Desserts,  Interesting Stories

Cheesecake and Spies

A few months ago, amid news of a national cream cheese shortage, Kraft offered consumers $20 as reimbursement for making a non-cream cheese dessert. I don’t know how many people took Kraft up on their offer, but it was a clever marketing strategy that reminded me of the way manufacturers in World War II had to advertise products that were not available to consumers due to rationing.

This advertisement from the April 1943 issue of Ladies Home Journal for Parkay margarine highlights wartime shortages – shortages that are once again familiar to consumers during the pandemic.

With cream cheese shortages in the news, I decided to dig into the history of the New York style cheesecake instead. As New York City is noted for its cheesecake, I hoped local newspapers might provide some clues. Instead, I found a World War II spy ring.

New York Times, December 3, 1943

This headline in the December 3, 1943, issue of the New York Times immediately caught my attention. Food and espionage do not usually appear in the same sentence.

I was familiar with the infamous Jell-O box that helped convict Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, of espionage in 1951. Members of the spy ring, which included chemist Harry Gold and theoretical physicist Klaus Fuchs, cut the ends of a Jell-O box into pieces that the spies could match to confirm their identities. A copy of the Jell-O box, used as evidence at the Rosenberg trial, is housed in the National Archives in New York City. I had never heard of cheesecake being used for espionage though.

The story goes like this – in January 1943, Paul Grohs and Frank Grote, two German-born American machinists living in New York City, were arrested for espionage. Grohs had immigrated to the United States in 1928 and became a citizen in 1936. He lived in Queens with his wife and young daughter. Grote immigrated to the United States in 1925. After working as a machinist, he opened a photography studio in 1930.

In September 1940, Carl Reuper, posing as an undercover Gestapo agent, recruited Grote and Grohs to produce microfilm of industrial blueprints, drawings, and other documents. Reuper was a naturalized German immigrant who worked as an inspector for the Westinghouse Electric Company in Newark, New Jersey. He was also part of a much larger spy operation known as the Duquesne spy ring, a group of German spies engaged in industrial espionage and sabotage. The ring operated out of New York City. With evidence supplied by double agent William Sebold, the FBI arrested 33 members of the ring late in the summer of 1941. Nineteen pled guilty. The remaining were tried and convicted on December 13, 1941. The conviction came six days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

When Grote and Grohs were arrested in January 1943, both pled guilty to charges. The pair made microfilm for Reuper from September 1940 to June 1941, shortly before Reuper’s arrest. Newspaper reports about their activities come from their testimony in a December 1943 federal trial of four other German spies involved with the ring. Grohs testified that he collected papers to be photographed from a bakery on Second Avenue in Yorkville, a neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. According to the New York Times he “identif[ied] himself as an agent of the ring by giving his name and ordering a cheesecake.” He would be given a cheesecake and a packet of papers to photograph.

The Washington, D.C. Evening Star reported that Reuper provided Grohs and Grote copies of stolen papers. After picking up the shipment, the pair created microfilms of the documents at Grote’s commercial photography studio in the Bronx. Grohs then dropped the microfilm at a nearby bookstore, where they were picked up by other agents. The microfilms measured only one-half inch by one-quarter inch, making them easy to smuggle out of the country.

Grohs and Grote were sentenced to fifteen years. The New York Times reported that Federal Judge Grover M. Moscowitz “said the defendants would have received the death penalty if their offense had not occurred before Pearl Harbor.”

Grote appealed the sentence in 1944, claiming that Grohs told him the drawings were for a device to de-ice planes that a friend had invented. The friend needed photographs of the plans to send to the U.S. Patent Office. The Circuit Judges of the Eastern District Court of New York dismissed this version of events. They believed there was “no doubt” that Grote knew the documents were being sent to Germany. Furthermore, when arrested in January 1943, Grote had cooperated with the FBI and voluntarily signed two sworn statements. As Judge Augustus N. Hand wrote in the decision:

Even though we had not then declared war with Germany, the European war had been going on for nearly two years, we had begun to arm and the impropriety of furnishing patented devices for airplanes to the German government was obvious. The facts pointed far more strongly to guilt than to such an incredible stupidity as might make an innocent intent possible.

United States v. Grote, 140 F.2d 413, 414-15 (2d Cir. 1944)

Historical research often leads to more questions than answers. I wonder what happened to Grohs and Grote. I couldn’t easily find additional information about them. Presumably they served their sentences and returned to their families. What was their motivation? Grohs claimed that Reuper threatened to harm relatives in the U.S. and Germany if he would not cooperate. Grote’s later defense was that he didn’t know what he was doing, but that doesn’t seem to be the whole story. How many people were involved in similar spy rings? At least four other defendants were tried in connection with Grohs and Grote’s crimes, but I would need to do additional research to learn if the ring extended farther. And of course, there is the most pressing question of all: what did he do with the cheesecake?

Newspapers and archival records can easily lead researchers down rabbit holes. My original questions about New York cheesecake remain unanswered. I’ll revisit them in a future post, and I will happily leave this topic to other historians. If you are interested in learning more about Nazi spy activity in the United States before World War II, I highly recommend Steven J. Ross’s book Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America (Bloomsbury, 2017).

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