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The Brother of Death
"I didn't cry. I didn't really kill them."
David Greenglass never cried for his sister. He didn't cry when she was arrested, when she was convicted, or even when she was sentenced to the electric chair, so perhaps it wasn't out of character that he didn't cry on that hellish Friday in June 1953 when she died.
Of all the places David might have imagined himself at the age of thirty-one, having grown up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and aspired to be an engineer, a maximum-security federal prison in the middle of Pennsylvania was just about the most improbable. Pointing fingers might have seemed tasteless on that of all days, but had David been groping for a scapegoat, his brother-in-law fit the bill.
"I was there because of Julius Rosenberg," he later said.
Well before that day, David had armed himself with an arsenal of alibis. That was his nature. When cornered, he instinctively cast about for a place to lay the blame and, after a perfunctory search, invariably found it elsewhere: a temptress, like his older sister, who seduced him with candy-coated ideology that clouded his ordinarily sober judgment; someone else's innocuous misstep that had tripped him up and sent him careering down a slippery slope; or a conspiracy by powerful people prejudiced against New Yorkers, communists, and Jews. A professional machinist fascinated by electricity, David insulated himself against the idea that the immutable laws governing causes and effects in physics also apply to the more ephemeral world of truth and consequences.
Which was why he so firmly believed that day that the events of the preceding ten years-events and their consequences that were to culminate that night in the first peacetime execution of American civilians for espionage-weren't his fault. In a funny way, David was right. As his mother reminded him, if he hadn't been color-blind, he would have been a Seabee, not an army draftee. Which meant he wouldn't have been granted that transfer, itself inexplicable, the day before his battalion was to be shipped overseas, wouldn't have been assigned to Los Alamos, and wouldn't have been recruited as an atomic spy.
And what had it all been for? The approval of the brother-in-law he now reviled? Blind loyalty to the Soviet Union, whose postwar belligerence had transformed even the Germans into victims and was sending David's own son diving under his elementary-school desk in futile air-raid drills? Still, no one could have imagined that David's role in the events of the previous ten years would generate a familial tragedy of epic dimensions, upend global politics, and shatter a generation. And for all his explanations and excuses, virtually nobody-David included-ever imagined that the death penalty would be imposed or carried out.
It was said that Sacco and Vanzetti united the American left, and the Rosenbergs irreparably divided it. There was little division over David, though. Xenophobic newspaper editorialists hailed him as a brilliant physicist, a courageous catalyst whose wrenching confession exposed a villainous spy ring that was plundering America's scientific secrets. His reputation for heroism, however, was short-lived. Closer examination soon revealed a pliant self-described patriot, neither brilliant nor courageous, who, floundering in quicksand of his own making, grasped at legal straws to save himself. After blurting out his incriminating confession within hours of his apprehension, he immediately threatened to repudiate it. He vowed to commit suicide if his wife, whom he alone had implicated, was prosecuted, too. His confession hadn't been cathartic, an FBI profile later concluded, "because the crime had not weighed on his conscience." Nor, apparently, did the death penalty later imposed on his sister, Ethel, and her husband, Julius. He finally joined in Ethel's appeal for presidential clemency only after being prodded, and even then he revealed as much about himself as about his emotional bond with his sister and brother-in-law. "If these two die," he wrote, "I shall live the rest of my life with a very dark shadow over my conscience."
Even then, he lied: There was no shadow. Because there was no conscience. Had there been, he would have been forced to confront a terrible truth, one that he managed to never contemplate: Perhaps everyone was right, after all-that while a jury had found his sister guilty of acting on her personal political convictions, and while a federal judge had sentenced her to death and a professional executioner had actually pulled the switch at Sing Sing, David himself had generated the lethal jolt when, wearing a weird smile on the witness stand, he delivered three days of testimony that was as flawed as it was fatal.
When David's public performance was finally over, he vanished from public view and lived out the rest of his life in pseudonymity. But the name David Greenglass survived, etched ineradicably in history's pantheon of contemptible characters and soon a noxious cultural touchstone. Dissecting the Rosenberg case, Rebecca West wrote that "few modern events have been as ugly as this involvement of brother and sister in an unnatural relationship which is the hostile twin of incest." In E. L. Doctorow's thinly fictionalized Book of Daniel, David was transformed into the drooling, senile Selig Mindish, a retired dentist of whom it was said, "The treachery of that man will haunt him for as long as he lives." And in the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen's character protested to Mia Farrow's that, despite all appearances, he still loves his oleaginous brother-in-law.
"I love him like a brother," Allen said dryly. "David Greenglass."
No one could say truthfully that David was indifferent to the fate of the Rosenbergs, but on the Friday of their deaths he feared more for his own life. He was worried that fellow inmates at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, would make good on their muttered threats to murder him. David was an inviting target. His confession defined him as a traitor. But his remorseless testimony also condemned him as something else: "A rat," David said. Among Lewisburg's brotherhood of thieves, there was no question which was more reviled.
He was also worried about possible retaliation against his wife. If more than a week elapsed without mail from home, David panicked. "You have no idea how terrifying this long silence is to me," he wrote to his lawyer. "Maybe they killed her. Who knows?"
All that Friday, the drumbeat of radio bulletins drove the events of the previous ten years toward their crescendo and David to an elevated state of agitation. He was afraid, not tearful. He hadn't cried all day. He would not cry himself to sleep. At dinner, prison guards slipped him a potent sedative. By early evening, as an amber shaft of fleeing daylight swept across the ceiling of his cell, David was dead to the world. Sleep used to come naturally to him, in part because he was blessed with an unshakable faith in his own rectitude. Coupled with a wellspring of self-justification, his complacency demanded the most compelling motivation to overcome it. In other words, he had always been unwilling to get out of bed without a very good reason.
David Greenglass was the spy who wouldn't go out in the cold.
One reason he never graduated from the Young Communist League to full-fledged membership in the Communist Party was that it would have meant regularly rising before dawn on weekends to deliver The Daily Worker door-to-door in Lower East Side tenements. David even overslept on July 16, 1945, as many of his colleagues at the Los Alamos laboratory slipped away before sunup to witness the debut at Alamogordo of the atomic bomb-the bomb he was later charged with stealing for the Soviet Union. To immortalize the moment, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the laboratory director, reached into ancient Hindu scripture. He invoked the god Vishnu, who, to impress Prince Arjuna into unleashing a cruel but just war, delivered through the earthly figure of Krishna a litany of his most omnipotent incarnations. Oppenheimer quoted but one: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." To justify his sleep, David reached for a more mundane rationale. "You have to understand," he shrugged, "I knew it went off."
Sleep, Virgil wrote of one of the two sentries guarding the vestibule of hell, is the brother of death.
All that unbearably muggy Friday, everyone in Ossining, New York-the grim village on the Hudson River north of New York City that was home to Sing Sing prison and that had inspired the idiom up the river-was anxiously awaiting word from Washington about the execution.
The matter of the Rosenbergs, whom the federal government accused of (among other things) having emboldened Joseph Stalin to instigate the Korean War, had festered far too long. By filing appeal after appeal, their lawyer, Manny Bloch, had succeeded in prolonging their lives for fully two years beyond the date on which Judge Irving R. Kaufman had originally scheduled their executions. Now it was the day after the third execution date set by Kaufman, and the Rosenbergs were still alive. The government's risky gamble-indicting Ethel, the mother of two young children, on flimsy evidence and sentencing her to death largely as leverage against Julius-had backfired. She hadn't flinched, and now American embassies worldwide were besieged. Even the pope had appealed for clemency. But the backlash had produced its own unintended consequences: Washington, holding the Rosenbergs hostage, worried that mercy would be misconstrued as weakness.
Just that week, Judge Kaufman had warned the Justice Department that with the Supreme Court adjourning for its summer recess, further legal wrangling might delay the executions until at least October. And by then, who knew what other obstacles would intrude, what new evidence would be uncovered or manufactured, or what further propaganda victories America's enemies at home and overseas would claim. The White House concurred. So, earlier that week, when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas had granted the Rosenbergs another reprieve, the government had already been galvanized to overturn it. Chief Justice Fred Vinson reconvened the Court in extraordinary session to hear arguments that the Espionage Act of 1917, under which the Rosenbergs had been convicted, had been superseded by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 and that, therefore, the death sentences meted out by Judge Kaufman were invalid.
On Friday, precisely at noon, Vinson and the other eight justices emerged. Less than a minute elapsed before Douglas's stay was vacated. The executions were immediately rescheduled for 11:00 p.m.
At Sing Sing, executions were always conducted at that hour, though customarily on Thursdays. Prison officials granted few exceptions. Once, a condemned man begged for a one-day delay so he would not be put to death on his son's eleventh birthday. On another Thursday, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, the notorious Brooklyn murderer, hinted he might confess and won a two-day respite until Saturday night. Sing Sing's Jewish chaplain then pleaded unsuccessfully for still another postponement, insisting that because of the Sabbath he wouldn't be able to leave his regular congregants in the Bronx until after sundown, which would give him insufficient time to comfort the condemned.
Now, appearing before Judge Kaufman on Friday afternoon, defense attorneys argued that executing the Rosenbergs at 11:00 p.m. that night, just after the start of the Jewish Sabbath-when Orthodox Jews refrain from unnecessary toil, even flicking on a light switch-would offend Jews everywhere. Everyone knew the Rosenbergs were Jewish; religion had been injected into the case from the start. It was, after all, no coincidence that the prosecutor was Jewish, that the trial judge was Jewish (he piously announced that he had prayed at his synagogue for guidance the night before he sentenced the Rosenbergs to death), and that the government had secretly enlisted the heads of major Jewish organizations to publicly rebut any charges of religious persecution. With the whole world watching, the government was not going to allow atomic espionage, which J. Edgar Hoover had proclaimed to be the crime of the century, to be marginalized as just another anti-Semitic vendetta.
Ordinarily, the sentencing judge decided in which week the death penalty would be imposed, but the day and hour were left to prison protocol. With so much at stake, though, Judge Kaufman telephoned the FBI at 3:05 p.m. to ask whether the hour of execution had been set yet. In fact, the executioner had already been summoned. And the warden had already instructed newsmen to report to the prison by 7:00 p.m. Revealingly, the judge suggested that they contact a rabbi to ascertain the exact hour of sundown. (According to Orthodox tradition, the Sabbath begins eighteen minutes before sunset Friday and ends the following evening.)
In court, Kaufman assured Bloch's associates that he shared their religious sensitivity and had already personally conveyed his reservations to the Justice Department. At 3:30 p.m., the defense lawyers left the courthouse believing that they had bought the Rosenbergs one more day of life.
The lawyers were wrong.
The Rosenbergs were not going to the chair on the Jewish Sabbath. Instead, they were rescheduled to die at 8 p.m. that night-three hours earlier than the customary time and minutes before the Sabbath was to begin. "They were to be killed more quickly than planned," the playwright Arthur Miller later said, "to avoid any shadow of bad taste."
From Sing Sing, Rabbi Irving Koslowe, the Jewish chaplain, called Judge Kaufman to plead for an extension until after the Sabbath. Invoking Talmudic law to hasten death would be an even greater affront to world Jewry, the rabbi argued. The judge explained that he had already been deluged with telegrams demanding that the execution be rescheduled from 11:00 p.m. "He said he consulted B'nai B'rith, and they said it would be a shanda [shame] for Jews to be executed on the Sabbath, so he set the time," Koslowe recalled. Kaufman added, "Rabbi, I want to get you home in time." Koslowe, unmoved by the judge's gesture, pressed. "I suggested Saturday night. I said, you prolong life a minute, the Sabbath is set aside. He said the president wanted them to be executed-that was his decision." Finally, Kaufman signaled that the conversation was over.
"Rabbi," the judge said, "you do your job. I'll do mine."
Except when they ate breakfast (oatmeal) and lunch (on Friday, fish), which this day was interrupted by the prison radio's broadcast of the bulletin from the Supreme Court, Ethel and Julius spent hours in the death house separated only by a wire-mesh screen. Ordinarily, visitors were allowed until 7:00 p.m. on the day of execution, but today events were too convulsive. Even when the execution had been scheduled for Thursday night at 11:00, however, the Rosenbergs had decided to spend what would have been their last day together. It was their fourteenth wedding anniversary.
From the Hardcover edition.