The gates of Fort Monmouth closed for the last time on Sept. 15, 2011. But for some members of Monmouth County’s Jewish community, there remain open wounds inflicted during the Red Scare and anti-communist — and some believe anti-Semitic — witch hunts of the 1950s.
The injured parties were Jewish scientists and Signal Corps employees at the U.S. Army base whose only crime was their last names.
In the March/April 2011 issue of Moment magazine, its editor and publisher Nadine Epstein writes of “The Other Rosenbergs” — as many as 41 Jews who were investigated, dismissed, blacklisted, or ostracized in the wake of the arrest and prosecution of the famous spies, Ethel and Julius.
On Dec. 1, Epstein, a former Asbury Park resident, returned to the area for a talk at Monmouth University in West Long Branch that was attended by a large number of community residents and local students. Epstein described her research and the pain victims of the witch hunts still feel more than a half-century later.
With the outbreak of World War II, the population at Fort Monmouth grew from 150 to more than 14,000 employees, many of them Jewish scientists recruited from colleges in New York City.
The influx of young Jewish families into the largely rural county joining the Jewish residents in the shore communities sparked a new wave of anti-Semitism, but nothing could have prepared a select group of Jewish scientists for the purge and investigation that would lead to their dismissal, reinstatement, and eventual persecution by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1953, Epstein said. Dismissed from the Signal Corps as “communists,” many Jewish civilian employees of Fort Monmouth were ostracized not only by the military but by members of the local Jewish community as well.
Epstein said her connection to Fort Monmouth runs through her father, Seymour Epstein, who began working as a physicist at the fort in 1950. He was a colleague of the “other Rosenbergs and Kaplans” who were targeted by the Army and FBI in their investigations, said Epstein. Her father was not a target of the investigation and “never spoke about it,” she said.
Epstein’s interest in the story was sparked by a chance encounter with Eva Rosenberg, now 93. Her late husband, former civilian Air Force employee Milton Rosenberg, was dismissed and prosecuted in 1950 for being a communist and a danger to national security. Rosenberg, who was a fierce anti-communist and Republican, was eventually exonerated but the damage to his career and name had been done.
Epstein’s article took more than three years to research and publish, primarily due to the unwillingness of those still alive to speak about their experience on the record for the first time. Some of the individuals involved in the original investigation at Fort Monmouth are still traumatized from their experience. While the opportunity to finally discuss what happened to them was cathartic, the wounds still feel fresh to some.
“Some of them were afraid they would lose their pensions if they told their story,” said Epstein, who read from the FBI files on the accused, which were rife, she said, with the flimsiest of evidence. Audience members gasped when Epstein pointed out that not only were the men falsely accused, they were even falsely identified; it was “guilt by association” with anyone who had a name that sounded “Jewish,” like “Rosenberg” or “Kaplan.”
The Jewish community, with the exception of two local attorneys, Ira Katchen and Harry Green, failed to come to the defense of the accused, she said; they were afraid to stoke the fires of anti-Semitism in the area. Many of the targeted families felt ostracized by members of their own community.
Epstein said she firmly believes that “not all of the story has been told,” and that “the time may finally be right for the community to have a conversation — a conversation about what really happened at Fort Monmouth, and how the Jewish community dealt with it at the time.”