The reissuing of my novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Red Love, as an e-book this month is a joyful moment for me. When the book came out, the Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz, a month before she died, wrote that “This is a novel that represents life and is true to history, combining imagination with the documentary record, written with bite and black humor, tempered by compassion for the betrayed sacrifices, the lives lost.” Elie Wiesel wrote that my book has “fascinating events and amazing perception.”
I remember as a small boy in Queens how the sky seemed to darken for me when I heard of the Rosenbergs’ execution. It was an event I could not get out of my memory. Soon I would be drawn to the American Communist Party. I felt a kinship for these well-read, cultured and passionate souls who yearned for a kinder, more compassionate world. As I learned more about Stalin’s crimes and anti-Semitism, it was inconceivable to me that these people who I so admired, who had so much humanity and love for their fellow man, revered a system that even Nikita Khrushchev admitted in 1956 was bathed in the blood of tens of millions of people. The USSR allied itself with Hitler during the Hitler-Stalin pact, murdered millions in the Gulag, destroyed Jewish life in the Soviet Union and murdered the major writers and artists who comprised the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Yet I came to understand that for these American true believers, the Soviet Union had once symbolized paradise, where there were no such things as anti-Semitism, economic exploitation, poverty and racism. The contradiction between the sincere goodness of the people I met in the Communist Party and the justifications they presented for a totalitarian regime became for me a personal and professional puzzle to resolve.
In the 1980s I set out to write about the Rosenberg case and returned to the Communist Party milieu. I met and interviewed the living person closest to the Rosenbergs, Morton Sobell, who was tried with them in 1951 of conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. I interviewed his wife, the late Helen Sobell, Ethel Appel, the sister of Julius Rosenberg, historian Nathan Glazer, who’d written about the case, scores of Communist Party activists, Bayard Rustin, civil rights leader and a former member of the Young Communist League, Herbert Aptheker, historian and Communist Party leader, and almost a hundred others. Since I had not lived through the Depression and the rise of Nazism in Germany and neo-fascist American movements personified by Father Coughlin and America First, I needed to understand the mindset of people like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg by searching out those who believed as they did, who had felt, like Communist leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, that Stalin “was the new Moses.”
I did not want to echo the viewpoint of far right writers who concluded that the Rosenbergs and their comrades were solely motivated by loyalty to the Soviet Union, not opposition to fascism. Being anti-fascist for the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell was inseparable from being pro-Soviet at that time. I came to understand that the utopian view of the USSR deeply appealed to Jews growing up in the Depression, frightened by the seeming collapse of capitalism, gradually learning of the existence of concentration camps and of Hitler’s plans for the Final Solution. The only hope seemed to be the Soviet Union, which bore the brunt of the fighting against fascism.
During the same period, I worked as a writer/researcher for the Anti-Defamation League focusing on far right and far left organizations. That experience further consolidated my understanding of the ways in which totalitarian visions interconnected. And with the help of the ADL, I traveled to Israel and Switzerland to interview the family of Peretz Markish, the great Yiddish poet and a Communist true believer murdered by Stalin and beaten to death in the prisons of the NKVD. For me the reality of Markish’s fate underscored the sad paradox and irony of what Communist true believers were enduring in the Soviet Union at the same time their American counterparts were devoting their lives to celebrating “Soviet justice.”
And so I set out on a journey of understanding. I concluded that I would not deny the guilt of the Rosenbergs or Morton Sobell, but I would not deny their humanity either, the facts of how American Communists put themselves on the front lines in the struggle for civil rights in the South and for better working conditions. Nor would I ignore the forces of the anti-Semitic far right on American soil that were the other side of the coin during those terrible years. And far from American shores, I would document a twentieth century that gave us both the Final Solution and the Gulag. We needed a more nuanced understanding of the Rosenbergs within the context of those terrifying times. The Rosenbergs were not the saints their supporters imagined them to be, but they did not deserve to be executed or demonized either.
When Morton Sobell confessed in 2008 that he had, indeed, spied for the Soviets and admitted that so had Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, I was not at all surprised. I knew from my meetings with Sobell in 1982 that, in the silences between his words, (and some of his actual words as well) that he was guilty. I wrote of him with compassion and affection in Red Love, and felt very fortunate that the insights I brought to my book came partly from the understanding he gave me.
I believe that Red Love is saturated with a love and understanding of my characters—even if laced with humor and irreverence—an understanding that came from immersing myself for ten years in the lives of the American Communists who experienced events and times that I never went through and who conveyed that history to me. As a result, as Lucy Dawidowicz wrote, the reader of Red Love “grieves for the many thousands whose years were squandered on false hopes, betrayed ideals, messianic delusions.”