Fifty years ago on June 19, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed after having been convicted of the crime of transmitting American atomic secrets to the Soviet Union during the 1940s. The Rosenberg case continues to evoke emotions, stir passions, raise disturbing questions and defy easy resolution. The discomfort stirred by this haunting episode has not yielded to the resolution or clarity often provided by the inexorable passage of time. Like a festering wound, this saga — both in its human dimension and its larger political implications — continues to take its toll, claiming the attention of our collective moral, spiritual and political resources.
For many years, personal friendships, political alliances and cultural sensibilities were formed in response to sharing a common view of the innocence or guilt of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Those who believed in their guilt ascribed to them responsibility for a crime worse than murder, charging them with culpability for the Korean War and putting into the hands of the Russians the atomic bomb years before our best scientists predicted they would perfect the technology needed for this unprecedented breakthrough. Their betrayal was viewed by those believing in their guilt as having altered the course of history to the detriment of our country and humankind.
Those who clung with equal passion and intensity to a belief in their innocence saw the Rosenbergs as being the victims of an era when the qualities of reason and commitment to fairness, thought to be hallmarks of the American political and judicial system, were sacrificed on the altar of fear and conformity. Their trial and conviction was less a validation of their guilt than an indictment of an entire society that had lost its moorings in the face of real and perceived enemies.
It now seems that the elusive and never-ending search for truth in regard to the Rosenberg case is considerably more complicated and nuanced. Evidence uncovered from Soviet archival material, which has only recently been made available to scholars of the case, seems to provide rather conclusive evidence that Julius Rosenberg was, in fact, guilty of having spied for the Soviet Union.
To those who persist in viewing the Rosenbergs as being completely innocent, they are seen as martyrs to McCarthyism, their fate proof that anti-communism was a strategy of political repression devoid of any basis in fact. Those believing that the issue of their guilt has long been established allow the comfort that comes from this view to absolve them of the need to ask hard questions about a disturbing era in American history.
I would humbly suggest that both approaches suffer from being overly simplistic. The imperative to raise disturbing questions about the notorious trial and subsequent execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and to examine these issues in the context of the overall climate in which their fate was decided, is not a function of their being innocent of wrongdoing.
That Julius Rosenberg was in all likelihood a spy for the Soviet Union does not justify the shameless pandering to fear and disregard of procedural fairness that characterized governmental behavior during the trial. The fact that the Rosenbergs were not innocent martyrs does not mean that their guilt was fairly adjudicated or their fate deserved. How do we come to terms with the fact that all the major actors in the Rosenberg case were Jewish, and that the issue of the religious and ethnic identity of the Rosenbergs loomed large in the entire proceedings? Is there a deeper lesson in this saga about the dangers of succumbing to generic stereotypes in the course of taking proactive steps to make this a safer and more secure society? What happens to the fabric of our culture when the profoundly challenging issues of guilt and innocence become mediated through the prism of a larger, political agenda?
And so, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of their execution, I will be reciting the traditional Mourner’s Kaddish for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. I will do so not because of a personal connection to either of them. Indeed, I was born four years after their fate was sealed. Instead, I will recite the hallowed words of the Kaddish to honor their memory, keep faith with the rituals of Jewish tradition, and to keep alive in my heart and mind the deeper issues that their death demands I confront.
According to tradition, when a person has died we offer the hope that their memory will serve as a blessing. If the legacy of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is to remind us of the dangers inherent to our society when fear overwhelms our best instincts and most noble traditions, then indeed their memory will surely serve as a blessing. Yihei Zichronam Livrachah.
Simeon Kolko is rabbi of Congregation Ohev Tzedek in Youngstown, Ohio.