Family Secret: My Mother-in-Law, the Accused Spy

First Person

By Itzik Gottesman

Published March 09, 2011, issue of March 18, 2011.
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On Saturday, February 26, my mother-in-law, Judith Socolov, died peacefully in her sleep at age 89. Her death was covered extensively by The Associated Press and The New York Times, and reporters openly discussed her “infamous” past as part of a Cold War drama that had long been forgotten. As a 28-year-old State Department employee in 1949, Socolov, known then by her maiden name, Coplon, was arrested holding classified documents, on charges of spying for the former Soviet Union and accused of passing secrets to agent Valentin Gubitchev.

She claimed they were lovers, not spies.

These events took place at the dawn of the Cold War, just one year after the Alger Hiss case, when the hysteria that communist spies were hiding under every rock in America began to spread. Coplon was twice convicted, and both times her convictions were overturned. The dismissals were based on major breaches of her legal and civil rights: evidence secured through illegal wiretapping and arrest without a warrant.

The FBI and J. Edgar Hoover got burned, and they never forgave her. Though the cases were overturned in 1950, they were not officially dropped until 1967, and until that year she could not travel more than 100 miles from New York City. My wife Emily, Judith’s daughter, remembers the day the charges were dropped as one of great celebration in their Brooklyn Heights home.

After her arrests, trials and release, Coplon chose never to talk about the case again, and put it behind her. Sure, people of her generation remembered the Judy Coplon case, but younger friends never knew that the friendly, petite and lively woman who loved Joyce and Dickens had been on the covers of every newspaper and magazine in America for months. In a 2002 book that was published on her case, “The Spy Who Seduced America,” the authors thank former Soviet and FBI agents for helping with the writing, but you won’t find any mention of Coplon’s assistance. Emily told me about her family history before we got married, and I never told anyone else, effectively joining the code of silence.

In 2009, my wife marked the 60th year of her mother’s imprisonment by following the exact route Coplon took on the day of her arrest, according to a detailed FBI report. The trek started at Penn Station and then went up to Washington Heights, where my mother-in-law and Gubitchev passed by each other, then back down to Union Square, where she was arrested at the corner of Third Avenue and 16th street. With this crisscrossing of the island of Manhattan, we could sense my mother-in-law’s panic. For us baby boomers it was an adventure to remember; but for my mother-in-law, it was clearly a nightmare to forget.

Partly as a result of Coplon’s silence, unsubstantiated facts about her life were published. In The New York Times obituary it was written that she was a member of the Young Communist League; no one in the family had heard about this. It made little sense that the State Department would hire someone who was connected to such an organization for such a sensitive position.

Coplon fell in love with a junior lawyer on her team, Albert Socolov, a decorated war veteran who fought in the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. They wed, and raised four children in Brooklyn Heights. It was a great love affair that lasted up to the moment of her passing.

Her case never hampered her appetite for life and learning. After her four children were in school, she got a master’s degree in education from Yeshiva University and worked in educational publishing at McGraw-Hill. In 1981, she (once again) reinvented herself as the manager of two Mexican restaurants that the family started in Manhattan: the Beach House in Tribeca, and the Alameda on the Upper West Side. Throughout this period she worked on grassroots literacy projects, creating a storefront reading clinic for teens at risk in Brooklyn, and teaching creative writing at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women and at the Women’s Prison Association.

You would have thought that a woman with such a past would be suspicious of newcomers and strangers, but the opposite was true. As a restaurateur and businesswoman she was exceedingly friendly; on the subway, in the street and in stores, she would engage the person next to her in conversation and occasionally start a lasting friendship.

Still, it was hard not to contrast this extroverted and spritely spirit with the silence that pervaded her family regarding her case. As Socolov’s grandchildren grew old enough to comprehend her past, they would ask her to speak to them about it, and perhaps she would say “Yes, yes,” but she never got around to actually doing so. As the son-in-law who had grown up in the Yiddish world among Holocaust survivors, I understood that one should not push to hear the testimony of someone who is not willing to speak. Some life experiences are too painful to relive, and we have an obligation to honor the wishes of those who have experienced them.

Contact Itzik Gottesman at gottesman@forward.com.


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