Max Elitcher was born into a Jewish family in New York City on 1st September 1918. He attended Stuyvesant High School, where he became friends with Morton Sobell. In 1934 Elitcher became a student at the City College of New York where he studied engineering. (1)
In 1938 Elitcher and Sobell found work at the Navy Bureau of Ordnance in Washington, where they shared an apartment. According to Elitcher, both men joined the local Communist Party of the United States group. In September 1941, Sobell left the Navy Bureau to study for a master's degree at the University of Michigan. Over the next few years they saw each other infrequently. Litcher married a fellow member of the CPUSA in 1943.
In June 1944 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". (2)
At the beginning of September 1944, Elitcher and his wife went on holiday with Sobell and his fiancée. 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."
Elitcher claimed that he rejected the idea of being a Soviet spy. A telegram from Stepan Apresyan dated 26th July 1944 gave details of Rosenberg's approach: "In July ANTENNA (Julius Rosenberg) was sent by the firm for ten days to work in CARTHAGE (Washington). There he visited his school friend Max Elitcher, who works in the Bureau of Standards as head of the fire control section for warships... He has access to extremely valuable materials on guns... He is a FELLOWCOUNTRYMAN (member of the Communist Party)... By ANTENNA he is characterized as a loyal, reliable, level-headed and able man. Married, his wife is a FELLOWCOUNTRYMAN. She is a psychiatrist by profession, she works at the War Department. Max Elitcher is an excellent amateur photographer and has all the necessary equipment for taking photographs. Please check Elitcher and communicate your consent to his clearance." (3)
According to NKVD agent, Alexander Feklissov, attempts to recruit Elitcher ended in failure: "Julius said that many people, Morton Sobell among them, were helping Soviet Russia by passing on secret information on war materials. He asked Max to join him, but Elitcher did not respond one way or the other... Rosenberg and Sobell tried recruiting Max again after I had left the United States. They were far from anticipating how their insistence would be detrimental to their own future." (4)
Max Elitcher was approached again by Julius Rosenberg in September 1945. Rosenberg told Elitcher "that even though the war was over there was a continuing need for new military information for Russia". Elitcher claimed that he said "I would let him know". The following year he was in Schenectady on business and stayed overnight at the home of Sobell. They discussed their jobs and Elitcher told Sobell he was working on a new gunnery control system. Sobell unsuccessfully tried to get information from Elitcher on this new system.
Sobell asked Elitcher in 1947 if he "knew of any engineering students or engineering graduates who were progressive, who would be safe to approach on this question of espionage". The following year Elitcher was investigated by the Office of Naval Intelligence as a possible member of the Communist Party of the United States. (5) In order to retain his government employment, he falsely signed a federal loyalty oath in which he lied about his Communist Party membership.
When Max Elitcher decided to quit his job at the Navy Bureau of Ordnance in Washington, in June 1948, Rosenberg tried to dissuade him as "he needed somebody to work at the Navy Department for this espionage purpose." When Elitcher refused to stay on, Rosenberg suggested that he get a job where military work was being done. However, he refused and moved to New York City.
Morton Sobell, a qualified electrical engineer, was now employed on military work at Reeves Instrument Company in Manhattan. In July 1948, Max and Helen Elitcher stayed with Sobell and his wife in Flushing, while house hunting. One night Elitcher drove Sobell when he delivered a "35-millimeter film can" to Julius Rosenberg who was living in Knickerbocker Village. On the way back Sobell told him that Rosenberg had discussed Elizabeth Bentley, the Soviet spy who had provided information to the FBI.
Max and Helene Elitcher decided to buy a house close to the one owned by Sobell: "The Elitchers bought a house in Flushing, Queens, on the street next to the Sobells'. The two small brick houses were located back-to-back, with easy access through unfenced abutting yards. Max obtained a job at the Reeves Instrument Company, where Morton already was employed. The two men regularly drove to work together; the women shared a jointly purchased washing machine kept in the Sobell basement." (6)
On 16th June, 1950, David Greenglass was arrested. The New York Tribune quoted him as saying: "I felt it was gross negligence on the part of the United States not to give Russia the information about the atom bomb because he was an ally." (7) The New York Daily Mirror reported on 13th July that Greenglass had decided to join Harry Gold and testify against other Soviet spies. "The possibility that alleged atomic spy David Greenglass has decided to tell what he knows about the relay of secret information to Russia was evidenced yesterday when U. S. Commissioner McDonald granted the ex-Army sergeant an adjournment of proceedings to move him to New Mexico for trial." (8) Four days later the FBI announced the arrest of Julius Rosenberg. The New York Times reported that Rosenberg was the "fourth American held as a atom spy". (9)
As soon as he heard the news Morton Sobell, his wife, and two children, traveled to Mexico City and went into hiding. At the end of July, 1950, FBI agents visited Max Elitcher at work. At the time, several former classmates and other associates of Rosenberg's were being questioned and were under surveillance, so there is no reason to assume that Elitcher was regarded initially as an outstanding suspect. However, Elitcher crumbled under questioning and offered to inform on his friends if he was not prosecuted for spying. The FBI put him in touch with Oetje John Rogge, who was also representing David Greenglass. Sobell was arrested on 16th August.
The trial of Morton Sobell, Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg began on 6th March 1951. Irving Saypol opened the case: "The evidence will show that the loyalty and alliance of the Rosenbergs and Sobell were not to our country, but that it was to Communism, Communism in this country and Communism throughout the world... Sobell and Julius Rosenberg, classmates together in college, dedicated themselves to the cause of Communism... this love of Communism and the Soviet Union soon led them into a Soviet espionage ring... You will hear our Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Sobell reached into wartime projects and installations of the United States Government... to obtain... secret information... and speed it on its way to Russia.... We will prove that the Rosenbergs devised and put into operation, with the aid of Soviet... agents in the country, an elaborate scheme which enabled them to steal through David Greenglass this one weapon, that might well hold the key to the survival of this nation and means the peace of the world, the atomic bomb." (10)
The first witness of the prosecution was Max Elitcher. Saypol asked him whether Julius Rosenberg visited him in 1944 in Washington: "Yes, he called me and reminded me of our school friendship and came to my home. After a while, he asked if my wife would leave the room, that he wanted to talk to me in private. She did. Then he began talking about the job that the Soviet Union was doing in the war effort and how at present a good deal of military information was being denied them by some interests in the United States, and because of that their effort was being impeded. He said there were many people who were implementing aid to the Soviet Union by providing classified information about military equipment, and so forth, and asked whether in my capacity at the Bureau of Ordnance working on anti-aircraft devices, and computer control of firing missiles, would I turn information over to him? He told me that any information I gave him would be taken to New York, processed photographically and would be returned overnight--so it would not be missed. The process would be safe as far as I am concerned." (11)
According to the authors of Invitation to an Inquest (1983): "At the trial, Elitcher had to be led frequently by Saypol as he told a story that was vague and improbable. He claimed that Rosenberg and also Sobell had on a number of occasions invited him to engage in espionage activities and that they had continued these requests sporadically over a four-year period - despite the fact that he never had turned over a single scrap of information to them." (12) The New York Daily News reported: "Elitcher left trial observers with the impression that his must have been a masterpiece of equivocation and temporizing, since the first pressure was put to him in 1944... He was still resisting suggestions from Sobell and Rosenberg, he asserted... in 1948." (13)
The only evidence against Morton Sobell was Elitcher's story about the visit to see Julius Rosenberg in July 1948, when he was living in Knickerbocker Village. He described the "35-millimeter film can" that Sobell was carrying but he admitted that he did not know what, if anything, the can contained, nor had he actually seen Sobell deliver it to Rosenberg. Elitcher was unable to say if Sobell gave Rosenberg any information that was secret.
Morton Sobell did not take the stand at the trial. He later this had been a mistake: "I wanted to testify on my own behalf at my trial. I did not do so because my trial attorneys insisted that I should not, because (i) of the fact that the case that the prosecution had put in against me was so weak that my innocence was clearly established; and (ii) that it was so clear that I had nothing to do with any atomic espionage conspiracy.. that it would necessarily follow that I would be freed... I now know I should have insisted on telling my story." (14)
In his summing up Judge Irving Kaufman was considered by many to have been highly subjective: "Judge Kaufman tied the crimes the Rosenbergs were being accused of to their ideas and the fact that they were sympathetic to the Soviet Union. He stated that they had given the atomic bomb to the Russians, which had triggered Communist aggression in Korea resulting in over 50,000 American casualties. He added that, because of their treason, the Soviet Union was threatening America with an atomic attack and this made it necessary for the United States to spend enormous amounts of money to build underground bomb shelters." (15)
On the morning of Thursday, 29th March, 1951, it was rumoured that one of the jurors was uncertain about the guilt of Morton Sobell. Eventually, the jurors - the dissident vote among them resolved - returned to the courtroom. The jury found all three defendants guilty. Thanking the jurors, Judge Kaufman, told them: "My own opinion is that your verdict is a correct verdict... The thought that citizens of our country would lend themselves to the destruction of their own country by the most destructive weapons known to man is so shocking that I can't find words to describe this loathsome offense." (16) Judge Kaufman sentenced Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the death penalty and Morton Sobell to thirty years in prison.
After the conviction of Morton Sobell, Elitcher's lawyer, Oetje John Rogge, arranged for the FBI to provide him with help in finding future employment: "The attorney's memo stated that Elitcher desired formal assurance from the appropriate authorities that they would help him to obtain the security clearance essential to his future employment in his specialized engineering field. It suggested that a letter addressed to Elitcher's prospective employers he secured from the Department of Justice or the FBI, stating that they would testify on his behalf at any subsequent security investigation." (17)
Max Elitcher died aged 91 on 28th March 2010.
In July ANTENNA (Julius Rosenberg) was sent by the firm for ten days to work in CARTHAGE (Washington). There he visited his school friend Max Elitcher, who works in the Bureau of Standards as head of the fire control section for warships... He has access to extremely valuable materials on guns... He is a FELLOWCOUNTRYMAN (member of the Communist Party)... By ANTENNA he is characterized as a loyal, reliable, level-headed and able man. Married, his wife is a FELLOWCOUNTRYMAN. She is a psychiatrist by profession, she works at the War Department. Max Elitcher is an excellent amateur photographer and has all the necessary equipment for taking photographs. Please check Elitcher and communicate your consent to his clearance.
BLOCH: As a matter of fact, from your own story on direct examination, you rejected all overtures on the part of anybody to try to enlist you in stealing information from the Government; isn't that correct?
ELITCHER: Well, I didn't reject them. I went along. I never turned over material, but I was part of it, I mean, it was part of the--I was part of discussions concerning it until I948.
BLOCH: Did you at any time tell him that you would turn over material to him?
ELITCHER: Well, I said that I might and I didn't say I would not turn over information, I said that I might....
BLOCH: Did you ever sign a loyalty oath for the Federal Government?
ELITCHER: I did.
BLOCH: Do you know the contents of the oath you signed and swore to?
ELITCHER: I signed a statement saying that I was not or had not been a member of an organization that was dedicated to overthrow the Government by force and violence. I don't remember whether the statement specifically mentioned the Communist Party or not.
BLOCH: At the time you verified that oath, did you believe you were lying when you concealed your membership in the Cornmunist Party?
ELITCHER: Yes. I did.
BLOCH: So you have lied under oath?
BLOCH: Were you worried about it?
BLOCH: AS a matter of fact, didn't you leave the Government service to try to get a job in private industry because you were afraid you rnight be prosecuted for perjury?
ELITCHER: That is not the entire reason for my leaving.
BLOCH: But that was one of the substantial reasons?
ELITCHER: I would say, yes.
(1) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 121
(2) Max Elitcher, testimony at the trial of Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell (March, 1951)
(3) Stepan Apresyan, telegram to Moscow (26th July 1944)
(4) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 133
(6) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 324
(7) The New York Tribune (17th June, 1950)
(8) New York Daily Mirror (13th July, 1950)
(9) New York Times (18th July, 1950)
(10) Irving Saypol, speech in court (6th March, 1951)
(11) Max Elitcher, testimony in court (March, 1951)
(12) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 326
(13) New York Daily News (9th March, 1951)
(14) Morton Sobell, statement (September, 1953)
(15) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 268-269
(16) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 153
(17) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 327