On June 19, 1953, Jewish Americans Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in New York, for conspiring to pass nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II.
Their unprecedented sentence incensed protesters world-wide, who advocated either that the Rosenbergs had not been given a fair trial, or that the punishment did not fit the crime. Demonstrators called on the US government to revoke the pair's death sentence, while defense attorney Emmanuel Bloch fought for the Rosenbergs’ to the very last minute of the two year battle following their sentence. But to no avail.
That Friday, Julius and Ethel became the only Americans in history to be sentenced to death in peace time for espionage, meeting their fate on the electric chair.
Julius Rosenberg was the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland, who upon seeing his son excelling in Hebrew Studies, wanted him to become a rabbi. Instead, Julius pursued his passion for politics, laying out a very different path for himself. He joined the Communist Party at the age of 16, where he met his future wife, Ethel nee Greenglass.
Ethel's brother David Greenglass worked at the Los Alamos Laboratory on the Manhattan Project – which led the US to develop the first atomic bomb - and his sister and her husband pushed him to pass top-secret information to the Soviets. Greenglass later became the government’s star witness in the trial of his sister and brother-in-law.
While there is little doubt today that the Rosebergs were involved in spying for the Soviets, Ethel's part was minimal and indirect. Indeed, in 2008, Morton Sobell, a friend of the Rosenbergs who was also convicted of espionage, admitted that he and Julius had been Soviet spies. Of Ethel, however, he said: “She knew what he was doing, but what was she guilty of? Of being Julius’s wife.” The prosecution, it later transpired, had a good idea of this, yet put Ethel on trial along with her husband in an unsuccessful attempt to pressure Julius to name other American members of the spying ring. Nonetheless, Ethel also became the first woman to be executed in the US since Mary Surratt, who was sentenced to death due to her role in assassinated US president Abraham Lincoln's death.
The Rosenbergs were executed at Sing Sing Prison before Shabbat. Prison officials had advanced the time of execution in order to "spare religious feeling," The Guardian reported. The couple maintained their innocence to the bitter end; in a letter to the two sons they left behind, Ethel wrote, "Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience."
Their son Robert Meeropol went on to found The Rosenberg Fund for Children, whose mission is to help children of targeted activists in the US.
US President Dwight D. Eisenhower rejected a final appeal for clemency, and Julius was killed, followed by his wife. According to witnesses Ethel beckoned to the prison matron who had accompanied her, pulled her toward her and gently kissed her on the cheek. Ethel's heart was still beating after the first 50-second jolt of electricity, and she was only pronounced dead after two more jolts.
On the day of the execution, thousands rallied in Paris and London to protest the Rosenbergs' fate, and hundreds picketed in front of the White House. Attorney Bloch fought to the end for the Rosenbergs, pleading at the gates of the White House for a final hearing with Eisenhower in his clients' last hours of life.
In a statement released that day, Eisenhower said: "I am not unmindful of the fact that this case has aroused grave concern both here and abroad in the minds of serious people aside from the considerations of law. In this connection I can only say that, by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world. "
"The execution of two human beings is a grave matter, but even graver is the thought of the millions of dead whose death may be directly attributable to what these spies have done," he continued.
Fifty-nine years on, another case involving a Jewish agent, sentenced to life by the US for spying for an ally, is the center of political and public debate. Just last week, President Shimon Peres plead with US President Barack Obama to release Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel in 1987.
The US administration appears to be standing firm on the issue, and amid hopeful expectations surrounding Peres's visit to the US, White House Spokesman Jay Carney stated that the US position had not changed. "I would simply remind you that Mr. Pollard was convicted of very serious crimes," he told reporters Wednesday. Peres advisor Nadav Tamir, however, offered Pollard activists a glimmer of hope, stating that "the door has not been slammed," on the possibility of the prisoner's release.
The battle therefore continues for Pollard's release, and it is not yet clear whether this time, efforts will be successful to revoke a sentence that activists claim far exceeds the crime.
Michael Omer-Man contributed to this report