Ruth Greenglass, Key Witness in Trial of Rosenbergs, Dies at 84
Published: July 9, 2008
Ruth Greenglass, whose damning testimony in the Rosenberg atomic-bomb spy case of the early 1950s helped lead to the execution of her sister-in-law Ethel Rosenberg, died on April 7. She was 84.
The New York Times
Ruth Greenglass in 1951.
Along with her husband, David Greenglass — Ethel’s brother and a central figure in the case — Mrs. Greenglass had lived in the New York metropolitan area under an assumed name for more than four decades. Her death was revealed in court papers on June 23.
That day, in an unexpected response to a suit by historians, the federal government agreed to release secret grand jury testimony, 57 years after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. The government, however, consented to release the testimony of only 35 of the 45 witnesses; those who are dead or have consented to the release. Mrs. Greenglass was listed as one of the deceased; her death was confirmed by the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan and through Social Security records. Mr. Greenglass survives her.
The Rosenberg investigation can be traced to 1945, when a Soviet cipher clerk, Igor Gouzenko, defected to the West and stunned intelligence officials by revealing that the Russians were engaged in extensive spying against their wartime allies. At the time, David Greenglass was an Army sergeant assigned as a machinist to the Manhattan Project, the program to develop the atomic bomb, at Los Alamos, N.M.
When Mr. Rosenberg, an avowed Communist, found out about his brother-in-law’s assignment, he recruited Mr. Greenglass to gather information about the Manhattan Project, including documents, handwritten notes, sketches of the bomb and the names of scientists.
One afternoon in September 1945, in the Rosenberg apartment in Knickerbocker Village on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Mr. Greenglass dictated his notes to someone sitting before a Remington typewriter. Who was sitting at that typewriter, Ethel Rosenberg or Ruth Greenglass? Fifty-seven years after the Rosenberg trial the question remains.
In 1950, after confessing to his role as a spy, Mr. Greenglass agreed to testify against the Rosenbergs. At the time, he had not yet been sentenced.
A main element in the prosecution was the threat of indictment, conviction and possible execution of Ethel Rosenberg as leverage to persuade Julius Rosenberg to confess and to implicate other collaborators. Those collaborators had already been identified, largely from what became known as the Venona transcripts, a trove of intercepted Soviet cables.
But with little more than a week before the trial was to start, on March 6, 1951, the government’s case against Mrs. Rosenberg remained flimsy, lacking evidence of an overt act to justify her conviction, much less her execution.
Prosecutors had been interrogating Mrs. Greenglass since June 1950. In February 1951, she was interviewed again. After reminding her that she was still subject to indictment and that her husband had yet to be sentenced, the prosecutors extracted a recollection from her: that in the fall of 1945, Ethel Rosenberg had typed her brother’s handwritten notes.
Soon after, confronted with his wife’s account, Mr. Greenglass told prosecutors that Mrs. Greenglass had a very good memory and that if that was what she recalled of events six years earlier, she was probably right.
The transcripts of those two crucial interviews have never been released or even located in government files. But at the trial, Mr. Greenglass testified that his sister had done the typing. Called to the stand, Mrs. Greenglass corroborated her husband’s testimony.
In his summation, the chief prosecutor, Irving Saypol, declared: “This description of the atom bomb, destined for delivery to the Soviet Union, was typed up by the defendant Ethel Rosenberg that afternoon at her apartment at 10 Monroe Street. Just so had she, on countless other occasions, sat at that typewriter and struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets.”
On June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs were put to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing.
It may never be determined who actually took that dictation. But in the late 1990s, Sam Roberts, a reporter for The New York Times, interviewed Mr. Greenglass for more than 50 hours while doing research for a book, “The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case” (Random House, 2003).
In the book, Mr. Roberts recounts how Mr. Greenglass acknowledged for the first time that he had lied on the stand and that he had no recollection that his sister had typed his notes.
“I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don’t remember,” Mr. Greenglass told Mr. Roberts.
“You know, I seldom use the word ‘sister’ anymore; I’ve just wiped it out of my mind,” Mr. Greenglass continued, adding: “My wife put her in it. So what am I going to do, call my wife a liar? My wife is my wife.”
Ruth Leah Printz was born on either April 30 or May 1, 1924 (official records differ), the eldest of four children of Max and Tillie Leiter Printz. Growing up on the Lower East Side, she and David Greenglass were neighbors and childhood sweethearts. After graduating with honors from Seward Park High School at 16, she was ready to go to college. But her mother insisted that she learn how to type.
At the time of the Rosenberg trial, Mrs. Greenglass was working as a legal stenographer for Louis J. Lefkowitz, a Republican assemblyman from the Lower East Side, who later became the New York State attorney general. She was fired.
After serving 10 years of a 15-year sentence, Mr. Greenglass was released from federal prison in 1960. In return for her and her husband’s cooperation in the Rosenberg case, Mrs. Greenglass was not indicted.