2015: 11. The Brother

"David Greenglass never cried for his sister.  He didn't cry when she was arrested, when she was convicted, or even when she was sentenced to the electric chair, so perhaps it wasn't out of character that he didn't cry on that hellish Friday in June 1953 when she died."

The Brother, Sam Roberts

Oh brother (pun intended!), this book is going to make you really, really appreciate your siblings.  No matter who they are, or what they have done to you, they probably haven't stolen nuclear secrets from the Manhatten Project, and then testified so that you (who was probably innocent) and your husband (who definitely wasn't) got the electric chair.  Which is to say, this is a book about David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother, who worked at Los Almos, gave information to the Russians, and then, when he was caught, sang like a bird.  He went to prison.  His wife Ruth, who helped him steal and transmit the material, got off off scot free.  Julius and Ethel were executed.  

I am fascinated by the Rosenbergs, anyway, and how could you not be interested in the psychological dynamics of a family where a brother's testimony lead to a sister's execution? The book does a nice job of exploring the whole thing - even if the final conclusion is that Greenglass was a not very interesting, not very clever jerk.  The book was written before we definitively knew, as we do now, that Julius was in fact a Russian spy, but the author has added an epilogue to address the new facts that have become public.  But, though we'll never know, it seems likely Ethel was completely innocent - and even if she wasn't there is no question that that the trial was extremely problematic and that they both were railroaded (having seen Angels in America we blame Roy Cohn).  Most upsetting of all is that David Greenglass did the actual stealing of atomic secrets, and lived a reasonably happy full life, and his sister paid the price.

Which isn't to say that Ethel wasn't strange - she could have easily acted at anytime to save herself, and ensure that her children didn't grow up alone.  As a parent, I can't believe that it was worth her principles to do that to her kids.  I may be biased because one of the  saddest things I have ever seen was a letter in the National Archives from Micheal Rosenberg to Dwight Eisenhower asking the President to not kill his mommy.  But regardless of what you think about spies, there is no question that the execution of the Rosenbergs - particularly Ethel - is a shabby part of American history, and this book is a pretty interesting examination of all that.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017