July 6, 2022

Imagining Ethel

by Alice Lowe

1.

Lena Gart was born on September 14, 1915. Esther Ethel Greenglass was born exactly two weeks later, on September 28. Both were daughters of early 20th-century Jewish immigrants, both of their mothers from Galicia, then a Polish/Russian border region now part of Ukraine. One raised in New York’s Lower East Side, the other in Brooklyn, they lived in similar milieus, a bridge separating the two.

Neither was well-educated; both had sacrificed school for work to help their families during the Depression. They prepared for marriage, not careers. Ethel met Julius Rosenberg in 1936, the same year Lena met Harold Lowe. Julius was an engineer, a leftist secular Jew; Harold a construction worker, an areligious, apolitical Gentile. Ethel was three years older than Julius, considered shocking at the time: a wicked older woman, bossy and bullying, casting a spell. Lena was less than a year older than Harold, but she recalled the raised eyebrows and “tsks” of disapproval at even that slight seniority over her husband. Ethel and Lena each gave birth to one of their two children in 1943—Ethel to Michael, Lena to me.

The juxtaposition of their lives stokes my imagination, ignites a barrage of what-ifs and if-onlys, reflections on the different paths lives take, their sometimes-seeming randomness, their consequences.

Ethel loved singing and had once imagined herself on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Abandoning unattainable aspirations, she redirected her energies to seeking a better, more just world. Her activism ended in the electric chair at 37, convicted on false testimony of conspiracy to commit espionage. She and Julius were executed on the same day in 1953, at the height of McCarthyism’s Red Scare.

My family moved to California in 1949, before the Rosenbergs’ arrival at their final destination, a Jewish cemetery near the Long Island town where I was born. My mother died at 60 of a brain tumor after years of physical and emotional suffering. I never knew what dreams she had, but I always sensed her as wanting more from life, and I think about how it might have been different. What if she had married a Jewish man and stayed in New York; what if he’d been active with the union, if they’d been drawn to left-wing politics as so many Jews were in the Depression and during and after the war. What if she’d found a larger sense of purpose beyond the roles of wife and mother? Which would, of course, have altered my life as well: What if I’d been a “red diaper baby,” brought up in a politically charged milieu, instilled with strong convictions about justice and equality?

2.

By virtue of her shocking and unwarranted death, Ethel Rosenberg left a permanent mark on history and social culture. Almost seventy years after her death, she remains a subject of intensive research, of revisionist history, of fiction and friction, of memory and imagination. The first full biography of Ethel alone (as opposed to “the Rosenbergs”) was Ethel R. in 1992, subtitled Beyond the Myths. A 2021 biography by Anne Sebba incorporates later findings, and its title acknowledges the harsh truth: Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy.

The coincidences between Ethel and my mother launch my exploration. I’m not unique in feeling altered by reverberations from Ethel’s life and death, of wanting to know more. After the new biography, I follow her trail in memoir and fiction, both revealing bellwethers of their times.

I begin with Sylvia Plath’s diary for June 19, 1953: “… so the headlines blare the two of them [the Rosenbergs] are going to be killed at eleven o’clock tonight. So I am sick at the stomach.” Plath was in New York, midway through a one-month guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine and aghast at the blasé attitudes she encountered: “no yelling, no horror, no great rebellion. The largest emotional reaction over the United States will be a rather large, democratic, infinitely bored and casual and complacent yawn.”

The lasting impression it made emerges ten years later in her novel The Bell Jar, which begins: “It was a queer sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs….” She named her fictional alter-ego Esther Greenwood, surely a play on Esther Ethel Greenglass. Fictional Esther undergoes electric shock therapy at a mental asylum (as Plath herself did), a symbolic depiction of Ethel’s death in the electric chair, both indicative of the pressure on women to conform and the price of defiance.

In the 1995 memoir, Manhattan, When I Was Young, journalist Mary Cantwell begins with the same line, adding “That’s how Sylvia Plath started The Bell Jar and how I want to start this.” Cantwell also came to New York in the summer of 1953. The Rosenbergs’ impending death frightened her because her boyfriend was a Jewish atheist in a family of communists. It was widely believed that all Jews and atheists were communists, and all communists were spies and traitors. Cantwell feared they’d all be arrested and executed.

The execution resonated as well for poet Adrienne Rich in 1981. “For Ethel Rosenberg” discloses that “One week before my wedding / that couple gets the chair.” Ethel, she writes, is “charged by posterity / not with selling secrets to the Communists / but with wanting to distinguish herself.” She imagines Ethel having lived, projects her into her sixties, content, “maybe filling a notebook herself / with secrets she has never sold.”

Because Ethel Rosenberg defied expectations and didn’t fit into the mold of an uneducated working-class wife and mother in the forties and fifties, novelists have sought to recreate her, to make her knowable. To cast her in our own image. Her life from girlhood to her last days is detailed in Ethel: The Fictional Autobiography, published in 1990. Neither a guileless innocent nor a gung-ho ideologue, Tema Nason’s Ethel is a loyal, loving wife and mother, a victim betrayed by her brother and defended by a lawyer who is no match for a prejudiced prosecution team and judge. She never breaks down, never yields, faces her end with grim stoicism.

In a 2015 rendering, Jillian Cantor created a fictional neighbor to narrate The Hours Count. Like Nason, Cantor became convinced of Ethel’s innocence. She writes, “I wanted to reimagine Ethel as a person, a woman, the mother whom I pictured

who interviews Ethel on death row. Initially intended to be creative nonfiction, but finding too much still unknown, Parenti’s is a “work of fiction hung loosely on historical facts and events.”

However while these fictional portraits, which range over thirty years, take creative liberties, they still fail to illuminate Ethel beyond existing accounts. By emphasizing her as an ordinary woman, in Cantor’s words, “a wife and mother just trying to do the best she could for her two young sons,” Ethel’s defenders may have sought to counter accusations that the real Ethel was a bad mother for wanting more from life, for not confessing—despite her innocence—in order to be spared. As such, they downplay the multi-dimensional Ethel, a committed radical as well as a devoted mother, loyal to her principles.

Bookending these tepid bio-fictions are two farcical novels that challenge assumptions. The Public Burning by Robert Coover in 1977 is said to be the first to use living historical figures as fictional characters. He re-imagines the Rosenbergs’ last days, narrated by Richard Nixon and culminating with their execution, staged as a spectacle in Times Square. Francine Prose’s 2021 Vixen depicts a cash-strapped post-World War II publisher who, to sell books and refresh his firm’s stodgy image, commissions a committee-written novel about Ethel as a sex-crazed communist spy who seduces Russian agents.

Ethel remains an enigma, then and now, perhaps because the motivations and actions leading to her death were incomprehensible. And because we tend to see what we want to see. My Ethel was a firebrand, strong and resolute. I exulted in the stony specter portrayed in Angels in America. Her ghostly presence haunts Roy Cohn (one of her prosecutors, who is Joseph McCarthy’s prodigy and becomes Donald Trump’s mentor) at his deathbed, reminding him of his guilt, watching him writhe in agony. No angel of mercy, she waits for her retribution. When she says kaddish at his death, some see it as forgiveness, but I hear a resounding good riddance that she finalizes with “You son of a bitch….”

3.

For a time, in my youth, I felt thwarted, deprived of the life I should have had. I was socially awkward and often disgruntled with my textbook-normal, modest-living working-class family, my father a closet tippler, my mother bored and lonely. I conjured up a more Ethel-like mother—stronger and more assured, more purposeful—and myself the child of radicals, my metaphoric diaper fire-engine red.

Michael Rosenberg was ten years old when his parents were executed. I can’t begin to fathom what he and Robby, his younger brother, endured after their parents’ arrest, their fears and confusion, their desolation when they were cruelly orphaned. Their tragedy was devastating, immeasurably so, but it’s the moral bedrock of their childhood consciousness that beguiles me. At ten, I was oblivious—to the Rosenbergs and their fate, to hardship of any kind, to my own ignorance—blinkered, floating along in a self-absorbed bubble. It was an era when communism was feared and despised, but my parents never voiced their beliefs, didn’t follow the news or talk about what was going on in the world, and I didn’t question them. While Michael and Robby lived each day’s headlines as their parents languished in prison awaiting execution, I thought the two guys running for president were Ike and Eisenhower.

Many American adherents believed socialism and communism were pathways to justice and equality, a revolution to render the world free of capitalist exploitation and corporate greed. Children raised in this idealistic environment were likely to hear and absorb their parents’ principles and practices, to be included in dinner-table political discussions, to participate alongside their parents, attending protests, posting flyers, distributing leaflets. They were encouraged to ask questions and challenge ideas. Michael and Robby were adopted into the progressive Meeropol family after their parents’ death. They became life-long activists, coming of age in the volatile sixties, the New Left sociopolitical climate a tailor-made channel through which to emerge as distinct individuals, to both carry the torch and put their own stamp on it.

These were the times that would have, could have, shaped me as well, but I had no point of reference, nothing to absorb, to accept or reject, to weigh against. I was faintly aware of the vacuum, a lack of foundation. I was vulnerable and unhinged, flapping in the wind every which way as I sought to articulate my own values. And susceptible to dubious influences and the proselytizing of various boyfriends: the John Bircher who extolled the virtues of Barry Goldwater; the born-again Christian who thought he could win me over to Jesus (neither of whom succeeded in their missionary zeal, so perhaps I deserve some credit after all).

4.

I’m keenly aware of the idealism and pitfalls of my reimagined youth. The Rosenbergs’ execution was the archetypal example of political persecution that hovered over the children of Cold War radicals. Many were fearful and deeply traumatized as they saw their own parents arrested, jailed, fired, blacklisted, driven underground. While it left a legacy of resolute involvement for some, like Michael and Robby, it resulted in distancing and denial for others. Daniel Lewin-nee-Isaacson is E. L. Doctorow’s Michael Meeropol-nee-Rosenberg-like protagonist in The Book of Daniel. Their parents’ deaths and the circumstances leading up to them are similar, but Doctorow fashioned a different narrative for Daniel, who grows up conflicted and angry, resentful of his legacy, torn between worlds.

Kim Chernin was eleven when her mother was arrested. Her memoir, In My Mother’s House, tells how she hid from people, avoided discussions at school, developed eating disorders. But as an adult she reflects pride at her mother’s exuberance in recalling her early activist days: “This, I imagine, is what she was like when she climbed up on a soapbox in the Bronx. There is that quality, a fervor, a capacity for vision….”

I can’t blame my parents’ obliviousness to politics on our having left New York. Kim Chernin was five when her family relocated to Los Angeles, where her mother was a Communist Party organizer and where her arrest took place. While New York City was considered the capital of American Communism, there were communists throughout the country, even in laid-back Southern California, their children poised along the same continuum of emotion and experience from pride and involvement to loathing and opposition.

I don’t blame my parents for my apathetic and unanchored childhood and certainly not for my failure to think for myself. Many young people are radicalized in college, but like Ethel Rosenberg and my working-class mother, I went to work right after high school. Out of defensiveness and perhaps envy, I looked askance at college-bound peers who were anti-war protestors, saw them as privileged partakers of middle-class advantages.

My involvement was slow growing and late blooming, a checkered array of short and long-term concerns and commitments that didn’t become finetuned and solidified until after I went back to school in my thirties. At San Diego State University I gravitated toward other older students, many of whom were active in progressive politics. I got my feet wet in the women’s movement, seeking a comfortable niche within its factions, somewhere between radical and liberal/mainstream feminism. From there, through trial and error, I leapt in and out of social and political movements, eager to show my colors, my support sincere but sporadic, dabbling in the far left before gravitating back toward center, grounding myself and my ideologies and finding my comfort zone.

A former boyfriend with a long radical leftist history was wary of my democratic socialist affiliations, far left of center but still too conservative for his small-c communist tastes, too pale a pink to his bold red. This puzzled me—weren’t we like-minded? In middle age I wasn’t as easily influenced, but I was ready to listen and learn. Clearly he didn’t trust me, because in our eight years together he never disclosed details of his covert past or sought to convert me. Now, researching Ethel Rosenberg’s life, I learn about a New York neighborhood known during the fifties as the Red Belt of the Bronx, where Socialists were considered the extreme right wing. Now I understand his apprehension and reticence.

Imagining Ethel Rosenberg as an alter-ego for my mother or myself is a remnant of the past, but even now, with hindsight, I appreciate the mystique and romance of the idealistic life I coveted, understand the ambiguity and discontent out of which it grew. A friend who grew up in Brooklyn, daughter of an apolitical Russian-Jewish immigrant mother, says she used to have the same wistful fantasies. We wanted more for our mothers, and we wanted the inheritance we could claim from radical parents, whether as a badge of honor or a jump start for ourselves. Still, we came to who we are and our ideologies through our own life experiences and observations, perhaps a more lasting and meaningful path.

 

Works Cited and Consulted

Cantor, Jillian, The Hours Count, 2015.

Cantwell, Mary, Manhattan, When I Was Young, 1995.

Chernin, Kim, In My Mother’s House, 1983.

Coover, Robert, The Public Burning, 1977.

Doctorow, E.L., The Book of Daniel, 1971.

Gornick, Vivian, The Romance of American Communism, 1977.

Kaplan, Judy & Linn Shapiro, Eds., Red Diapers: Growing Up in the Communist Left, 1998.

Kukil, Karen, Ed., The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 2000.

Meeropol, Iris, Heir to an Execution: A Granddaughter’s Story, 2003.

Meeropol, Robert and Michael, We Are Your Sons, 1975.

Nason, Tema, Ethel: The Fictional Autobiography, 1990.

Okun, Rob, Ed., The Rosenbergs: Collected Visions of Artists and Writers, 1988.

Parenti, Alisa, Betrayal: The ER Story, 2021.

Philipson, Ilene, Ethel R: Beyond the Myths, 1992.

Plath, Sylvia, The Bell Jar, 1963.

Prose, Francine, Vixen, 2021.

Rich, Adrienne, “For Ethel Rosenberg,” in The Iowa Review, 1981.

Sebba, Anne, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy, 2021.