In a Broadway theatre in May 1970, the older man sitting next to me seemed familiar, but I could not quite place him. An awkward teen, passionately interested in history and politics in the midst of the Vietnam War protests, I was watching a play about the 1951 Rosenberg atomic spy trial, "Invitation to An Inquest", in which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were found guilty of being Soviet spies who smuggled US atom bomb secrets to Russia during World War II. They were condemned to death as traitors and were executed after appeals in 1953.
This occurred during the Cold War in the midst of McCarthy witch hunt in America. Were the Rosenbergs innocent and framed in a political show trial? By the late 1960s, this doubt was sometimes the message being broadcast. Whether or not the Rosenbergs were guilty as charged, did they deserve the death penalty? As all the main players were Jewish (the Rosenbergs and the other accused spies, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the judge), might the extreme penalty have been the result of anti-Semitism or a desperate attempt to ward it off ?
The stranger in the seat next to me could not be ignored. He kept clenching his hands and then rubbing them together as if washing them. I tried my best to ignore him. As the play neared its climax (the execution scene), the rubbing lasted longer, became more feverish and was accompanied by faint moaning. Then it dawned on me who my seatmate was. He was Morton Sobell. He was part of this story. He was also a defendant in the trial, had been found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison and had just been released early for good behavior.
So what is reality? Here was Morton Sobell watching a play about an event where he had played a major part, was one of the characters on stage, and which had drastically affected the course of his life. Whatever was the controversy over the truth in the Rosenberg case, whatever the view of the play or of those sitting in the audience, I realized sitting next to me was someone who likely knew what was true. I could not then fully interpret the rubbing and clenching of his hands. It could have represented the accumulation of pain and agony from this trial, imprisonment and a lost life. His close friends had been executed and he might have been as well. Would I ever be able to know the truth?
The truth came much later. Morton Sobell died in late December 2018 at age 101. His obituary revealed that in 2008 he had admitted that he and Julius Rosenberg had been Soviet spies. Sobell had denied his guilt for decades. Why? He had been an ideologue who was dedicated to the cause of Communism and the Soviet Union. And part of that was his devotion to making the Rosenbergs into innocents who had been martyred. His devotion to the cause and what he sacrificed for that was almost religious in practice. Maybe he thought of idealistic, universalistic Communist principles espoused by the Soviets as a form of salvation for the Jews, a reprieve from lethal anti-Semitism. But maybe all those decades before 2008, Sobell too had doubts. Perhaps he noticed that the Soviet Bloc had not treated its own Jewish population well since the 1940s. Yet whatever doubts he had, they were not strong enough to overcome his devotion to the cause. But the hand rubbing and clenching in that Broadway theatre in 1970 now seem to have revealed his agonies.
The President of the IJC
Morton Sobell in 1969