Nearly three years ago, I met a 90-year-old woman from Cleveland named Eva Rosenberg who told me her story—and that of her late husband Milton Rosenberg. In 1950, one month after Julius Rosenberg was arrested for spying for the Soviet Union, Eva’s husband and his colleague, Sidney Rosenberg—neither of whom were communists or had any association with Julius Rosenberg—were both dismissed from their engineering jobs at the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. These were innocent men—with the wrong name at the wrong time in the wrong place—who had to fight to redeem their reputations—and their jobs. They eventually got their positions back, but neither spoke publicly about what had happened. Eva Rosenberg remains afraid—even after all these years—that bringing this story to light might lead the federal government to revoke her insurance and pension.
I was struck by what she told me. Much has been written about the McCarthy era, but little has been published about the civilian technicians, engineers and scientists who were dismissed at Fort Monmouth before then. I also couldn’t help but notice the location. You see, my father was a physicist at a Signal Corps lab at Fort Monmouth. The federal investigations into a potential communist infiltration there took place almost in my backyard—albeit before I was born. No one had ever mentioned the investigations that had significantly affected our local Jewish community: not my parents, my teachers or our rabbi. Even as a teenager, I had never really connected the dots between what I learned in history class to the labs where my father worked.
As I researched this story, I stumbled on myriad personal connections. I learned that the Rosenberg families’ pediatrician was also mine. I found that I had gone to high school with children who shared the same last name of the informant who had brought Milton and Sidney Rosenberg to the attention of the FBI. And when I mentioned to my father that I was working on a story about innocent Rosenbergs, he—for the first time—told me that he knew a number of the men and women who had been targeted. He had been afraid to draw attention to himself because, like Julius Rosenberg, he had attended City College, studied physics and was Jewish. To make it worse, his father—my grandfather—was a socialist.
That led me to ask my mother—an active member of our temple’s Sisterhood and Hadassah who eventually became the executive director of the Monmouth County Jewish Community Center—what she knew. She explained that some of our neighbors from Asbury Park had been forced to testify before McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee, and that she had been friendly with their wives and their attorneys.
Only after reading FBI files and other documents and interviewing people who lived through this period, have I come to understand why I heard nothing about these investigations growing up: The intensity of the fear and shame that they inspired, coupled with an overwhelming urge to leave this terrible moment in history behind, was too strong. Certainly, my years working on this story have left me with a deeper understanding of the political and social currents underlying my childhood.
Beyond the personal, this story provides a detailed look at what life was like for the Jews who worked for the Signal Corps, a history that is still unfolding but is in danger of being forgotten. On a historical level, it provides a different prism through which to view a sordid episode in 20th-century American history.