Dishonorably Discharged

The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth

by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 608 pp., $22.50

The last words that Ethel Rosenberg seems to have heard on earth were pronounced by Rabbi Irving Koslowe, Sing Sing’s Jewish chaplain. They were the Thirty-first Psalm:

I became a reproach among all mine enemies, but especially among my neighbors; and they of mine acquaintance were afraid of me; and they that did see me from without, conveyed themselves from me….

For I have heard the blasphemy of the multitude, and fear is on every side; while they conspire together against me and take their counsel to take away my life.

There seem to be no means available for knowing whether the thirty-first was the psalm appointed for the chaplain’s chant as he averted his eyes from the fitting of the electrodes to the ankles of the condemned of Jewish identity. And yet Radosh and Milton have spread before us a landscape so barren of official decency—let alone courage—as to stir the longing for a Rabbi Koslowe who had scoured all the psalms of David and settled for the most despairing and reproachful of them all.

He would, of course, have done his office in Hebrew, a tongue beyond the comprehension of anyone in attendance except perhaps the Rosenbergs, who had commenced their schooling at the Downtown Talmud Torah. To select the Thirty-first Psalm with deliberation would then have been the subtlest of rebukes; but it would, even so, have been the only public one to emerge from a mouth fed from a governmental budget.

Radosh and Milton have been scrupulous in their research, persuasive in their deductions, and generally fair-minded in their exposition. Few of their readers can retain much doubt that Julius Rosenberg was a conscientious Soviet espionage agent and that his wife at the very least knew and approved of his vocational commitment, which was not, to be sure, a transgression that would excuse her dreadful punishment.

But that judgment is not, I think, the real point of an analysis whose authors leave us with thoughts about the Rosenbergs that evoke La Rochefoucauld’s reply to the Sun King’s toadeater, who reproved his expressions of sympathy for the imprisoned peculator, Nicholas Fouchet. “Misfortune,” La Rochefoucauld explained, “is a kind of innocence.”

Their fatal misfortune was not that the Rosenbergs were Jews but that they were judged as unbelieving Jews. They cried out to the end that they were victims of anti-Semitism, but it would be rather more accurate to describe them as martyred by Pharisees. Every schoolboy knows that their sentencing judge and their prosecutor were of the Jewish persuasion and showed themselves distinctly more vengeful in their passions than most of the other relevant law officers who were not.

The Rosenberg’s worst mischance was to draw Irving Kaufman as trial judge. On the day before sentencing Kaufman called their prosecutor, United States Attorney Irving Saypol, into his chambers to inquire what his disposition should be. Saypol answered that he himself wanted the capital penalty but was not at all sure his superiors agreed…

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