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This Day in History: The Rosenberg Trial Begins

It was on this date in 1951 that the infamous espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg began.  The Jewish-American Communists, along with Soviet spy Morton Sobell, were accused of selling nuclear secrets to Russia. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory and allegedly supplied Julius with information regarding the atomic bomb.  Harry Gold, an acquaintance of Greenglass and a chemist, is alleged to have passed the information on to the Soviet Union.  In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb, purportedly at least in part based upon information gathered from U.S. spies, beginning a tense and deadly chapter in the Cold War.

Julius & Ethel Rosenberg

The trial was held at the New York Southern District federal court, presided over by Judge Irving R. Kaufman.  It lasted less than four weeks, with a conviction of the Rosenbergs rendered on March 29th.  The only direct evidence of the Rosenbergs’ involvement was the confession of Greenglass.  However, the couple was sentenced to death .  Sobell was sentenced to 30 years and Greenglass to 15.  The execution of Julius and Ethel was the first execution of civilians for espionage in the country’s history, and remains a haunting symbol of the Red Scare.  In 2003, on the 50th anniversary of the couple’s death by the electric chair at Sing Sing, the New York Times said, “The Rosenberg case still haunts American history, reminding us of the injustice that can be done when a nation gets caught up in hysteria.”

Did you know, though, that the Rosenbergs’ story has many chapters rooted in the Village?

Ethel Rosenberg was born in 1915 to Russian immigrant parents on Sheriff Street on the Lower East Side.  Her upbringing was typical of the poverty of the Lower East Side at the time.  Their home was a 2-room, cold-water tenement and her father had a sewing machine repair shop in the front room.  Julius was born in 1918 to Polish immigrant parents in a similar upbringing.  Both Ethel and Julius attended Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side.  They were married in 1939 and moved to Knickerbocker Village, a low-income housing development located on the block bounded by Catherine, Monroe, Market, and Cherry Streets.

L: Knickerbocker Village; R: Seward Park High School

In the 1940s, after having two sons, the family moved to 103 Avenue A, between East 6th & 7th Streets and right next door to 101 Avenue A.  According to the book Ethel Rosenberg: Beyond the Myths, their apartment, one of 21 in the building at the time, “had no color, no pictures on the wall, nothing to personalize the surroundings, except for mess and clutter.”

103 Avenue A

After being arrested, Ethel was sent to the Women’s House of Detention.  This prison opened in 1932 and was built to replace an old jail that was part of the Jefferson Market.  According to Ephemeral New York, “it focused on reforming the inmates, often charged with prostitution. There were some illustrious inmates, held for other crimes, like Ethel Rosenberg, Angela Davis, and Valerie Solanas.”  The building was bulldozed in 1974 and replaced by the Jefferson Market Garden.

Women’s House of Detention

The former Sigmund Schwartz Gramercy Park Chapel, at 152 Second Avenue (which is now slated for a complete overhaul) was the site where Julius & Ethel were memorialized after their execution.

Sigmund Schwartz Gramercy Park Chapel

We believe there are more sites associated with Julius & Ethel, especially in the East Village, so if you have any tips send them our way!!

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