Morton Sobell (April 11, 1917 – December 26, 2018) was an American engineer who is known for having been convicted of spying for the Soviet Union when it was an ally of the United States during late World War II; he was charged as part of a conspiracy said to include Julius Rosenberg and his wife, and others. Sobell worked on military and government contracts with General Electric and Reeves Electronics in the 1940s, including during World War II. Sobell was tried and convicted of espionage in 1951 and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Sobell during a visit to East Germany in 1976
|Born||April 11, 1917|
New York City, U.S.
|Died||December 26, 2018 101) (aged|
New York City, U.S.
|Criminal status||Released after 18 years|
(m. 1945; div. 1980)
(m. 1993; died 2018)
|Children||1 son and 1 stepdaughter|
|Criminal charge||Conspiracy to commit espionage|
|Penalty||30 years imprisonment|
He was released in 1969 after serving 17 years and 9 months in prison. After that he became an advocate of progressive causes, conducting public speaking and traveling to Vietnam during the war, to East Germany before the fall of the Soviet Union, and to Cuba.
Morton Sobell was born in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents Louis and Rose Sobel, who came in 1906 from the small village of Belozerka, Russian Empire (today in Ukraine). He attended public schools and Stuyvesant High School. He graduated from the City College of New York where he received a degree in engineering.
According to NKGB agent Alexander Feklisov, Sobell was recruited as a spy in the summer of 1944, during World War II when the Soviet Union had become an ally of the United States. "Sobell... was deferred from active military service because he was a top specialist in his field... When I asked him if he could microfilm his own documents, he replied it was not a problem since he knew photography quite well. At our next meeting I brought him a camera with the necessary accessories and a small stock of film."
In June 1944, Max Elitcher claimed he was phoned by Julius Rosenberg, whom he had known slightly at college and had not seen in six years. Elitcher later recalled: "I remembered the name, I recalled who it was, and he said he would like to see me. He came over after supper, and my wife was there and we had a casual conversation. After that he asked if my wife would leave the room, that he wanted to speak to me in private." Rosenberg allegedly said that many people were aiding the Soviet Union "by providing classified information about military equipment". Rosenberg said that Morton Sobell was "also helping in this".
At the beginning of September 1944, Elitcher and his wife went on holiday with Sobell and his fiancée Helen Levitov. Elitcher told his friend of Rosenberg's visit and his disclosure that "you, Sobell, were also helping in this." According to Elitcher, Sobell became very angry and said "he should not have mentioned my name. He should not have told you that." Elitcher claimed that Rosenberg tried to recruit him again in September 1945. Rosenberg told Elitcher "that even though the war was over there was a continuing need for new military information for Russia."
In 1945 Sobell married Helen Levitov (1918–2002), who brought her daughter Sydney Gurewitz, born during her previous marriage. The new couple soon had a son Mark together.
After David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother, was arrested on charges of espionage, Sobell and his family fled to Mexico on June 22, 1950. He fled with his wife Helen, infant son Mark Sobell, and Helen's daughter Sydney from her previous marriage. They lived under assumed names. Sobell tried to travel to Europe, but without proper papers he was not able to leave. On August 16, 1950, Sobell and his family were abducted by armed men, taken to the United States border and turned over to the FBI. The FBI arrested him for conspiring with Julius Rosenberg to violate espionage laws.
There were many questions raised by progressive intellectuals about the Rosenberg and Sobell cases. He was tried and found guilty along with the Rosenbergs, and sentenced to 30 years. Both the Rosenbergs were executed. His wife Helen Sobell had worked with others to have the Rosenbergs spared from execution. She continued to work for more than 15 years to gain her husband's freedom. She contributed to eight appeals of his conviction on the merits, but these were unsuccessful. During this time, she taught science at the private Elizabeth Irwin School, a private high school in Greenwich Village. Sobell was initially sent to Alcatraz, but was transferred to another Lewisburg Penitentiary when that prison closed in 1963.
Sobell was released in 1969 after serving 17 years and 9 months. It was seven and a half months before he was eligible for parole because the Circuit Court of Appeals gave him credit for the time he was in jail after his arrest and before his trial. His bail had been set at $100,000, which he could not raise.
Sobell turned 100 in April 2017.
Sobell as political cause
Sobell's purported innocence became a cause among progressive intellectuals, who organized a Committee to Secure Justice for Morton Sobell. In 1978 the Corporation for Public Broadcasting produced a television special that maintained Sobell was innocent of the government charges. The Monthly Review maintained that the government had presented "absolutely no proof" of Sobell's guilt, but had tried him merely "to give the impression that an extensive spy ring had been in operation."
In 1974, Sobell published a memoir, On Doing Time, in which he maintained that he was innocent and that his conviction was a case of justice being subverted to serve political goals. After his release from prison, Sobell went on the speaker circuit, regaling audiences with his account of being falsely prosecuted and convicted by the federal government.
Admission of guilt
In September 2008, the National Archives released most of the grand jury testimony from the prosecution of the conspiracy case against the Rosenbergs and Sobell, in response to a suit by the National Security Archive, historians and journalists.
Sobell, then 91, was interviewed at the time about the case, as he was the only surviving primary figure. For the first time, he told The New York Times that he had given military secrets to the Soviets during World War II when it was an ally of the United States and bearing the brunt of German attacks. He made the distinction that he had passed only material about defensive radar and artillery devices. This was the first time he had acknowledged these actions. Reporter Sam Roberts said that military experts contended that one device Sobell mentioned in the interview was used later against US military aircraft during the Korean and Vietnam wars. By that time the Cold War was long underway and the Soviet Union was considered an enemy of the US. Sobell also said that his co-defendant Julius Rosenberg had been involved in spying, but his wife was not.
Like the Rosenbergs, at the time of the events for which he was tried, Sobell was a committed communist. In 2018 he told the Wall Street Journal, "I bet on the wrong horse."
Personal life and death
In 1945, Sobell married Helen Levitov. She brought her daughter, Sydney Gurewitz, from her first marriage, and the couple had a son Mark together. They divorced in 1980. Helen Sobell died in 2002.
In 1990, Sobell met Nancy Gruber. They married in 1993 and he survived her death in 2018. They lived in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Sobell died at the age of 101 on December 26, 2018. He was the last-surviving member of the Rosenberg spy ring.
- Evanier, David. 'The Death of Morton Sobell and the End of the Rosenberg Affair', online Mosaic, June 3, 2019.
- 1920 United States Federal Census; Bronx Assembly District 7, Bronx, New York. National Archives and Administration.
- Morton Sobell article Archived 2009-04-29 at the Wayback Machine - University of Missouri-K. C. School of Law
- Ranzal, Edward (January 15, 1969). "Morton Sobell Free As Spy Term Ends". New York Times. Retrieved July 7, 2008.
Morton Sobell, sentenced to 30 years for a wartime espionage conspiracy to deliver vital national secrets to the Soviet Union, was released from prison yesterday after serving 17 years and 9 months.
- Alexander Feklisov (1999). The Man Behind the Rosenbergs. Enigma. p. 132. ISBN 978-1-929631-08-7.
- Max Elitcher, testimony at the trial of Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell (March 1951)
- Saxon, Wolfgang (April 27, 2002). "Helen L. Sobell, 84, Leader Of Effort to Spare Rosenbergs". New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2008.
Helen Levitov Sobell, a voice in the struggle to spare Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and free their co-defendant, Morton Sobell, her husband, died on April 15 in Redwood City, Calif. She was 84. She had long been in declining health, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, said her daughter, Sydney Gurewitz Clemens.
- Debbie Lord (June 19, 2017). "Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: Why were they executed? Would it happen today?". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved July 7, 2017.
- William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America, by David J. Langum, 1999, p. 383
- "New Questions On Rosenberg Case", Sidney E. Zion, New York Times, August 28, 1966
- "Did Morton Sobell Get a Bum Deal?" Hartford Courant, June 3, 1968
- "TV: 'Rosenberg-Sobell Revisited' Offers New Thinking on Spy Case," John J. O'Conner, New York Times, June 19, 1978
- "Refusing to Cooperate", by Lawrence Kaplan, Monthly Review, September 2001, http://www.monthlyreview.org/0901kaplan.htm
- Sobell, Morton, On Doing Time, 2001
- Reflections on Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment, by George Anastaplo, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007, p. 253
- "Letters", The Nation, April 2, 2001.
- Roberts, Sam, "Figure in Rosenberg Case Admits to Soviet Spying", The New York Times, 11 September 2008
- Evanier, David (June 22, 2018). "'I Bet on the Wrong Horse,' Says an Unrepentant 101-Year-Old Spy". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved June 24, 2018.
- "Helen Sobell, 84; Activist Fought to Save Lives of Rosenbergs". Los Angeles Times. April 24, 2002. Retrieved November 18, 2011.
- "Helen Sobell, ex-husband was convicted spy". San Francisco Chronicle. April 19, 2002. Retrieved November 18, 2011.
- Evanier, David. "The Death of Morton Sobell and the End of the Rosenberg Affair". Mosaic. Retrieved June 4, 2019.