David Evanier has pub­lished sev­en books and has received the Aga Khan Fic­tion Prize and the McGin­nis-Ritchie Short Fic­tion Award. He was the found­ing edi­tor of the lit­er­ary mag­a­zine, Event, and the for­mer fic­tion edi­tor of The Paris Review. His nov­el Red Love was recent­ly pub­lished as an e‑book. He will be blog­ging here for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

The reis­su­ing of my nov­el about Julius and Ethel Rosen­berg, Red Love, as an e‑book this month is a joy­ful moment for me. When the book came out, the Holo­caust his­to­ri­an Lucy Daw­id­ow­icz, a month before she died, wrote that This is a nov­el that rep­re­sents life and is true to his­to­ry, com­bin­ing imag­i­na­tion with the doc­u­men­tary record, writ­ten with bite and black humor, tem­pered by com­pas­sion for the betrayed sac­ri­fices, the lives lost.” Elie Wiesel wrote that my book has fas­ci­nat­ing events and amaz­ing perception.”

I remem­ber as a small boy in Queens how the sky seemed to dark­en for me when I heard of the Rosen­bergs’ exe­cu­tion. It was an event I could not get out of my mem­o­ry. Soon I would be drawn to the Amer­i­can Com­mu­nist Par­ty. I felt a kin­ship for these well-read, cul­tured and pas­sion­ate souls who yearned for a kinder, more com­pas­sion­ate world. As I learned more about Stal­in’s crimes and anti-Semi­tism, it was incon­ceiv­able to me that these peo­ple who I so admired, who had so much human­i­ty and love for their fel­low man, revered a sys­tem that even Niki­ta Khrushchev admit­ted in 1956 was bathed in the blood of tens of mil­lions of peo­ple. The USSR allied itself with Hitler dur­ing the Hitler-Stal­in pact, mur­dered mil­lions in the Gulag, destroyed Jew­ish life in the Sovi­et Union and mur­dered the major writ­ers and artists who com­prised the Jew­ish Anti-Fas­cist Com­mit­tee. Yet I came to under­stand that for these Amer­i­can true believ­ers, the Sovi­et Union had once sym­bol­ized par­adise, where there were no such things as anti-Semi­tism, eco­nom­ic exploita­tion, pover­ty and racism. The con­tra­dic­tion between the sin­cere good­ness of the peo­ple I met in the Com­mu­nist Par­ty and the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions they pre­sent­ed for a total­i­tar­i­an régime became for me a per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al puz­zle to resolve.

In the 1980s I set out to write about the Rosen­berg case and returned to the Com­mu­nist Par­ty milieu. I met and inter­viewed the liv­ing per­son clos­est to the Rosen­bergs, Mor­ton Sobell, who was tried with them in 1951 of con­spir­a­cy to com­mit espi­onage for the Sovi­et Union. I inter­viewed his wife, the late Helen Sobell, Ethel Appel, the sis­ter of Julius Rosen­berg, his­to­ri­an Nathan Glaz­er, who’d writ­ten about the case, scores of Com­mu­nist Par­ty activists, Bayard Rustin, civ­il rights leader and a for­mer mem­ber of the Young Com­mu­nist League, Her­bert Apthek­er, his­to­ri­an and Com­mu­nist Par­ty leader, and almost a hun­dred oth­ers. Since I had not lived through the Depres­sion and the rise of Nazism in Ger­many and neo-fas­cist Amer­i­can move­ments per­son­i­fied by Father Cough­lin and Amer­i­ca First, I need­ed to under­stand the mind­set of peo­ple like Julius and Ethel Rosen­berg by search­ing out those who believed as they did, who had felt, like Com­mu­nist leader Eliz­a­beth Gur­ley Fly­nn, that Stal­in was the new Moses.” 

I did not want to echo the view­point of far right writ­ers who con­clud­ed that the Rosen­bergs and their com­rades were sole­ly moti­vat­ed by loy­al­ty to the Sovi­et Union, not oppo­si­tion to fas­cism. Being anti-fas­cist for the Rosen­bergs and Mor­ton Sobell was insep­a­ra­ble from being pro-Sovi­et at that time. I came to under­stand that the utopi­an view of the USSR deeply appealed to Jews grow­ing up in the Depres­sion, fright­ened by the seem­ing col­lapse of cap­i­tal­ism, grad­u­al­ly learn­ing of the exis­tence of con­cen­tra­tion camps and of Hitler’s plans for the Final Solu­tion. The only hope seemed to be the Sovi­et Union, which bore the brunt of the fight­ing against fascism. 

Dur­ing the same peri­od, I worked as a writer/​researcher for the Anti-Defama­tion League focus­ing on far right and far left orga­ni­za­tions. That expe­ri­ence fur­ther con­sol­i­dat­ed my under­stand­ing of the ways in which total­i­tar­i­an visions inter­con­nect­ed. And with the help of the ADL, I trav­eled to Israel and Switzer­land to inter­view the fam­i­ly of Peretz Mark­ish, the great Yid­dish poet and a Com­mu­nist true believ­er mur­dered by Stal­in and beat­en to death in the pris­ons of the NKVD. For me the real­i­ty of Mark­ish’s fate under­scored the sad para­dox and irony of what Com­mu­nist true believ­ers were endur­ing in the Sovi­et Union at the same time their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts were devot­ing their lives to cel­e­brat­ing Sovi­et justice.” 

Julius and Ethel Rosenbeg
And so I set out on a jour­ney of under­stand­ing. I con­clud­ed that I would not deny the guilt of the Rosen­bergs or Mor­ton Sobell, but I would not deny their human­i­ty either, the facts of how Amer­i­can Com­mu­nists put them­selves on the front lines in the strug­gle for civ­il rights in the South and for bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions. Nor would I ignore the forces of the anti-Semit­ic far right on Amer­i­can soil that were the oth­er side of the coin dur­ing those ter­ri­ble years. And far from Amer­i­can shores, I would doc­u­ment a twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry that gave us both the Final Solu­tion and the Gulag. We need­ed a more nuanced under­stand­ing of the Rosen­bergs with­in the con­text of those ter­ri­fy­ing times. The Rosen­bergs were not the saints their sup­port­ers imag­ined them to be, but they did not deserve to be exe­cut­ed or demo­nized either.

When Mor­ton Sobell con­fessed in 2008 that he had, indeed, spied for the Sovi­ets and admit­ted that so had Julius and Ethel Rosen­berg, I was not at all sur­prised. I knew from my meet­ings with Sobell in 1982 that, in the silences between his words, (and some of his actu­al words as well) that he was guilty. I wrote of him with com­pas­sion and affec­tion in Red Love, and felt very for­tu­nate that the insights I brought to my book came part­ly from the under­stand­ing he gave me. 

I believe that Red Love is sat­u­rat­ed with a love and under­stand­ing of my char­ac­ters — even if laced with humor and irrev­er­ence — an under­stand­ing that came from immers­ing myself for ten years in the lives of the Amer­i­can Com­mu­nists who expe­ri­enced events and times that I nev­er went through and who con­veyed that his­to­ry to me. As a result, as Lucy Daw­id­ow­icz wrote, the read­er of Red Love grieves for the many thou­sands whose years were squan­dered on false hopes, betrayed ideals, mes­sian­ic delusions.”

Read more about David Evanier here.