Helen Levitov Sobell, who fought unsuccessfully to save the lives of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, then waged a massive and protracted campaign to free their co-defendant--her husband, Morton--from prison after his conviction in the notorious Cold War-era trial, has died.
A tenacious and intellectually vigorous woman who overcame polio in her youth and earned a doctorate at 62, Sobell died April 15 in a Redwood City, Calif., nursing home after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 84.
In 1951, she devoted herself to one of the most unpopular causes of her day: keeping the Rosenbergs out of the electric chair at the height of McCarthyism. After they became the first Americans executed for espionage, she focused her efforts on Morton Sobell, charging that the evidence against him was manufactured and that his 30-year sentence symbolized the excesses of Cold War mania.
“She tried to make sure her husband wasn’t the forgotten man,” said William Wolf, a New York film critic who handled publicity for the National Committee to Secure Justice for Morton Sobell, which his wife headed.
She organized mass meetings, led picketers outside the White House and traveled widely to solicit support, earning endorsements from such luminaries as Bertrand Russell and Pablo Picasso. She raised an estimated $1million for her husband’s fight, which included eight unsuccessful appeals.
She conducted these campaigns in defiance of the norms for women in the 1950s, balancing her activism against raising two children and struggling to maintain a relationship with her husband.
“She was always a survivor.... She really was able to invent herself,” said her daughter, Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, an early childhood expert who lives in the Bay Area.
Sobell is also survived by a son, Mark Sobell of Menlo Park, five grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, a sister and two brothers.
Born in Washington, D.C., Sobell trained as a teacher. In 1938, she married Clarence Darrow Gurewitz, a Communist Party member, and became a mother a year later. During World War II, she worked in Washington as a technician for the Bureau of Standards.
Her unhappy marriage to Gurewitz ended in divorce in 1945.
That year she married Sobell, who had been a radar expert in the Navy. They moved to New York City, where their son was born and Helen Sobell returned to school. She earned a master’s in physics from Columbia University in 1950 and worked at Reeves Instrument Co., where her husband was employed in secret military projects.
Both Sobells had been involved in radical politics as members of the Young Communist League and had friends and relatives who were members of the Communist Party. However, at Reeves, each had signed a loyalty oath denying any Communist connections.
By 1950, the House Un-American Activities Committee was intensifying its search for subversives in the government and leaders of the American Communist Party were being arrested. Having perjured themselves by signing non-Communist affidavits, the Sobells knew they could be indicted.
At the close of the school year in 1950, they decided to take the family on a vacation to Mexico, where they would ponder the future. Shortly after their arrival, they learned of the arrest of Julius Rosenberg, Morton Sobell’s friend and former classmate, on charges that he belonged to a Soviet spy ring. Ethel Rosenberg’s arrest soon followed. Sure that Morton Sobell’s connection to the Rosenbergs would surface, the Sobells decided to return to the States and face the uncertainties ahead.
But their plans for a peaceful return were dashed on the evening of Aug. 16, 1950, when Mexican agents burst into their Mexico City apartment and kidnapped Morton Sobell. He was transported to Texas, where he was arrested on charges that he conspired with the Rosenbergs to commit espionage.
He was linked to the Rosenbergs by two pieces of evidence: the testimony of a former neighbor, and his flight to Mexico.
At trial he was overshadowed by the Rosenbergs, who were denounced by the judge as atom spies and sentenced to die.
Before their deaths, Helen Sobell threw herself into the activities of the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case. She appealed for clemency, addressed rallies, lobbied opinion-makers and raised money for activities such as the publication of the entire record of the Rosenberg-Sobell trial.
She apparently was so effective that prison authorities told Morton Sobell they would not ship him to Alcatraz, which was reserved for the most vicious criminals, if his wife would stop agitating for the committee. “Helen was a thorn in their sides,” he wrote in “On Doing Time,” his 1974 memoir.
She led demonstrators outside the White House until the moment the Rosenbergs were electrocuted at Sing Sing prison, on June 19, 1953.
After their deaths, she devoted herself to winning her husband’s release.
Although the Rosenbergs’ guilt remains a topic of contentious debate 50 years later, analysts today say the case against Morton Sobell, based largely on the word of one witness, was flimsy at best.
The petite dark-haired Helen Sobell took her husband’s case to the court of public opinion, traveling around the world to garner support--and being ejected from France twice in the process.
Although her bout with polio made walking painful, she marched outside the White House many times to plead for presidential intervention. “A question, Mr. President--why haven’t you freed my innocent husband?” read one of her placards. Another time, referring to the Jewish day of atonement, her sign read, “Mr. President: Today Is Yom Kippur ... Free My Husband, Morton Sobell!”
She was involved in prison reform, winning one of the few exceptions to the prohibition on visits from inmates’ children at Alcatraz in the late 1950s, when their school-age son--a toddler when his father was arrested--was finally permitted to see him.
She also garnered some publicity when she petitioned federal prison officials for a conjugal visit so that she and her husband could conceive another child. “I think it is a human and natural request,” she said at the time. The petition was denied.
Her activism incurred the scrutiny of the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover. Through the Freedom of Information Act, she obtained many pages of her extensive FBI file, which revealed the agency’s machinations against the Sobells, including attempts to weaken their marriage by informing Morton Sobell of her infidelities.
The effort failed, however, because the FBI did not know that the Sobells had agreed that she could take on lovers while he was in prison.
In his memoir, Sobell wrote candidly of the pressures on their marriage and how they maintained their ardor through letters that one warden deemed “too erotic” for the prisoner’s good. His frankness about how they managed to be intimate, even when separated by glass panels, shed light on the emotional life of a prisoner but also “hurt her very badly,” Clemens, her daughter, said.
The Sobells’ marriage broke up in 1980, 11 years after Morton Sobell was ordered released from prison by a U.S. Court of Appeals. He had served 18 years, with credit for time served.
The year the marriage ended, Helen Sobell earned her doctorate in computer education from Teachers College at Columbia University. She moved to San Francisco in 1981 and taught briefly at Contra Costa College.
She also was active in the Gray Panthers of San Francisco and a group called Options for Women Over 40 until about 10 years ago, when she began to show signs of Alzheimer’s.
Morton Sobell, who remarried and lives in San Francisco, acknowledged this week that his wife’s prolonged efforts did not shorten his time behind bars, but “sometimes the fight is the thing,” he said. Although he wouldn’t characterize his former wife as the fighting type before his arrest, “she developed into one. ... There are people who rise to the occasion and she was one of them.”