Helen Sobell, who fought to save Ethel and Julius Rosenberg from the electric chair and free her husband, Morton Sobell, from a 30 year prison term – all three framed on bogus “atom spy” charges – died this past April 15 in Redwood City, Calif. She was 84.

Family, friends, and comrades-in-arms gathered at the San Francisco Women’s Building June 7 to remember her heroic struggle during the depths of Cold War repression. A similar memorial is planned in New York City next fall.

During that “scoundrel time,” thousands were being hauled before witchhunt hearings, losing their jobs to the blacklist and the lies of paid stoolpigeons. FBI spying, harrassment and intimidation had wrapped the nation in a blanket of fear. The capstone of the hysteria was the charge that the Soviets had “stolen the secret” of the atomic bomb.

“Her major gift to this country is that she spoke truth to power at a time when people were afraid to speak out,” said her daughter Sydney Gurewitz Clemens of San Francisco. “She faulted herself for the rest of her life that she did not succeed in saving the Rosenbergs.” The couple were executed at Sing Sing the night of June 19, 1953, still proclaiming their innocence. Morton Sobell served 18 years in prison.

“She could not save the Rosenbergs but she did something bigger: she gave a voice back to the movement,” Clemens said.

She was born Helen Levitov in Washington, D.C., March 13, 1918. She contracted polio at age 17 and was bedridden for a year. She graduated from Wilson Teachers’ College and in 1938 married Clarence Darrow (Casey) Gurewitz and gave birth to a daughter, Sydney. During World War II she worked at the Bureau of Standards as a spectrometer technician. She divorced Gurewitz in 1945 and married Morton Sobell.

The family moved to Schenectady, N.Y., where both were employed at General Electric. Helen studied physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of only seven women on the campus. In 1947, they moved to New York City, where she continued her studies at Columbia University, earning an MS degree. In 1949, a son, Mark, was born to the Sobells.

In June of 1950, the family was kidnapped by gunmen during a visit to Mexico and returned to the U.S. Morton Sobell was charged together with the Rosenbergs with “conspiracy to commit espionage.” All were tried and found guilty in a frenzied witchhunt atmosphere.

Sydney remembers her mother as a quiet, modest person. “If history had not intervened in her life, she would have been a research scientist, not a public person,” she said. But in the face of Cold War frameup, Helen Sobell plunged into the life of a political organizer, leading the Rosenberg-Sobell Committee. For 18 years she addressed meetings, spoke with opinion-makers, directed picketlines, organized press conferences and coordinated a large network of volunteers demanding freedom for her husband and truth in the Rosenberg case. She was a target of FBI spying and harassment, documented in her files, which she obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Her struggle bore fruit in 1969 when Morton Sobell was freed. The marriage ended in divorce.

Helen Sobell returned to Columbia University, earning her doctorate in computer education in 1980. Soon after, she moved to San Francisco, teaching briefly at Contra Costa College. She was active in the San Francisco Gray Panthers and Options for Women Over Forty.

She is survived by her children, five grandchildren, two great grandchildren, a sister, Dr. Edith Garduk of Bethesda, Md., two brothers, David Levitov of Silver Spring, Md., and Joseph Levitov of Boca Raton, Fla.

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