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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Sixty years ago today, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as Soviet spies.

Ethel was born on the Lower East Side in 1915, and Julius three years later in what was then Jewish East Harlem. Both attended Seward Park High School--which still stands at the corner of Essex and Grand streets--but there's no evidence they knew each other there.

Julius and Ethel married in 1939, the same year Julius received a degree in electrical engineering from City College. The next year,  he got a job with the Army Signal Corps. In 1942, he was recruited as a Soviet spy.

Though many people protested Julius and Ethel's innocence at the time, it now seems clear that Julius was at least passing some secrets to the Soviet Union. Whether or not those secrets led to the USSR's accelerated development of atomic technology is a matter of much debate. One of their co-conspirators, Morton Sobell, claimed that the information Julius was passing to the Soviets was "junk," and that while Ethel knew what her husband was doing, she was not a spy herself.

The Rosenbergs were executed just before sundown on June 19, 1953. The execution had originally been scheduled for eleven o'clock but in a last-ditch attempt for a stay, their attorney argued that this would violate the Jewish Sabbath. Instead of waiting, the federal government simply moved the execution earlier in the day.

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