Ethel Rosenberg is a biography about the woman executed for treason by the U.S. government in 1953. For many people, when they think of her, they see Meryl Streep sitting at Roy Cohn’s bedside as he lay dying of AIDS. People who think about the Rosenbergs range from those who think they got what they deserved to people like my parents who believed they were both innocent, persecuted by corrupt partisans stoking anti-Semitism and promoting a Red Scare. The truth is more nuanced.
You might think that the passage of time would make biographies less accurate, but since 1953, the Soviet Union fell and many documents were released to the public. The U.S. government also releases documents after several decades. Anne Sebba, the author of Ethel Rosenberg, has the advantage of more documentary evidence and the prison letters Ethel Rosenberg wrote. What emerges is the story of a strong and determined woman whose love for her husband was stronger than her fear of death.
Sebba effectively brings Ethel Rosenberg to life. I found myself in tears more than once while reading her book. I learned a lot that I did not know even though I heard plenty about the Rosenbergs when I grew up. My dad was investigated as a possible Communist sympathizer during the Red Scare, something my siblings said was very frightening for the whole family. His own aggrieved innocence fed his certainty the Rosenbergs were both innocent and both my parents talked about how even if secrets were passed, it could not be treason because the Soviet Union and the US were allies at the time.
What emerges from Sebba’s book is a complicated woman whose potential was undercut first by her mother who never hesitated to belittle and disparage her and then by herself as she dedicated herself to her mediocrity of a husband, giving up her career to follow him and raise their children. She dedicated herself to being a mother in the same way she did to her career in the past, reading books, seeking mentorship, and always wanting to do better.
What is shocking is how thoroughly corrupted the prosecution of this case was. The government knew she was innocent and not only allowed but encouraged, perjury to convict her in hopes of getting her husband to name names. The misogyny and anti-Semitism that drove this miscarriage of justice should be shocking, but after the exposure of the depths of white nationalism still roiling America, it isn’t.
I recommend this book highly. Ethel Rosenberg is a sympathetic woman who deserved better from her family, her husband, and her country. And yet, she seemed to resist bitterness and anger as best she could.
I received an ARC of Ethel Rosenberg from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.