“I love him like a brother, David Greenglass,” said Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors. It’s a good line. Another good line is E.M. Foster’s observation, “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I should hope I have the guts to betray my country.” Both quotes have been connected to Communism. For Greenglass, the connection is obvious. He was the brother of Ethel Rosenberg, and his testimony at her trial and that of his brother in law, Julius Rosenberg, was crucial in their conviction in their 1951 trial for espionage and treason. His testimony was almost certainly perjured, ignoring the involvement of his wife. Greenglass, a member of the same atomic spy ring with Julius, agreed to testify if his wife, Ruth Greenglass, was left unindicted. This was done. Ethel Rosenberg’s involvement in the spy ring was tangential at best, but after David finished testifying for the government, Ethel and Julius were convicted, and in 1953 executed.
Foster’s observation has often been taken (rather unfairly) as epitomizing the moral atmosphere in Cambridge in the 1930s, where Foster was a tutelary figure, and where it has been argued, this sort of thinking, led Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and others to become communist spies, and betray secrets to the Soviet Union. But if Kim Philby and the other members of the Cambridge spy ring were traitors to their country, then David Greenglass was certainly a traitor to his family. When is it appropriate to turn on a family member? When you think them a menace to society, as when David Kaczyinski told the FBI of his suspicions that his brother, Theodore Kaczynski, might be the Unabomber. This was an act of moral courage of the highest order. When the government told David Greenglass to choose between his wife and his sister, he unhesitatingly chose his wife and left his sister to her fate, rather than protest that this was an impossible choice. One can acknowledge that David Greenglass was in something of a pickle, not entirely of his own making, but he showed himself to be a person of the highest possible immorality.
When I was growing up the Rosenberg’s were a large part of my childhood, so much so that that I really felt it was a part of my own memory, though they were executed in 1953 and I was not born until 1954. My mother, at the time a member of the Communist Party, often told me of standing in the somber vigil at Union Square the night of their execution, and of the groan that went through the crowd when it was announced the Julius and Ethel had met their end in Sing-Sing’s electric chair. Much has changed since 1953. The Communist Party and the Soviet Union are no more. And almost everyone acknowledges that Julius indeed was a Communist spy. No one has been executed in New York State since 1963. The politics were murky in 1953, and are murkier in 2008. No one was a hero in this tawdry tale. But in many ways the most chilling part of the entire Rosenberg saga is the coldness of David and Ruth Greenglass, condemning their own family at the cost of saving their own worthless skins.
All of this is prompted by the news, earlier this week, that Ruth Greenglass had died. She and her husband have been living in the metropolitan area under an assumed name since the early 1950s. There was no public announcement, just court proceedings, in the course of which it transpired that Ruth Greenglass had died several months ago. One wonders why the Greenglasses still felt obliged to live pseudonymously. They certainly were in no physical danger, but no doubt just the thought that they might be cursed or spat upon was enough to keep them in hiding for half a century. That was their punishment.