th Street, worked during the day, went to night school, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1942, six years later. (Women then could get degrees only in the departments of education or technology, although they were free to take any classes they wanted, she recalled.)

She worked for a “real estate office that was buying up tax liens on Long Island,” she said. “I didn’t know what a tax lien was until long after I stopped working there.”

Next, she worked for a government agency, the War Manpower Commission. “I was getting really bored,” she said, so when the possibility of a job at A. Brothman and Associates appeared, “I applied for the job, and took it. It was a secretarial job; I didn’t have much to do, just keep things going. The person who hired me was a partner of Brothman’s – Brothman was away, and when he came back he threw a fit, said to ‘offer her two weeks salary and tell her not to come in.’ But he didn’t have the nerve to do it. Too bad for me.” This was October 1944.

‘They were our ally’

Abraham Brothman was a brilliant young chemical engineer. He graduated from the Columbia School of Engineering before he turned 19; his early career was both marked by technical accomplishments and marred by anti-Semitism. By the time she met him, he was in his early 30s – she was in her mid 20s – and he had started his own business. He wrote many papers, some of them groundbreaking, in two mainstream technical journals published by McGraw Hill. And he hustled for business.

“He tried calling on Amtorg – the Soviet purchasing commission, with an armful of blueprints,” Moskowitz said. “It was the early 40s, we were at war, and the Soviet Union was our ally. He thought that they would have to rebuild after the war.”

That, too, turned out not to have been a wise move. “Amtorg was very suspicious, and Abe couldn’t get past the front desk.”

In his attempts to get business, Brothman worked with an agent – “we called them 10 percenters,” Moskowitz said – who called himself John Golos. “Sometimes he couldn’t come in person, so he sent his secretary, Helen. Helen was totally unfamiliar with technical terms, and Abe was unwilling to prepare any material ahead of time, so he would patiently describe what was on the blueprints, and she would write it out painfully in longhand.” That system quickly became tiresome, and Helen was replaced by a more technical person, a man who introduced himself as Frank Kessler. Soon, Golos and Helen both vanished, and Brothman opened a laboratory in Long Island City.

“He offered the job of chief chemist to Frank, who thought about it for a few minutes and accepted,” Moskowitz said. “When he came to work, he said, ‘Wait, I have to straighten something out. What do you think my name is?’ Abe said ‘Frank Kessler,’ and he said, ‘No, it’s not. It’s Harry Gold.'”

It was May 1947.

“The newspapers were full of stories about a woman who had gone to the FBI to confess that she had been a Soviet courier. Her name was Elizabeth Bentley. She gave the government a list of names of people who had worked for the government and gave her confidential information for the Soviets. The names were of people like Alger Hiss – and Brothman.

“There were pictures of Elizabeth Bentley in the papers. It was Helen.”

The FBI questioned Brothman, and both Brothman and Gold testified in front of a grand jury, and that was that. Nothing else happened. Life went on.

In 1948, Brothman’s business failed and Brothman and Gold “parted very badly.”

Confession time

In 1950, English physicist Klaus Fuchs, who was among those at Los Alamos who worked on developing the atom bomb, confessed to having given information on the bomb to an American courier, who was to transmit it to the Soviet Union.

“Fuchs says he doesn’t know the name of the guy he gave the information to,” Moskowitz said. “But the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, is dripping with eagerness. Now is his time. He sends the FBI back to Harry Gold, who confesses that he took information from Fuchs and gave it to Soviet couriers.”

That led to a chain of arrests, including such people as David Greenglass, who was Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, and whose evidence eventually led to the arrest and eventual execution of both Ethel and her husband, Julius. All told, “there were nine arrests, each one on the heels of the one before it, with lurid headlines. Totally misleading, totally untrue, but capturing the attention of the American public, convincing them that a spy ring had been operating in the United States.

“All of these people were spies,” the American people were led to believe, Moskowitz continued. “All of them were disloyal, all of them were treasonous – and almost all of them were Jewish.”

In 1950, Moskowitz and Brothman were tried and convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice. “We were not charged with espionage; the reason they came up with the conspiracy charge was because Gold said that he would have told the truth three years earlier, but Brothman told him to lie, and I knew that he would lie.

“Knowing that they were going to lie, I should have gone to the government to expose them. I did not; therefore, I was part of the conspiracy.

“I went to prison,” she said. “I went to trial, and eight days later I was sentenced to two years in prison, and a $10,000 fine” – a fortune in 1950.

There are so many stories connected to Moskowitz’s. The judge who sentenced her, Irving Kaufman, sentenced the Rosenbergs four months later. Moskowitz loathed Kaufman. He mishandled her trial, she said; he refused to admit exonerating evidence. In that political climate, he did not have to.

Personal promotion

One of the joys of having lived so long, she said, is outliving your tormentors; she had Kaufman particularly in mind. “This was the McCarthy period,” she said. “Anything went if you were in the prosecutor’s office, and if you already were a judge you did anything you could that would enhance your reputation.”

The assistant prosecutor on her case was Roy Cohn, who would become Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s right-hand man.

Harry Gold, the man who embroiled Brothman and Moskowitz in the case that would shape and deform their lives, was an odd and unhappy person.

“When he came to work for us, he told us that he was married and had twin children, a boy and a girl,” Moskowitz said. “The boy’s name was David, and the girl was Essie. She had polio, but had recovered, and she had one blue eye and one black one. His wife had left for a much older man, and the only way he could see his children was to go to a park on Saturday afternoons, hide behind a tree, and watch them in the playground. His brother had been a paratrooper in the war; he was shot down over the Pacific.”

The truth? As she learned much later, “he was not married, he never had any children, and his brother was hardy and healthy.”

Gold later was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 30 years, released after 19, and died alone, miserable, and as far as she knows unmourned.

Meanwhile, Moskowitz spent two very hard years in a West Virginia federal prison. “My parents stood by me. It broke their hearts,” she said. She maintained her connections to the Jewish world, even when she was in prison – she received regular visits from a rabbi, with whom she maintained a friendship until he died – but the community disappointed her parents. “The Jewish community knew their devotion to Jewish causes – and still they stayed away,” she said.

Her siblings supported her, too. She still has some of the hand-illustrated letters, dense with news and attempted good cheer, that they sent her throughout her stay in federal prison.

After prison, Moskowitz’s challenge was to rebuild her life, a task that in some ways was easier then than it would be now, in the Internet age. It was possible then not to lie, but still not to say more than necessary about your past.

FBI outs her

She went to live with her parents in Bayonne, “and I applied for a job with a good Jewish firm, because I thought that if my past ever were exposed, people there would be benignly indifferent.” She got the job, and headed a public relations department. “I am fairly literate,” she said, in what is a clear understatement. She was happy there for five years, but then the FBI, trying to get Brothman on another charge and not happy with the information she was able to give them, “visited the personnel office and said that I was a Communist and an ex-con.”

No one said anything to her, but she began noticing that she was no longer asked to do very much, and soon she got the message and left.

“After a month or two, I found another job, with an Italian firm,” she said. “The pay wasn’t as good, and the company wasn’t as strong, but I had a job.”

There, too, eventually she was outed – this time by a recently fired employee who handed out copies of a magazine called Spy Confidential that featured a luridly headlined cover photo of her and Brothman. She had not lied about her past, however, although she had elided some details; the company investigated and decided to retain her.

“I was called to a meeting of the board of directors; there was a long table, and the bankers sat on one side and the lawyers on the other,” she said. “My boss said, ‘Miriam, we don’t think you were a spy. We think you got caught up in something. You are welcome to stay in your job, and if you do we will issue instructions throughout the plant and the office that anybody overheard gossiping about you will be fired.'”

She stayed there as long as she could; this time, it was not her past but the company’s shaky future that influenced her next move.

“I was getting older. I had to do something,” she said. “I had graduated with a degree in education, so I decided it was now or never. It was either do this – or put an end to myself. I was up against a blank wall. So I applied for a teaching job – and I got one.”

She moved to Bergen County, and taught math for 17 years, first in sixth-grade and then in eighth. Her school was in an inner city, which she prefers not to identify because still, after all these years, she is uneasy about how the district will react if it knows about her past.

New day dawns

Math is not her passion – English is – but it has its comforts, she found. “It is logical. When you take each step apart, it is obvious. And it is immutable.”

She no longer worried about her past being found out. Times had changed, she said. “About that time, the civil rights movement was gaining strength all across the country, and on top of that college campuses were exploding with young people protesting the Vietnam war. The FBI no longer had time for me. I taught school in peace.

“It was phenomenal. I never felt so lucky as I did during that time.”

After she retired as a public school teacher, she taught in the Solomon Schechter school in Englewood for three years. (The school is now in New Milford.) “I did it to ease myself into retirement,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

She finally retired from teaching for real in 1977.

Moskowitz also has found joy and solace in music, first playing violin, then viola. She played in quartets, and sometimes in larger groups. “It was wonderful,” she said. She still had one large job looming before her, however. She had to document her experiences; to tell her story, to demonstrate her innocence and her outrage.

“When my hearing started diminishing – when I was no longer sure that the note was on the line, or in the space – I decided that it was time to stop playing and start to write,” she said.

The result of that work was Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice, a thickly footnoted book published by the Justice Institute. It is based on documents the FBI was forced to release under the Freedom of Information Act. The second, revised edition came out last month.

Moskowitz retains her strong connections to the Jewish community. She is a longtime member of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, and she works as a volunteer for the Jewish chaplain who conducts services at Bergen Pines Hospital. Her identity as a Jew is strong. As a Jew, however, she is furious at the community, which she feels failed her, and failed others – the executed Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and former civilian naval analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard chief among them.

The Rosenbergs’ case “was ignored by the Jewish community, as my case was,” she said. “Nobody wanted anything to do with us. We were condemned and castigated as if the people who were rejecting us wanted to prove their own loyalty.” There was a lot of that rejection going around, considering that it was the height of the McCarthy era.

“Obviously,” said Moskowitz, “there was a real fear of anti-Semitism, as we had just experienced in Germany, but nobody asked any questions about the way testimony was distorted, about the way news reports were biased, about the selection of a Jewish judge and a Jewish prosecutor and a Jewish assistant prosecutor. Nobody in the Jewish establishment asked any questions.

Cannot forgive

“You remember the story of Cain and Abel, how God asks Cain where his brother is, and Cain says, ‘how should I know? I am not my brother’s keeper,’ and God says, ‘yes you are.’ The Jewish establishment never remembered that. They let us sink or swim. I will never forgive them for that.”

Moskowitz is a member of a committee working to reopen the Rosenberg case. “The government knew that Ethel was innocent,” she said.

“What Julius did was wrong. He did give information to the Soviets – but not about the atom bomb. Neither of them had anything to do with the bomb. And what he did you have to look at in the context of the time. The Second World War was a war against six million Jews. Julius felt that acutely. What he did was motivated by that background.

“What the Jewish establishment did was unforgivable.”

That bias, she feels, also is manifested in the Pollard case. “He gave information to Israel about some developments in the Middle East,” she said. “He shouldn’t have. He confessed to having done it, and said he shouldn’t have done it. His lawyer reached an agreement for a 10-year sentence, and he did not object.” Instead, based on secret information that only the judge was allowed to see and the defense was never allowed to see, much less challenge, Pollard was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

“The Jewish establishment was nowhere around,” she charged.

“I am a Jew, and I identify as a Jew, but I despise their misjudgment.”

So here is Miriam Moskowitz now, at 96, still standing. She lives what looks like the life of an upper-middle-class suburban intellectual half her age, surrounded by books, music, and the mementos of a thoroughly lived life.

But, oh, does she have a story.

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