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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