Friday, September 5, 2003 | return to: local


Rosenbergs were ‘good Jews,’ attests Danville centenarian

by dan pine, Bulletin Staff

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Harry Steingart looks damn good for 101.

He dresses nattily every day, his tie knotted crisply in the collar of a freshly pressed shirt. He walks with a cane, but doesn't really need it. His hair is more silver than white, his eyes dimming but not dimmed.

Even a recent stroke, which left his speech slightly slurred, has barely slowed him down.

Steingart's rooms at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville are the quarters of a busy man. His desk is littered with mail, business cards and notes to himself, the latest issues of Newsweek and The Economist opened to stories of interest.

As engaged as Steingart remains, the story of greatest interest to him is a personal one that few have heard. It's a story he desperately wants told before his days, which he knows are numbered, run out.

A lifelong progressive, Steingart once counted among his friends an attractive Jewish couple from New York.

Their names: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, arrested 60 years ago this month, convicted of espionage and executed at the height of the Cold War.

"They were good Jews," says Steingart in a strong voice. "They were loyal to the people of the world, not the warmakers. If not for them, I might not be alive right now." Steingart's friendship with the infamous couple makes for an intriguing tale, interweaving several momentous 20th century themes.

But Steingart's story begins on the first day of the last century, still officially listed as his birthday. (He was actually born in Poland on Sept. 15, 1902.)

Arriving at Ellis Island in 1906 and speaking only Yiddish, Steingart and his family settled first on Hester Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side. In time, Steingart's father built a lucrative construction business.

During World War I, young Steingart worked the shipyards, assisting the stevedores and riveters. "I did 52 kinds of jobs," he says of his checkered career, "from dishwasher to watchmaker to switchman."

Though he came from a progressive family -- his father was a friend of labor unionist Samuel Gompers -- Steingart learned a big political lesson when white goons attacked a group of black co-workers at the shipyards. He sided with the black workers and took his lumps for it.

Steingart went on to earn an engineering degree from Columbia. In the 1920s, it was hard for Jews to get decent work, particularly in Steingart's field. For one job, he bluffed his way in by saying he was Lutheran. "They didn't see me nude," he says laughing.

He finally landed a position with Emerson Radio, and in 1928, married the daughter of a Tammany Hall boss. "Before the crash," remembers Steingart, "I became a rich man with a 70-foot yacht."

During the Depression, he lost the boat but kept afloat with a WPA job as a chief engineer in Brooklyn, making $60 a week.

Steingart's brush with poverty further galvanized his politics. He remained a loyal Democrat, often voted socialist and co-founded a union, the FAECT (Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians). As a union man, he occasionally let his temper get the better of him, twice landing in jail for tussling with scabs.

Over the ensuing years, he earned a Ph.D. in economics, worked in a variety of civil engineering posts around the country and remarried.

He also met a highly personable electrical engineer in 1937, a young man by the name of Julius Rosenberg.

"He was a bright guy," recalls Steingart, "and his wife was even brighter."

He and his wife Sylvia, the love of his life, would often visit the couple in their East Side apartment, as the Rosenberg toddlers ran about. "Ethel had a beautiful singing voice," he says. "They were a very happy couple."

In 1949, Steingart applied for a job at a top secret plutonium plant in Oregon. Temporarily without a permanent address, he listed on his resume the Rosenberg's residence as his own. Around the same time, he also gave some of his furniture to the Rosenbergs. (The FBI would later claim the couple bought the furniture "with Moscow gold.")

Those simple actions turned out to be big mistakes.

Though Steingart had no direct knowledge of the Rosenberg's espionage activities, he'd had many political conversations with the couple, both of whom had been members of the Community Party.

"Julie told me that if the U.S. alone had the bomb, America would try to rule the world," says Steingart. "The Cold War would become a hot war and millions would die."

The Rosenbergs were arrested in August 1950 at the height of the "Red scare." The couple's trial, conviction and string of appeals dragged on for years, eventually becoming a worldwide cause celebre.

But for Steingart, not only did he lose two friends, he also faced an FBI investigation. That inquiry stalled when he told his interrogators he would plead the Fifth. Meanwhile, prosecutors approached first Ethel, then Julius Rosenberg with a list of names, all suspected "subversives."

Steingart's name was on that list.

The Rosenbergs were promised life in prison rather than execution if they would confirm the listed names as Soviet spies. Both, says Steingart, affirmed they would prefer to die.

Steingart's wife was one of the top leaders of a movement to save the Rosenbergs. Pablo Picasso sent a pen-and-ink portrait of the couple to the Steingarts; the original is now with a niece, while Steingart proudly shows off a high-grade copy.

The Rosenbergs were put to death in June 1953, both martyrs, according to Steingart.

The second half of the 20th century saw Steingart continue his career, relocating permanently in the Bay Area, watching the turbulent decades come and go.

He remained politically active, working with the ACLU and other organizations for years. He was also an accomplished amateur photographer. Sadly, Sylvia was stricken by Alzheimer's in 1989. She died some years later. The couple had no children.

Time, even a lot of it, has not mellowed the man. He remains as angry as ever about the state of the world.

"Today, we have fascism in America," he says. "People jailed without charges, phones tapped, searched without warrants. These are violations of the Constitution."

Steingart puts his ire to good use, frequently writing letters to editors of newspapers and periodicals.

Beyond that, there isn't much for him to do, and he resents the life people his age are so often forced to live. Despite having a lovely apartment in a luxurious retirement facility, Steingart isn't happy.

"I don't enjoy life here," he says. "It's a mental death. Some days I don't want to be here, with the pain and aches. The body is old. If I couldn't read and write, I'd die."

Other days are better. And though the man claims to be secular, Steingart sustains an unbreakable spiritual bond with the Jewish people. A bond, he believes, that will outlive him.

"Who saved the world?" he asks rhetorically. "The Jews. We're .02 percent of the population, but we have 25 percent of the Nobel Prizes. I am proud of the name Steingart. I am a proud Jew."


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