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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 423

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This is the grave of David and Ruth Greenglass.

David Greenglass was born in 1922 to Jewish immigrant parents on the Lower East Side. Ruth Printz was born in 1924 in the same neighborhood. Like many young Jewish people in the 1930s and early 1940s, they were very attracted to leftist ideas, particularly the Communist Party. Their parents were leftists, out of the same tradition that created such wonderful people such as Clara Lemlich, the great organizer of the garment workers who later became a hard-core supporter of the Soviet Union. Anyone who criticizes these people for being communist at this time simply doesn’t know what they are talking about and totally ignores the context of the period, with the very easy hindsight of what we now know about Stalin in the comfort of our liberal homes and beds without understanding the long tradition of Jewish leftism that made a much richer left in this nation.

David and Ruth joined the Young Communist League and married in 1942. He joined the Army in 1943 and in 1944, he was assigned to the nuclear production facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, part of the Manhattan Project and then to Los Alamos, the center of it. This was pure luck. David was not a particularly educated man, was only a sergeant, and had not shown any real talents that would put him on such a sensitive project. Although he didn’t really hide his communism all that much, he did of course not mention this in security clearances, told his friends not to mention it and instead talk about his loyalty to America, and no one tracked it down. In the aftermath was trying to convert his fellow workers at Los Alamos to communism, but that didn’t hurt him either.

David was the brother of Ethel Rosenberg. Ethel and her husband Julius were also communists. Julius had been spying for the Soviet Union since 1939. Alexander Feklisov, Rosenberg’s handler, had him recruit Greenglass. He didn’t take that much convincing. Both he and Ruth were on board wholeheartedly. Meanwhile, Ruth opened her home as a NKVD storehouse for secret photographs. When the NKVD realized David was working on the Manhattan Project, he became one of their most important people in the U.S. He passed a bunch of secrets to the Soviets. With pretty lax security within the site itself, as opposed to getting into Los Alamos which was almost impossible, Greenglass was able to steal this and that document and draw up some crude sketches of the superbomb being built there.

The Soviets wanted David to continue with spying after the war ended, but they wanted him to go to Bikini Atoll, where the U.S. was preparing its important nuclear tests. He decided against it, choosing to spend more time with Ruth and he, Julius Rosenberg, and Bernie Greenglass ran a machine shop. In 1950, Ruth’s dress caught on fire while pregnant. He put out the fire and the baby survived, but Ruth suffered some bad burns and so did he, on his hands. By this time, Greenglass was aware that Klaus Fuchs had been found out as a spy. Fuchs had given over the name of Harry Gold, who was the connection between Greenglass and the Soviets. Rosenberg gave Greenglass $5,000 to go to Mexico. Instead, recovering from their burns and scared out of their minds, they went to the Catskills to figure out what to do.

What David Greenglass decided to do was inform on Julius Rosenberg. He tried to keep his sister out of it, but he caved on her too. He told everything. He blamed it all on Rosenberg, saying he saw Julius as his hero and wanted to live up to that. On trial, he presented everything he knew about the bomb. It turns out most of his information was probably worthless. He wasn’t that high up in the Manhattan Project and once he started to speaking in the trial, all the reporters were invited back in since he didn’t seem to really know any big atomic secrets. Rosenberg’s lawyer tried to discredit Greenglass, saying he was angry about the failure of the machine shop. Maybe he was. But he was certainly telling the truth about being a Soviet spy. Despite being cooperative, he ended up with 15 years in prison. His testimony was critical for the conviction of Julius and Ethel and of course both were executed. He did try to intervene and plead for the lives of his sister and brother-in-law by writing to Eisenhower and urging him to commute their sentence so they could repent of their communist crimes in the future. But that did not work and of course they were murdered.

After 9 1/2 years in prison, Greenglass was set free. They changed their last names to Gretzell to live in anonymity. He later claimed that he lied about Ethel’s involvement to protect Ruth. Maybe that is true. Ruth had testified in the trial as well against both Julius and Ethel and she received no prison time. They lived in obscurity in Queens, where he worked as a machinist once more. In the rare interviews he gave, David Greenglass said he had no regrets about driving his brother-in-law and sister to the grave, saying he would do anything to keep his wife safe. I’m not sure that exactly excuses his behavior, but who can say what they would do in such a unique and sad scenario. Ruth died in 2008. David died in 2014. His name is not even on the gravestone, which I assume is to keep people away.

David and Ruth Greenglass are buried in Mount Hebron Cemetery, Queens, New York.

If you would like this series to visit more people involved in the Rosenberg case, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are buried in East Farmingdale, New York and Harry Gold is in Philadelphia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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