Ethel, Julius, their friends, and the Grand Jury

On September 11th, 2008 my email inbox was flooded with files containing almost 1000 pages from the National Security Archive. This material was the long-awaited release of the testimony of 43 of the 46 witnesses subpoenaed by the Grand Jury that investigated my parents’ case. The mainstream media focused on Ruth Greenglass’s testimony, which contradicted her trial testimony that my mother was involved, and upon Morton Sobell’s statement that he and Julius engaged in non-atomic espionage. My brother and I have shared our perspective on these bombshells in many venues, so I won’t cover that ground again here.

Instead, I’ll focus on information in the transcripts that provided valuable insights into my parents’ personal lives and the investigators’ objectives. Perhaps the most interesting testimony of all came from an unlikely source: Helene Elitcher. Her husband, Max, agreed to cooperate with the government in order to escape a perjury sentence. At trial Max Elitcher provided the key testimony that condemned Morton Sobell, his long-time friend and college classmate, to 19 years in prison.

Helene agreed to cooperate as well, but her testimony focused on the social lives of my parents and their friends, rather than on illegal activity. She talked about their friends’ involvement in various Communist Party cells. She also described how she and Max stopped by my parents’ apartment in the summer of 1945. Ethel had taken my two-year-old brother “to the country” and Julius was “batching it.”

The apartment was a mess, missing a woman’s attention. They went out to a restaurant with Helene’s pregnant sister-in-law, along with William Perl (the government said he also was engaged in espionage, although he was convicted only of perjury) and his brother. My father called Joel Barr, another alleged conspirator who fled the country before my parents’ arrest, who joined them. After dropping off Helene’s sister-in-law they trooped over to Alfred Sarant’s apartment at midnight (Sarant also left the country before my parents’ arrest). Apparently he’d been asleep, but he cheerfully let them in and played Spanish guitar for them. I got the impression of a group of boisterous 20-somethings having a good time bopping around Manhattan.

Helene told of another visit to my parents’ apartment in December 1946. This time the group consisted of my parents, Max and Helene, Helen and Morton Sobell, Joel Barr, and William Perl. My parents’ Christmas tree sparked a heated controversy about what to tell your children about Christmas and Chanukah. The women with children were very concerned about what to say, but the bachelors with no child-rearing experience or concerns, were adamant that you could tell the children whatever you wanted and it wouldn’t make any difference.

I was fascinated by these glimpses into my parents’ lives. But you might wonder, what does this have to do with stealing the secret of the atomic bomb?

Check back on Thursday (Aug 27) for Part II of this story.

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Comments

What did your parents tell you about Christmas and Chanukah and after they died did you continue that belief or change it?

I look forward to the next installment.

I have no memory of what my parents' told me. I was too young when they were arrested.

The Meeropols, like many members of the American Communist Party, who were also secular Jews, celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday. I remember having a Christmas tree in our house. But it was all about presents and greenery in the house during a bleak season. They simply ignored the religion.

It was only after we had children that my wife, Elli, insisted that we not have a Christmas tree. My protestations that it was a pagan tradition were to no avail. I still feel that way about Christmas trees, but I've come to agree with my wife about the inescapably Christian nature of Christmas.

Robert Meeropol

What could be so sinister about these gatherings? I can't wait to read Part II. I'm guessing that this is leading to how everyday lives can be distorted by one's accusers. I remember attending cultural events as a child that were portrayed as propaganda (brain washing?) sessions.

We really feel sorrow for the Rosenberg couple martyred for struggling to social justice, peace and prosperity of all.

But I want to share one more difference of a society with tolerant and democratic value and non demcoratice and autocratic societies like Pakistan and others, if someone killed my parents I will kill or try to kill them but Robert done a great Job by establishing a RCF to help those children who suffer from the same difficulties he faced.

I salute you Robert and Always ready to extend every help to your (Our common ) cause. We are encouaged by your work and we will try to work for peace, democracy and protection of basic rights of our people.

Suleman Kakar
Pakistan

I appreciate what you wrote very much. I believe the most important project of all for the 21st century that has to do with how people treat other people is developing global standards of human rights and applying them fairly to all people everywhere. And human rights are not confined to political and legal issues, they include food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education, work and more. This is our greatest social challenge now, because if we can't do this as the world shrinks ever smaller and tensions mount higher we will destroy ourselves.

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