Adela and the woman who sold out her sister-in-law


Ever since The New York Times, in its infinite wisdom, dropped the lonely little line at the bottom of every day’s Page 1 that told you where the newest dead were, I’ve been missing a good many obituaries. So when the associate editor of this journal asked if I’d seen the story on Page D7 last Wednesday, July 9, I hadn’t. And then, when I looked at the photo of the departed, I didn’t see Ruth Greenglass. I saw Adela Brief.

And J. Edgar Hoover. And Eisenhower. And the two Irvings, Saypol (prosecutor) and Kaufman (judge). And, of course, Roy Cohn.

Ruth Leah Prinz Greenglass, whose death this past April only came to light last week through 57-year-old court papers released last month, had for more than 40 of those years, the obit tells us, been living “in the New York metropolitan area under an assumed name.”

With much good reason. It was Ruth Greenglass’s grand jury testimony, in support of her husband’s testimony — or vice versa, in a trial of role-switching smoke and mirrors — that helped send her sister-in-law, Ethel Rosenberg, to the electric chair, side by side with Ethel’s husband, Julius Rosenberg, while around the globe throngs demonstrated and prayed and begged Ike to reprieve them. He did not. Ike sat tight.

David Greenglass, Ruth’s husband, Ethel’s brother — who if nothing else spat Cain one better with “am I my sister’s keeper?” — is still among us, somewhere. Among the dead are not only Ruth Greenglass and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg but the Roy Cohn who, at age 24, cleverly coaxed out David Greenglass’s (subsequently disavowed) testimony that, yes, Ethel Rosenberg had, on an old Remington in the Rosenbergs’ apartment in Knickerbocker Village on the Lower East Side, typed up those Los Alamos atom-bomb notes for David to pass on to Soviet agents.

It is all a drama worthy of the pens of an Arthur Miller, an E.L. Doctorow, a Tony Kushner, and in fact all three of those gentlemen have given us works of art that mesh perfectly into the case of the Rosenbergs. But they were all three preceded by a no less great (and Communist) writer named Mike Gold, who in his 1930 novel “Jews Without Money” spoke exactly, guttily, exquisitely to the shtetl radicalism of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Rosenberg story is, after all, a shtetl story.

I myself was not among the marching throngs carrying banners on behalf of the Rosenbergs — I am not the throngs type — but Adela Brief was, or had been. Adela was the most beautiful girl who ever walked into the early offices of The Village Voice on Greenwich Avenue, and I think she was only 19 at the time, if that, which would have made her something like 15 or 16 at the time of the Rosenbergs’ execution in 1953.

I don’t believe I ever even thought very hard about the Rosenbergs one way or another, assuming it was all just part of the action-and-reaction, or acting-out, of right and left, in an era of despicable massive red-baiting.

To tell the truth, what finally decided me that maybe the Rosenbergs — both the Rosenbergs — were no more than puppets on a string, and therefore possibly guilty as charged, was the “Last Letters to Their Children” (sons Michael and Robert) published post mortem by some leftist sheet. You have to be brave, dear boys, like our gallant heroic Brooklyn Dodgers, the parental injunctions went on and on ad nauseum. Surely, if Ethel wasn’t guilty, which many now believe and I do, too, she was at least guilty as hell for writing stuff like that (if indeed she had done).

The above, however, is a flippancy I would never have dared voice to Adela Brief. Here was this slim, low-voiced, lovely creature — a good-bad Jewish girl who still went home at midnight to the Bronx —throwing herself with passion into selling ads for the newborn, struggling Village Voice. Yet all that passion would instantly, totally freeze up at the slightest mention of the Rosenbergs, three years and more after their deaths. Don’t joke with that subject, man.

Adela, I don’t know where you are now, or if you are. But I know I thought I saw your face in The New York Times when I was looking at what the caption said was Ruth Greenglass in a 1951 photograph. In this year of Our Bush 2008, there are a great many Adela Briefs out there. Throngs of them. One can only hope that they — we — aren’t once again being marched over a cliff.