A Family Affair

The Brother is the first full-scale account of the “atom spies” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to appear since archival materials released in the 1990s documented their part in a Soviet espionage ring that flourished in the United States during World War II. Sam Roberts, a veteran reporter at The New York Times, draws on the most important new evidence: the VENONA decryptions—intercepted wartime cables sent between Moscow and its KGB stations in the US—and published extracts of relevant Soviet dossiers.1 He has also added a new layer of detail gleaned from extensive interviews, some fifty hours’ worth, with the case’s most enigmatic figure, David Greenglass, the younger brother of Ethel Rosenberg who confessed to having spied at Los Alamos and then testified against his sister and brother-in-law in exchange for a reduced sentence in 1951.

Released from prison in 1960, Greenglass changed his name and has lived pseudonymously ever since, breaking his silence on the case only once, in 1979, when he granted an interview to the writers Ronald Radosh and Sol Stern.2 Roberts, who began working on his book in 1983, went to extraordinary lengths to secure Greenglass’s cooperation, first tracking him down, then trying for thirteen years to get him to talk, and finally promising him a share of the book’s proceeds, though no control over the result: “No vetting of the manuscript. No veto over what I decided to put in or leave out.”3

Greenglass’s reminiscences have yielded no startling revelations but they have helped Roberts to write a clear narrative of two couples whose intertwined stories are best understood, he suggests, within the larger history of “all those immigrant families that struggled to escape the ghosts of the ghetto.” In this case it was the ghetto of the Lower East Side, where all four principals grew up. Roberts evokes this vanished milieu—the six-day workweeks, the shouting matches at the kitchen table, the petty squabbles—along with the anguished comedy of doomed hopes, of children fated to rise no higher than their parents. “Between 1922 and 1930, so many strivers graduated from the Lower East Side that, by one count, the area’s Jewish population plunged by two thirds,” he writes. “All the Greenglasses got were good-byes. Many who were left behind bitterly matched their lot against what might have been. Or, worse still, against what already was, but for someone else.”

Prospects dimmed further in the Great Depression, the period in which the Rosenbergs and Greenglasses came of age. Julius, who alone of the four finished college, limped through City College with a degree in electrical engineering, scarcely attending to his studies. All his energy went into radical politics. These were the peak years of the Popular Front, the high tide of American communism. Julius organized the campus Steinmetz Society, an affiliate of the Young Communist League, and at age seventeen was in the group of protesters who in 1935 stormed the German liner Bremen when it was anchored in New York Harbor, ripping…

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