Sons Robert and Michael Meeropol claim secret transcript release proves Ethel Rosenberg's innocence

Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2015

EASTHAMPTON — The sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple infamously convicted of espionage and executed by the government in 1953, believe the release Wednesday of grand jury testimony by Ethel Rosenberg’s brother vindicates their parents. The Rosenbergs, convicted of conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, were killed by the electric chair when their boys were 6 and 10.

In an interview Wednesday, Robert Meeropol, the younger of the Rosenberg brothers who lives in Easthampton, said the release of 46 pages of previously sealed grand jury testimony by his biological uncle, David Greenglass, revealed that Greenglass lied when he took the witness stand in his sister and brother-in-law’s trial. Greenglass testified that he saw his older sister typing up handwritten notes to give to the Soviets. Meeropol and others believe his testimony was the core of the capital case against his parents.

But the grand jury transcript has Greenglass minimizing his dealings with his sister, and saying that they had never discussed her role “at all.”

“David Greenglass lied when he said Ethel did it,” said Meeropol. “It’s kind of like a giant jigsaw puzzle we put together, and an important piece fell into place today.”

Rosenberg case transcript: Testimony of David Greenglass

Meeropol said he and his brother, Michael Meeropol, of Cold Spring, New York, who was not available for an interview, believe the testimony also offers evidence of his father’s innocence of atomic espionage.

The Rosenbergs, who maintained their innocence to their deaths, were executed after being convicted of charges that they passed along to agents of the Soviet Union a sketch and other details about the atomic bomb.

Meeropol said that as more revelations come out about his parents’ case, the more it seems clear that their attorney, Emanuel Bloch, was correct in his defense theory that it was David and Ruth Greenglass who committed espionage and not Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

“It’s intriguing to me that the longer we’ve gone on, the more accurate it looks,” he said of Bloch’s defense. “It’s past time for the government to admit the wrong it did.”

Greenglass, indicted as a co-conspirator and sentenced to 10 years in prison, said at trial that he had given the Rosenbergs data he stole while he worked as an Army machinist at the Los Alamos, New Mexico, headquarters of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. He also testified that he saw his older sister transcribing the information on a typewriter at the Rosenbergs’ New York apartment in 1945.

Meeropol said that was the linchpin of the government’s case against the Rosenbergs — testimony by Greenglass about that supposed Sept. 25, 1945, meeting during which Julius Rosenberg accepted a drawing of a cross section of the atomic bomb and Ethel Rosenberg typed notes about it. This information was supposedly later given to the KGB agents.

Meeropol also noted that the drawing in question was of no use to the Soviet Union anyway. “It was a worthless sketch. It was full of errors,” he said. “One scientist called it a baby drawing.”

Meeropol maintains that grand jury testimony by David Greenglass — and previously released testimony by his wife, Ruth Greenglass — as well as other information that has come out regarding precisely when the secrets were put into the hands of the Soviet Union, prove that meeting never happened. He also noted that while Ruth Greenglass had a code name, his mother never did.

“When you put all these things together, it becomes glaringly apparent that the Sept. 25 meeting never happened. The Greenglasses pinned what they did on my parents in order to save themselves. It takes the heart out of the government’s case,” said Meeropol. “What we’ve got here is the government of the United States executing two people for something they didn’t do.”

Historians and lawyers who reviewed the transcript said it appears to lend support to both sides of a dueling narrative — that Ethel Rosenberg was framed in an overzealous prosecution even as her husband appears to have played a central role in a sophisticated spy ring.

“You change a black-and-white Cold War narrative — framed or traitors? — into a very nuanced, gray area. Well, both,” said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which fought for the records.

The testimony by David Greenglass was ordered unsealed by U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein in a ruling May 19, 2015. Hellerstein in 2008 had ordered the release of the testimony of all grand jury witnesses in the case who were either dead or had no objections. David Greenglass objected, but after his death last year at 92, Hellerstein authorized the release.

“The historical significance of the Rosenberg trial is undisputed. Their crime was called ‘The Crime of the Century,’ ” Hellerstein wrote. “The requested records are critical pieces of an important moment in our nation’s history. The time for the public to guess what they contain should end.”

The revelation that Greenglass lied on the stand to protect his wife no doubt will heighten public suspicion that Ethel Rosenberg was wrongly convicted and executed in the espionage case that captivated the country at the height of the McCarthy-era frenzy about Communist allegiances.

Meeropol praised Hellerstein and attorney David Vladeck, who filed for the release of the documents, for giving the public access to important information.

“They both performed a valuable public service,” said Meeropol. “Public information is the lifeblood of a functional democracy.”

Crucial evidence

Historians have greatly anticipated the release of the records, which they believe is the final crucial piece of evidence that may shed light on how a brother came to betray his sister.

Despite his trial testimony, Greenglass on Aug. 7, 1950, told a grand jury that he waffled about whether to leave the Army, but that Julius Rosenberg was adamant that he should continue with his service so he could “continue giving him information.”

Greenglass was then asked whether his sister, Ethel, was similarly insistent about his Army career. He said he and his sister never discussed such matters. “I said before, and say it again, honestly, this is a fact: I never spoke to my sister about this at all,” said Greenglass.

Decades after the trial, Greenglass was quoted by a New York Times journalist as having admitted to lying on the stand about his sister in order to protect his wife. Greenglass said then that it was likely his wife, and not his sister, who had typed the notes to give to the Soviets.

Meeropol said he has no memory of ever having met David Greenglass when he was a child, and his brother has only a vague image of him. As adults, Meeropol said, he never wanted to meet him. “Just the thought of David Greenglass disgusted me,” he said.

After the trial, the Greenglass family changed their names and lived anonymous lives.

In a statement released Wednesday by the Easthampton-based Rosenberg Fund for Children, which Meeropol helped found, he said:

“More than 60 years after my parents’ execution, it is long past time for the government to admit that Ethel Rosenberg was not a spy and that Julius was not an atomic spy. I call for the record to be set straight once and for all:

“1. My father engaged in non-atomic military espionage for the Soviet Union. He did not pass the secret of the atomic bomb to anyone.

“2. My mother did not conspire to commit espionage. The government knew this; colluded with the Greenglasses to convict her; and executed her anyway.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story. Laurie Loisel can be reached at


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