Ethel has long been portrayed as a cold woman, one who, as Kaufman said in his sentencing, loved communism more than her children. In reality, as Sebba reveals in her book, she was a particularly devoted mother, with a progressive interest in child psychology. Before her arrest, she regularly saw a child therapist, Elizabeth Phillips, for help with Michael and to learn how to be a better mother. During her three years in prison, she faithfully kept up her subscription to Parents magazine. But when she was arrested, all the aspirations she had harboured for giving her boys the kind of happy childhood that had been denied to her imploded spectacularly. At first the boys lived with her mother, Tessie, who made no secret of her resentment of the situation. Things got even worse when they were put in a children’s home. Eventually, Julius’s mother, Sophie, took them in, but two little boys were too much for their frail grandmother to handle. None of their many aunts or uncles would take them, either because they sided with David and Ruth, or they were scared. So they were shipped around to various families. All Ethel could do was write letters to her lawyer, Manny Bloch, desperately laying out her parenting theories in the hope they would somehow be followed (“One cannot behave inconsistently with children… ”) For the sake of the boys, she always maintained a happy front when they visited.
“We always had a good time on the prison visits: singing, talking, enjoying ourselves,” says Michael. He even used to play hangman with his father, although he didn’t realise the irony until he was an adult.
The US government said that if Julius gave them names of other spies, and he and Ethel admitted their guilt, their lives would be spared. The Rosenbergs issued a public statement: “By asking us to repudiate the truth of our innocence, the government admits its own doubts concerning our guilt… we will not be coerced, even under pain of death, to bear false witness.” On 16 June 1953, the children were brought to Sing Sing prison in New York State to say goodbye to their parents. Ethel kept up her usual brave appearance, but on this occasion Michael – who was 10 and understood what was happening – was upset by her outward calm. Afterwards, Ethel wrote a letter to her children: “Maybe you thought that I didn’t feel like crying when we were hugging and kissing goodbye huh… Darlings, that would have been so easy, far too easy on myself… because I love you more than I love myself and because I knew you needed that love far more than I needed the relief of crying.” On 19 June, Ethel and Julius wrote their last letter to their children: “We wish we might have had the tremendous joy and gratification of living our lives out with you… Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience. We press you close and kiss you with all our strength. Lovingly, Daddy and Mommy.” Just after 8pm that day, the Rosenbergs were executed. They were buried on Long Island, in one of the few Jewish cemeteries that would accept their bodies.