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.”