Although over 50 years have lapsed since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted at New York's notorious Sing Sing prison just before Shabbat on 19 June 1953, their grim fate still inflames emotions today.
This racy account of family betrayal intertwined with political espionage by Sam Roberts of the New York Times, gives a fresh slant to the tragic story. As one of the 10,000 `spectators' at the funeral of the Rosenbergs, Roberts' interest in their case was rekindled in the 1980s when he decided to track down David Greenglass, Ethel's younger brother, whose crucial, though flawed, testimony in the Rosenberg trial helped send his sister and brother-in-law to the electric chair. In 1960, Greenglass had vanished from public view and adopted a pseudonym after serving ten years of a fifteen-year prison sentence for espionage. He was doggedly pursued by Roberts and ultimately agreed to discuss his version of events, not so much to set the record straight, but because, as he admitted, `I need the money'.
'The Brother' crackles along at a brisk pace describing the early family life of David Greenglass in Manhattan's politically radical Lower East Side, then his stint as an army technician at Los Alamos, New Mexico. This section of the book is overly detailed, and could have done with some tighter editing, but Roberts eventually shows how Greenglass came to be recruited as a spy by Julius Rosenberg, via David's wife, Ruth. It was here where David Greenglass supplied Julius with rough sketches of the implosion device used to trigger the atomic bomb.
It was not long before the FBI began investigating stolen uranium from the premises where Greenglass worked. It soon unearthed a web of espionage in which David Greenglass was heavily implicated. He panicked and quickly admitted to the FBI his role in spying for the Soviet Union. Greenglass' full confession was conditional, however, on Ruth not being indicted, even though Roberts shows she was more culpable than her sister-in-law, Ethel.
Coincidentally, the trial judge, Irving Kaufman, the prosecutor and chief defence lawyer were all Jewish (but none of the jury). This did not stop the government secretly enlisting the heads of major Jewish organisations to deflect potential allegations of anti-Semitism. Kaufman spared Greenglass because he showed deep remorse for his treachery, and agreed to confess, and name associates - most tellingly his sister and brother-in-law. But the pious judge showed no such mercy to Julius and Ethel, and seemed to share the hyperbolical sentiments of FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, that the Rosenberg's actions were `the crime of the century'. (Roberts barely conceals his disdain for Kaufman who desperately wanted to put the Rosenberg saga behind him. Unfortunately for Kaufman, when he died, the Times Square electronic zipper proclaimed, `Rosenberg Judge Dies', and at his funeral service, a lone heckler at the back of the synagogue screamed, `He murdered the Rosenbergs. Let him rot in hell'.)
As if to underscore the gravity of Greenglass' explosive revelations, Roberts describes, in gut-churning detail, the build up to the Rosenbergs' execution, for example how their young sons, Robby and Michael, were wailing on the eve of the execution `one day to live, one day to live' and how Michael, incandescent with rage, vowed revenge against his uncle David. When a reunion was recently broached by Roberts between Greenglass and his nephews, Greenglass was game, but the Meeropol boys (their adopted name) pointedly refused, labelling Greenglass a `sleazy, despicable person'. The book contains some fascinating archival photos of all the key participants, including David and Ethel together in happier times, as well as a morbid, heart-rending picture of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, side-by-side in their coffins, with Julius wearing a kippah and draped in a tallith.
During the more than fifty hours of uncensored conversation (unknown to his wife) and in an earlier interview with America's Sixty Minutes II, David Greenglass dropped a bombshell - that he had committed perjury when he initially claimed that he witnessed Ethel typing his incriminating notes for Julius to pass to the Soviets - evidence that led to Ethel's arrest. Greenglass has since claimed he does not recall this event, arguing he was coached at the time by his wife, Ruth, to corroborate her story. (Apprehending Ethel is now generally regarded as a ploy to get Julius to crack, rather than because of her complicity.)
When confronted over his role in the disproportionately harsh punishment inflicted on his sister (and Julius), Greenglass was unrepentant. He maintained he never expected the death sentence to be handed down, let alone carried out, but also contended the Rosenbergs sealed their own fate through their `stupidity' - their naïve and dogmatic belief in communism, and stubborn refusal to cooperate with the government.
The Brother points to other ways the sad denouement could have been avoided - with a more impartial judge, by the US government tempering its zeal to prosecute with a little compassion, and yes, a contrite and less intractable stance from the Rosenbergs themselves, even if it meant the unravelling of what was undoubtedly an espionage-ring in New York (though the Kremlin never publicly conceded that Julius was a spy).
On the other hand, maybe the Rosenbergs were doomed from the outset, notwithstanding the damning testimony of David Greenglass. Afterall, the events so vividly portrayed in this book took place against a backdrop of the Korean War, hysterical anti-communism, McCarthy witch-hunts, and an intensifying Cold War. One can only hope in vain that governments today can rise to the occasion and deliver justice to all its citizens, irrespective of the political and social climate that is prevailing at the time.