Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the United States for treason in 1953. A married couple, and the parents of two young children, their case became a cause célèbre as a miscarriage of justice, a cultural reference point, and a symbol of US domestic attitudes during the Cold War. Amid all of this, the human story of Ethel Rosenberg has been lost, and this is what Anne Sebba’s engrossing biography corrects.
With access to new information from Ethel’s sons and others who knew her, as well as scrupulous archive research, Sebba meticulously reconstructs the life of this ordinary and extraordinary woman. We find out about her upbringing in a New York Jewish family facing hard times. We are left with the impression of an intelligent, talented and hardworking woman from a difficult family background, who was determined to make her way in life – in education, in singing, as a trade unionist, and as a wife and mother.
The book offers a vivid account of how some Americans came to communism in the 1930s, and how ordinary people started spying for the Soviet Union. Sebba unpicks what Ethel Rosenberg did and didn’t know about the leaking of atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and gives a detailed analysis of her trial. She conveys the swirl of McCarthyism and anti-communist fever, and the impact of ingrained anti-Semitism.
Sebba spares us nothing, so it can be a tough read at times, but it is so worthwhile. It is no wonder that the biography has been praised by Claire Tomalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Philippe Sands, among others. Among the moments of light in the frequently grim story that Ethel’s two young children live through, are the moments of solidarity and care shown to them from unexpected quarters (including at one point W. E. B. Du Bois). Outstanding.