I remember we agreed to meet that Sunday morning. June of 1953.
We had decided on a coffee shop on Remsen Street. I was late, and Julia sat alone in a booth when I arrived. Her eyes were wet, her hands pale and small as she smoothed a newspaper. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had four days left on earth, scheduled for execution in Ossining.
Julia’s first words were a plea for me to read the news story aloud. She confessed she had been sitting there for twenty minutes. She scanned the headline over and again, unable to bring herself to read on.
“Sure, if you want me to.”
She spun the paper around to face me. The edges were frayed. I read the first paragraph before she interrupted me.
“Please, no more,” she said softly. “How can they? My God, how can they?” She looked around the shop. Most every table was taken. Julia searched out faces under the petite hats and wide-brimmed fedoras. She fixed her gaze on diners in casual conversation, as if talking at such a time was an etiquette breach.
“Julia, you have to let go of this. They were found guilty.”
“How can I? They’re innocent.”
“You don’t know that, Julia.”
“I believe they didn’t do this. Do you believe in anyone, Peter?”
We had met six months earlier. A New Year’s Eve dance. Julia was happy that night, laughed with her girlfriends when she wasn’t dancing with me. She said she was Jewish, and that she had lived in Brooklyn since she was fifteen. That she had come to the States after the war.
Julia’s English was accented, guttural. Her eyes blue and sad. We talked for hours. She said she liked the way I looked. She said I had neither a handsome nor a dumb appearance. She said I was rather awkward. Too many knees and elbows to be dangerous, if I remember correctly. I liked her right away.
During the next months, we spent our time winding through the city like tourists. Museums, the Statue of Liberty, even the zoo. She told me how she worried for the animals abandoned in the zoos during the war. How the shelling destroyed their enclosures, leaving them to run free in the streets, uncared for, exposed to the elements.
How could I not fall for someone who worried about animals in the rain?
“Of course, I do. You know that. It’s just this obsession is…”
“Obsession? Peter, they’re going to die if somebody doesn’t do something. If I don’t do something.”
Julia’s preoccupation with the Rosenberg’s had begun long before we met. For three years she had followed the espionage claims, the arrests, the trial. Their death sentences. She had protested for their release in front of the Manhattan courthouse. She gave money for their defense. She cried at the verdict. By June, I knew it was best to distract her when she became overwhelmed. “Let’s go.” I paid for her coffee, then reached for her hand. “Leave the newspaper.”
It was not yet noon. The heat was building. We walked without purpose. Julia’s eyes followed the pavement. She kept her bare arms wrapped around her. Our path drifted toward the riverfront. I knew we looked to be an odd pair. Julia was rather petite, with soft brown hair. I was blond, and nearly six foot three. Julia tucked neatly under my arm.
It must have been Flag Day. A large American flag hung quietly between the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge. We walked without a word until we reached the promenade. We began to weave through the people. Always a crowd on Sundays. We found a bench that faced the East River and we stared at the uneven spires in lower Manhattan. “We huddled like that when it got cold,” she said, before she turned away from the river.
“Peter, it is not an obsession. You know better than to say such a thing to me.”
Julia’s voice was steady. She was right, I did know better, or should have assumed as much from what she had told me. It had been six months since those midnight church bells rang above us. Our first good night kiss. Since then, Julia shared much with me. Gradually, in halting starts, and unfinished thoughts.
Her parents were gone, vanished in the same death camp in which she had somehow survived. “When we got off the train, they split us up. I never saw them again.”
I first thought her youth had given her the strength to get through the three years. She said she was fourteen when she and the other survivors awoke on a snowy spring morning to find themselves abandoned by their captors. Free to move beyond the barbed wire and into the woods. She thought of them a caravan of lost souls.
Julia told me they walked for miles, aimlessly, not knowing they would soon be on another journey. One of displacement, dislodged from everything and most everyone they had previously known. For Julia, that meant a year’s journey through Allied red tape that finally brought her to a great aunt, her grandmother’s sister, and a resuscitated life in Brooklyn.
“I’m sorry, Julia. Is there anything left to do?”
“We’re going to petition the President again — for clemency. We have thousands of signatures already. If we can just convince him…”
“Julia, that was denied months ago.”
“Yes, but we have to try again. I have to do something.”
I changed the subject. I asked about her job. A new department store, on Flatbush. She said she was happy there. Ladies’ shoes. We talked for a while, her eyes often pulling away from the conversation. To the people.
The promenade was now filled with Sunday strollers, and boys on bicycles, and couples behind baby carriages. Behind us, two old men played chess across a concrete table. I asked her about her medication. For nervous tension, she had told me.
“It’s fine. I’m fine. Why do you bring that up? I shouldn’t have said a word to you. Why do you bring that up? I mean, now. Is it something I did? Something I said earlier? Because, I am fine. I think it’s because of the Rosenberg’s.”
“No, no. That’s not it. It’s nothing. It’s just that you were upset.”
“I’m upset for a reason,” she said. And with that, Julia let me know that it would be best if she walked home alone.
I stopped by her store on Monday. At lunchtime, when I knew she would have time to talk. She was pleased to see me, or so she said. We talked, and she smiled brightly, and kissed me goodbye. “Tomorrow night. Remember, seven-thirty.”
The meeting was crowded. Rows of small wooden folding chairs. A flat-topped brick building near the Brooklyn waterfront. Most of the people there were young, some even younger than Julia and me. There was lots of chatter before the meeting. A nervous energy in the room.
We were below street level, two small windows barely reached above the sidewalk. A large man with a mustache and a wrinkled black suit was positioned at the room’s entrance. Inside, the room was dark and cloudy. Cigarette smoke, mostly.
A few older men held their pipes, thoughtfully. There were mostly men, but more than a few women mingled through the crowd. Some of the younger members held copies of the Daily Worker.
We spotted a plywood stage. On it, a worn oak lectern and a gray microphone. The stage was built against the back wall. Julia moved to the front row of the folding chairs and sat down in the first seat.
The initial speaker was a tall man with round eyeglasses and a weak voice. He spoke for a while. He was narrow in the shoulders and his suit hung awkwardly. He hunched forward as he spoke, and he explained that the situation was urgent. He said that time was dwindling for us to have an authority intervene to save the couple’s lives. When he finished, he quickly introduced Julia. He called her a group leader.
Julia moved to the podium and craned the microphone downward. She began slowly. She spoke clearly and evenly, at first. Then her passion seemed to lift her. Her small body straightened. She backed away from the microphone, almost projecting to the hundred or so people without assistance. She pleaded for the Rosenbergs. She railed against the charges against them. “This is a blight on our liberty. A disgraceful act of betrayal to us all,” she said.
Julia then calmed her voice and spoke evenly about the important events that had occurred to the day. She looped her hair behind her ears, then spoke of prosecution, before she spoke of persecution. Julia gripped the neck of the microphone, and in a booming voice as loud as I’d ever heard her shout, Julia denounced “this rancid atmosphere for liberty.”
I hadn’t sat with her. I stayed at the back of the room while she was at the lectern. My height allowed her to see me above the crowd. For twenty minutes, I leaned in the doorway and listened carefully. As she searched out each face gathered there, I did the same. I was as moved as those faces were. I went up to the stage when she finished. I couldn’t deny a sense of pride to have her with me, tucked under an arm.
“You know, Peter. I know you’re only holding me for safety. My friends aren’t used to having tall blond Germans around,” she laughed.
Julia always teased me about being German. She’d call me “Herr Peter.” Or she’d ask if I was certain I didn’t have relatives that fought in the war. “And I mean on the wrong side, Peter.” When she was annoyed with me, it was much worse.
The truth was, my parents moved here right after the first World War, left no family behind. Had me in the depths of the depression in thirty-one. The only thing I knew about Germany was what my parents told me about how it was before all the turmoil. A Germany that was beautiful. Peaceful, until it wasn’t.
I knew nothing of Nazi’s, or Hitler, or war. All that didn’t matter when Julia had bad dreams, or violent flashbacks, images of the camp, the guards, that were somehow triggered without warning. She’d say, “listen to me, my Nazi friend,” and then would go on and on about the atrocities of the camps. I thought listening without interrupting would help her heal.
After we left the basement hall with the others and had filed out onto the sidewalk, we stopped to scan the street. There was only one street light nearby. No parked cars seemed out of place. We headed home.
Thursday brought a stay of execution by the Supreme Court. It lasted a single day, and the executions were rescheduled for Friday. The Rosenbergs were set for execution at eleven p.m. When their lawyers argued for a delay, that it was the Jewish sabbath, the judge moved the execution time up to eight o’clock. Before sundown.
I met Julia Friday afternoon at her aunt’s apartment. She still lived there. We talked about marriage the month before, and I had wanted to do it right away. City Hall was easiest. I told Julia I didn’t believe in big weddings. She asked me if I believed in anything. We decided to wait.
There had been discussion among the members of her group about going to Washington. “A last-minute plea. We’ll be together with thousands of the others rimming the White House fence,” imagined Julia. I didn’t want to go all the way to Washington.
I had started as a copy editor at the Brooklyn Eagle. I liked my job. Julia looked at me incredulously. “Peter, there are two lives at stake.” Ultimately, it was decided that New York was best. Julia and me, and four of her friends made the trip to Sing Sing.
The heat remained intense as evening approached. I had never been certain about the Rosenberg’s innocence, but I protested as loud as the others. Hundreds of us had assembled along the roadside, in the shadow of the prison. Many of us stood with placards. Some of the cars honked in support. Others shouted as they passed. They cursed us as Commies. Some threw stones. One tossed an egg. It splattered across the face of a devilish Joseph McCarthy holding a pitchfork.
Julia encouraged many in the throng to chant. Her arms moved above her in a rhythmic motion. I watched her blue eyes flash as the sun began to dip behind the stone walls of the prison. The protestors grew in number and we yelled louder, angrier, as the time neared. We heard that a last-minute plea for leniency, written by Ethel Rosenberg in her cell, was brought to the White House by her lawyer. He was turned away by the guards.
Julius went first. Then Ethel. They had to do it twice. The Times said smoke curled from her head.
It was an odd thing. When news had filtered among the protestors that it was all over, Julia was quiet. We had tossed the placards to the side of the road. Some placards bore vile messages, drawn afterward. A few people wouldn’t leave. They held hands and prayed in the dark at the road’s edge.
Julia didn’t stir the entire ride back to Brooklyn. The others talked of more protests. There would be a funeral, thousands would attend the burial. Julia kept her head turned to the window.
I stayed inside that entire weekend. I sat in front of my kitchen window fan and read newspapers and sipped coffee. Julia told me she slept until Monday morning.
The pall over Julia lifted by the end of the summer. She was still filled with politics — the H-Bomb, the HUAC hearings, all of it. But she had also turned toward me. The truth was, up until that summer, I felt like an appendage. I think she saw me as a comfortable companion. To bring along to listen, to immerse in whatever she was doing. I didn’t mind so much, but her new focus made everything better.
We were together. We rode the ferry. We ate quiet dinners on small café tables. I grew up Catholic. I took her to church. She stopped me on the steps of the church and hooked my arm. “Peter, this isn’t going to work,” she said.
So, we went to the movies. I sang to her after we saw The Bells of St. Mary’s. Bing Crosby with a bad cold, I crooned in between stanzas. We ate popcorn and sat in the balcony. We fell asleep on one another’s shoulder. We talked about us.
“Peter, I’ll marry you. But no children. This place is too screwed up.” I knew what she meant — by “this place.” And I said I agreed. I felt, in time, I could change her mind.
We were married in November. In City Hall. Her aunt and two friends were there, and we all went out for a quiet lunch afterward. A small Italian restaurant, not far from the bridge. Julia went on and on throughout dinner. About how happy she was, about anything at all. I struggled with the spaghetti, then grinned like an idiot for the rest of the day. Her aunt wore a tight smile the entire afternoon, one hand rubbing Julia’s back in a soft circle. “My sweet little Julie,” she repeated.
We had rented a small apartment, not far from her aunt. Julia didn’t want to leave the neighborhood. “This is who I am, Peter. Besides, my aunt’s two blocks away.” I had wanted to find a place in Manhattan. I had a new job. A small promotion. But her aunt appeared to be in frail health. We stayed in Brooklyn.
That winter, time moved uneventfully. We were engrossed like all newly marrieds: in furniture, joint checking accounts, time alone. We saved for a honeymoon. But on a Tuesday afternoon in March, Julia showed up at her aunt’s apartment, unexpectedly. Her aunt called me at work, asked me to hurry over, to see Julia. When I arrived, Julia was quiet, but it was obvious she had been crying. She twisted her long brown hair into a braid that she kept tightening.
“I don’t want to go back there.”
“Julia, do you mean our place?
She nodded. She kept twisting. We stayed for another hour. By then she had calmed. She was fine going home. I let it go. It had been months since she had taken that nervous tension medicine that doctor on Ocean Parkway had prescribed. Julia said she didn’t need it any longer, once we were married.
By the time we returned to our apartment, Julia seemed to be back to her old self. “I’m fine Herr Peter. Really. Do you want coffee?” Julia walked into the kitchen and placed a pot on the stove. She then poured a cup for herself and left it on the counter. She walked by me and went into the bathroom. I heard the lock turn.
Minutes later, there was the sound of metal rattling against the tile floor. I called out to Julia to find out if everything was all right. There was no answer. I called a second time. Again, nothing, so I went to the door. “Julia. Julia, are you okay?”
I tried the door knob, knowing it was locked. I called out a last time. “Julia, answer me.” I laid my shoulder against the wood and pushed. Pieces of the door jamb splintered and landed on the bathroom floor next to Julia’s feet. She was naked, sitting on the edge of the bath tub. Her work dress was torn, in a pile beneath the toilet. Her wrists were bright red. The black-and-white tile squares littered with drops of blood.
Julia’s head was down. She stared at her wrists. “He looks just like you.”
I ran to the kitchen and I grabbed the white dish towels from the drawer. I tore two down the middle. I tied them to her wrists as tight as I could manage, before I ran into the hallway.
“Please, help!” I called to the other three closed doors on our floor. I yelled for help up and down the stairwell. Then I went inside and dialed the operator. When I went back into the bathroom, Julia hadn’t moved. The bandages had soaked through. She flipped her hands over and back again. There were rivulets of red that ran the length of her fingers and finally onto the floor.
“It’s true. You look just like the son-of-a-bitch.” She started to hyperventilate. “Tall, big smile on your fucking Nazi face.”’
“Jesus, honey. Please don’t talk. Don’t move.” I sat next to her. I tried to hold her still. I squeezed her arms at the elbows.
“I never told you. You never knew, you bastard. But I killed it. You didn’t know that, did you? Fucking killed it!” She was growing frantic. It was hard to hold her still.
“What are you saying? What are you saying, Julia?”
“That one. That one over there. That bitch who looks like a crone.” Julia laughed. It was a cackle. “Don’t you see the fucking irony, you bastard. I had her do it.” Julia stared at nothing. She went on. I couldn’t calm her.
“Remember what you said. That you could do anything? That I couldn’t do anything. That I was nothing. Vermin? You remember the snow, the blood?” She was in tears. She screamed. “You pig! I’m only fourteen. I’ll kill you. Juden. Juden kills Nazi pig!”
Julia tried to pull at the towels tied to her wrists. She was hysterical, and it continued. It went on, even though our neighbors had run into the apartment. It went on even though the ambulance attendants, their white uniforms dotted with red, squatted next to her. It went on even though Mrs. Moskowitz stood in our bathroom doorway and sobbed. Tears for Julia, and a million others, I knew then.
Julia was in the hospital for a month. The cuts looked worse than they were. They weren’t deep, and she hadn’t known to cut lengthwise. Most of the time was for a psychiatric hold. Most of the time she refused to eat. When she returned home, she had lost nearly twenty pounds. The doctors called it a psychotic break. The trauma, or series of traumas had festered.
The discharging psychiatrist had taken me aside, said it could be an isolated episode, or it could be chronic, progressive. No way to tell, he said. “Have her in my office twice a week. “We’ll see how she responds.”
Julia never did return to work. I had no choice but to ask her aunt to move in with us. I needed to work, and even with my new salary, we barely managed to get by. As the months passed Julia had no recurrences, but she seemed to grow more subdued. I made sure she kept all her doctor’s appointments.
Julia still read some. She watched the news on television, but she liked the radio more. She rarely spoke of politics. She rarely spoke of much of anything at all.
I tried to reach her. We both did. Her aunt spoke of her parents, how she remembered them as children many years before, before the first war, she said. How they had all been close. Julia seemed to like those stories.
I tried to make her laugh. I even danced around our tiny living room and blew a paper party horn. We yelled at McCarthy when we saw him on television. I made a ruckus, stuck out my tongue and she’d smile. I bounced up and down on the sofa and chanted, “asshole. asshole.” I hoped for more than a glimmer. I pined for an earlier time, and how we used to speak to one another. Our words unprotected, like animals in the rain.
By the following year, Julia was rarely responsive. Her doctor had grown very fond of her. He was delighted the few times Julia became engaged when provoked during a session — only to fall away again. Slumped into that ugly brown leather chair he provided to his patients.
When Julia’s aunt passed there was no longer a choice for me. I had to let her go. I packed her things and set them by the door. Julia paid no attention. She concentrated on the geranium that sat in a small terra cotta pot on our window sill. “You may not know this now. But it’s for the best.”
I lost Julia in the summer of 1957. She lived for many years after that, but that was the last time she was with me, even if it was just for the moment. My visits had become less frequent, and by then it was nearly impossible to reach her.
The doctors in the facility said she had involuted over time. Turned almost completely inward, one explained. Most of what she did manage to say was incoherent. There were times when she would seem to resume a conversation that we had had years before, only to disappear again without warning. I tried to hold onto those afternoons, even if they were meaningless to Julia.
I talked non-stop each time I visited her. I hoped to draw her out. It was all so long ago that it’s become a blur, but I do remember the last time she spoke to me. I was in the middle of my patter. I mentioned that Joe McCarthy had passed away. I thought his name might kindle something. There was no response. As I was about to leave, I turned to her, to let her know I would see her the following Tuesday. Julia sat in that stiff chair she liked, smoking a cigarette. She was in front of the tall windows of that big sun room. I remember her face was tired, her profile framed by the wide green lawn outside.
“Don’t you believe in anything, Peter?” she asked.