David Greenglass, 1922-2014

David Greenglass has died. Actually, he died over the summer. He was 92.

In the Book of Daniel, there’s an Aramaic phrase for an informer: Akhal Kurtza. Its literal translation is “to eat the flesh of someone else.”

By his own admission, David Greenglass made up testimony that sent his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the electric chair. David Greenglass was worse than an informer.

Update (9:30 pm)

In 2001, Greenglass was interviewed by Bob Simon for 60 Minutes. Here’s a brief account of part of that interview.

Why did think Julius and Ethel maintain their silence to the end? Greenglass has an answer: “One word: stupidity. My sister was not very smart about what she did. She should’ve confessed.”

But many saw the Rosenbergs as martyrs. There was great sympathy for Michael and Robert, their two young sons, orphaned by their own uncle.

Greenglass hasn’t seen the Rosenberg children since the trial. What would he say to them today? “I would say I’m sorry that your parents are dead. You’re basically the real victims of those, of the attitude of the people the time of their deaths.”

He would not apologize for his role. “I can’t say that,” he says. “That’s not true. I had no idea they’re gonna give them the death sentence.”

Greenglass says he had affection for his sister, and still does. “I do. I’m sorry, very sorry, that she made such a very bad decision,” he says, laughing. “She should have said “I did’t, I wasn’t a spy, but I, I heard my husband say it.’ That would have been fine.” He holds Ethel responsible for her own death.

At the trial, the Rosenbergs’ lawyer said in his closing remarks, “You may remember this: ‘Any man who will testify against his own flesh and blood, his own sister, is repulsive, revolting.'”

Greenglass is unfazed by this quote. He says he has a clean conscience: “I sleep very well.” He has never visited his sister’s grave, but admits that he has been haunted by his experience 50 years ago. “To some degree, yeah. But every time I’m haunted by it, or say something, my wife says ‘Look, we’re still alive. We have our kids. Everything’s OK.'”


  1. s. wallerstein October 14, 2014 at 8:50 pm | #

    If the New York Times articles is correct, Greenglass had to choose between his sister and his wife and he opted for his wife. I don’t know what the heroic thing to do in the circumstances would have been, and Greenglass is obviously no hero, but I find it hard to condemn him, since I have no idea what I would do if I and my wife were facing the electric chair.

    Those who are worthy of condemnation are the judges who sentenced the Rosenbergs to the death penalty and those who fomented a whole climate of anti-communist hysteria against the Rosenbergs as well as the Soviets who used both the Rosenbergs and Greenglass, not Greenglass, a minor pawn in the game of two super-powers.

    • Corey Robin October 14, 2014 at 8:54 pm | #

      It’s been years since I read through all the literature on the case, though at one point in my life I was rather obsessed with it. If I remember correctly though his wife would have probably been facing prison, not execution. And again if I remember correctly it wasn’t just his wife that he was saving; it was also himself. But remember: he didn’t turn in his sister to save his wife. He literally fabricated a story that sent her to her death. That’s a very different proposition, no?

      On Tue, Oct 14, 2014 at 8:50 PM, Corey Robin wrote:


      • Palindrome October 15, 2014 at 1:38 am | #

        “If I remember correctly though his wife would have probably been facing prison, not execution.”

        But according to the very quote you posted, he thought his sister was also facing, at most, prison, not execution. The prosecution didn’t ask for the death penalty until after he had agreed to cooperate. It’s pretty awful to give false testimony against your own sibling, but you imply that he willingly and knowingly sent her to her death, which doesn’t appear to be true.

        • Corey Robin October 15, 2014 at 7:02 am | #

          Right. But once he gave that testimony and saw what it did, he had every opportunity to disavow it. He didn’t. He watched his sister go to the electric chair on his say-so.

  2. s. wallerstein October 14, 2014 at 9:17 pm | #

    I know much less than you about the case. I can imagine how the FBI and the prosecutor’s must have played on his fears. Perhaps they threatened him and his wife with a death or life sentence if he didn’t “play ball”. I’m sure that they scared the shit out of him. Greenglass was not an educated person and this all happened long before the days when the police (in theory) had to respect the defendent’s rights. I see him as a victim of the cold war.

    By the way, I recall reading somewhere that they only sentenced Ethel to death to pressure Julius to confess, giving Julius the option to confess and give them all the information he had about Soviet intelligence in order to save Ethel.

    All of them, Julius, Ethel, Greenglass and his wife, were idealistic communists, used by Stalin and screwed by the FBI and the U.S. courts. They got mixed up in an ugly game played by ruthless Machiavellian operators on both sides.

  3. Jim Brash October 15, 2014 at 12:33 am | #

    He not only snitched, he lied, and against his own kin. The fact that he never reached out to his nephews is very telling. The rat bastard lived much longer than he should had. No convictions, no integrity, just worried about his own hide.

  4. Harald K October 15, 2014 at 3:37 am | #

    “But every time I’m haunted by it, or say something, my wife says ‘Look, we’re still alive. We have our kids. Everything’s OK.”

    I am reminded of your posts where you pointed out how threats against spouses and kids were used to get people to cooperate during the red scare, and the Moscow trials.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant October 15, 2014 at 9:43 am | #

      Excellent observation. When the state or the boss steps inside your house, the “private life of power” plays out with its usual tragic results.

      • NattyB October 15, 2014 at 2:16 pm | #

        My father was a red diaper baby. At the dinner table, they’d prepare for what to say in case the FBI stopped by.

  5. stephenkmacksd October 15, 2014 at 9:42 am | #

    Don’t forget the part that Roy Cohn played in this travesty!

    ‘Cohn played a prominent role in the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn’s direct examination of Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, produced testimony that was central to the Rosenbergs’ conviction and subsequent execution. Greenglass testified that he had given the Rosenbergs classified documents from the Manhattan Project which had been stolen by Klaus Fuchs. Greenglass would later admit that he intentionally lied at the trial in order “to protect himself and his wife, Ruth, and that he was encouraged by the prosecution to do so”.[7] Cohn always took great pride in the Rosenberg verdict, and claimed to have played an even greater part than his public role: He said in his autobiography that his own influence had led to both Saypol and Judge Irving Kaufman being appointed to the case. He further said that Kaufman imposed the death penalty based on his personal recommendation. If these ex parte discussions between a prosecutor and a judge outside the courtroom took place, they were improper.[8]

    In 2008 a co-conspirator in the case, Morton Sobell, who had served 18 years in prison, said that Julius Rosenberg had spied for the Soviets, but that Ethel did not.[9]’



    • Diana October 15, 2014 at 3:24 pm | #

      Judge Kaufman later on said he regretted his decision. Ironically enough, later on Kaufman was known for his leniency; I’ve known lawyers who speculated that this may have been due to his regret over his sentencing of the Rosenbergs.

  6. calling all toasters October 15, 2014 at 11:12 am | #

    As long as Stalin got the bomb, it’s all good.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant October 15, 2014 at 11:43 am | #

      Of course one could note, accurately, that one very important reason that WE never used it again after World War II is directly due to the fact that THEY, quite early in the Cold War, finally got it, too.

      Forgive me if I don’t sustain the belief that American leaders would be restrained from undertaking its repeated use if the U.S. were the only ones that had the bomb.

  7. Roquentin October 15, 2014 at 12:44 pm | #

    This seems to be a recurring theme with you. This, the entries about the Red Scare in Hollywood and the betrayals which followed, the actions of certain Jews during the Holocaust. Just an observation really.

    It’s clear Greenglass felt way more guilt than he admits to. Never once visiting Ethel’s grave or their children more or less confirms that. Why else could he not bring himself to do it for the remainder of his life? It was a reminder of what a coward he was, that he had made up things which sent his own sister to the chair. I wonder if those extra years were really worth it to him. One thing I’ve always admired in the novels of Mishima (as abhorrent as other ideas of his were) is this emphasis on dying beautifully, even for foolishly sentimental and futile reasons. It’s something which is pretty rare in the west, where the only acceptable way to go out tends to be decrepit in a nursing home. Not to bash anyone from that, but why is that always considered better than cashing in your chips young? You even see some of this in Heidegger with the ideas about “being-towards-death,” how the choices you make dealing with the possibility of death are the most authentic determinants of who you are.

    Still, another part of me also thinks something like: The Stalinist USSR killed millions of people for nothing at all. The system they had so much faith in wouldn’t have treated them the least bit better. As distasteful as I find the whole episode, it’d be ridiculous to put even the Red Scare and the execution of the Rosenberg’s in the same league as the Stalinist purges. I’m not saying you were, just that I’m somewhat relieved things never got that bad in the US.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant October 16, 2014 at 3:33 pm | #

      “…I’m somewhat relieved things never got that bad in the US.”

      Only for SOME of us, comrade. Only for SOME of us.

      • Roquentin October 16, 2014 at 7:04 pm | #

        I see where you’re coming from. There were any number of ethnic groups, black people in particular, who had it quite rough in the US during the 1st half of the 20th century. I’m rarely one to talk up life in US, but knowing all of that….it still can’t hold a candle to the suffering which happened in the USSR. Every step of the way you can find something worse. Japanese internment for example. Executive Order 9066 is one of the most shameful events in the US of that entire war. Still, Stalin did all kinds of forced resettlement. They’d turn people out in the middle of nowhere and leave them with nothing. Just look up the Volga Germans or the Crimean Tatars.

        This isn’t some attempt to bash the USSR either. I understand that the country existed in its own unique history and circumstances, and events there should be taken on their own. There were good things to come out of the whole Soviet episode. They achieved almost universal literacy for example (I forget how bad it was in Tsarist Russia, but much of the peasantry was illiterate). Even the worst regimes do some good. I’ve already gone on for too long, but it’s a really complex set of questions.

  8. Claude Horvath October 15, 2014 at 5:13 pm | #

    Thank you for neglecting to allow the significance of that odious life to go un-noticed. And a useful Aramaic phrase to boot!

  9. Will Boisvert October 16, 2014 at 3:56 pm | #

    The New York Times obit you linked to makes it sound like Julius was definitely guilty of spying while Ethel was mainly not, although she seems to have known it was going on. Could they have gotten out of the death penalty if they had confessed to that and named collaborators?

    • Corey Robin October 16, 2014 at 7:27 pm | #

      I think that was always supposed to be the state’s strategy: get them to flip and then get bigger fish.

  10. nafnaf October 16, 2014 at 3:58 pm | #

    I don’t know if this article has things right, but its author has written extensively about the case and, according to him, the Soviet archives include hard evidence that they were guilty and provided substantial assistance to the USSR.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant October 17, 2014 at 8:42 am | #

      Ronald Radosh?!


      Just one point to note: Radosh does not mention the fact that Greenglass LIED to help the government secure its conviction, which in turn paved the way to an execution.

      Greenglass LIED, and on this Radosh is silent. Has he no decency at long last?

      • nafnaf October 17, 2014 at 1:09 pm | #

        That may well be, Donald. But, that does not make the facts he cites into lies, does it? Of course not.

        Greenglass, if the information provided is accurate, lied to the extent of assigning personal knowledge to what was, in fact, hearsay. The hearsay, if the facts set forth by Radosh are correct, appear to have been accurate.

        So, perhaps the results of the trial might have turned out different had Greenglass been more forthcoming. Or, it may well be that his being more forthcoming would have resulted in the actual eyewitness being forced to testify, in which case, it would depend on credibility of that witness.

        A court would reverse, learning that there was an important false statement in a trial. So, that is certainly an injustice to right. If, however, the Rosenbergs were, in fact, actually guilty, that would be an injustice to the legal system and the public, which expects the truth to be told. But, it would not be an injustice to the Rosenbergs, who (if they were guilty) knew or should have known what they did or did not do.

        I think that Radosh’s comments were directed to their complicity, not to the legal niceties of the trial. And, it being decades since the events, both the niceties of the trial and whether they were actually guilty can be properly separated, given that we now have sources of information not available at the time of the trial, most particularly, the records made of things by the USSR, which seem to hold pretty clearly that they were guilty.

        That all said, there is pretty clear evidence that the USSR would have had the bomb more or less when they developed it. They had the scientific knowledge and a first rate team in place. Whether, in fact, their scientists actually benefited from what came from the Rosenbergs – if anything did – seems more or less beside the point, as the great Lev Landau and his team were the equal of any team in the world.

  11. jkrekel October 17, 2014 at 10:41 am | #

    He’s definitely 9th Circle (of Dante’s Inferno) material.

  12. delia ruhe October 17, 2014 at 2:46 pm | #

    Tony Kushner fantasizing that Roy Cohn, in his final hours, was haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg — delicious! Meryl Streep as Ethel — stupendous!

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