The Son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Writes of An Execution in the Family

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June 19, 2003, marks the 50th anniversary of the executions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for "conspiracy to commit espionage." Although the highly publicized case has always been referred to as a trial for treason and high-level atomic espionage -- passing the secret of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union -- those crimes were not charged. No one has ever proven that the Rosenbergs, left-wing, Jewish parents of two young boys, living on the lower east side of Manhattan, passed any classified materials of any kind. Theirs has been the only capital conspiracy case in the United States since the Civil War.

Their story has elements of operatic intensity -- Ethel and Julius Rosenberg died by electrocution after Ethel's brother and his wife, David and Ruth Greenglass, told the FBI that Julius and Ethel had recruited them into their spy network. The Greenglasses saved their own lives by accusing members of their family with crimes that warranted the death penalty. Sparing no hyperbole, President Eisenhower intoned, "The Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world." Many thousands of people worldwide, including Albert Einstein and Pope Paul XII, petitioned for their clemency. Four appeals to the Supreme Court were denied but days before the scheduled execution, Justice William O. Douglas granted a stay on the grounds that the couple might have been tried under the wrong law, a legal avenue never pursued. The next day, the entire Supreme Court was hurriedly called back for a special session and voted six to three to immediately vacate Douglas' stay so that the executions could proceed. On Friday afternoon, June 19, 1953, the Court announced their decision and Eisenhower once again refused to grant clemency, so officials at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, hurriedly prepared for the executions to be conducted prior to sundown, out of respect for the Jewish Sabbath. Time was so short that the Rosenbergs were not given the traditional last meals before their consecutive executions.

Half a century later, the Rosenberg case continues to generate passion and controversy. As various classified documents are released and examined, new theories have emerged. Much of the emotion of their trial and its outcome has always focused on the couple's two children, Michael, who was 10 at the time of the execution, and Robert, who was six. In those few moments in 1953, the boys lost both parents, their former lives, and acquired permanent renown as "the Rosenberg children."

Robert Meeropol, nee Rosenberg, has written An Execution in the Family: One Son's Journey (St. Martin's Press) that "is a product of my parents' case, [but] is not primarily about it." Meeropol is the founder and executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC), an attorney, anti-death penalty activist, and speaker.

BTW interviewed him by telephone at the RFC office in Easthampton, Massachusetts.

You and your brother are Meeropols. Why not Rosenbergs?

When our parents were arrested in 1950, we were passed around to relatives, friends, and even a children's shelter in the Bronx. I describe the different situations in the book. There was little stability, and we were very unhappy. Abel and Anne Meeropol offered to adopt us in 1950, but my parents didn't want us to go with people they didn't know. In late 1953, our parents' attorney and our guardian, Manny Bloch agreed to the adoption but then died suddenly before the transfer of legal guardianship was completed. The adoption was contested by some conservative groups, and we were removed from the Meeropol's home and sent to an orphanage temporarily. Eventually we were adopted and immediately took their name. A psychologist advised Abel and Anne that this would minimize questions by outsiders about our backgrounds and help to create a normal family life.

I think of both sets of people as my parents but I only spent my first three years in the Rosenberg home. We had a very warm and happy home with the Meeropols. I was finally free to be a kid.

Is this the first time you have told your story?

Michael and I maintained our anonymity until 1973 when trial lawyer Louis Nizer wrote a book about the trial, publishing large sections of our parents' prison correspondence without our permission. For his own purposes, Nizer eliminated all references to my brother and me in the letters. To sue him for copyright violations and correct these misrepresentations, we had to "go public." When we finally did it, it was a relief. Since then, we have been openly involved in the effort to reopen the Rosenberg case. We were advised, in 1975, by the legal teams seeking to reopen the case, that we should write a book to circulate our parents' prison correspondence to as many people as possible. I only wrote 80 pages of the book (We Are Your Sons, Houghton Mifflin). It was really done as a package to wrap around the letters. My brother has also edited their complete prison letters [The Rosenberg Letters]. They were originally published by Garland and now Routledge is bringing them out. An Execution in the Family is the book I really wanted to write; it feels like the first.

You are founder and executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC). You've called the RFC your constructive revenge. What does the RFC do?

[The RFC] provides for the educational and emotional needs of children whose parents have suffered because of their progressive activities and who are no longer able to provide fully for their children. The RFC also provides grants for the educational and emotional needs of targeted activist youth. Targeted activists could be a whistle-blower in a nuclear power plant, an environmentalist who is harassed or attacked, or a prisoner who is placed in solitary confinement for working on a newspaper. People have a hard time believing that these things go on in this country. It's not a huge number of people, but if it happens in your family….

Grants cover any number of things -- art or music lessons, school tuition, daycare, therapy, or travel to visit an incarcerated family member. We have awarded over $1 million since its inception in 1990. When we were young, my brother and I were very fortunate to have so much support from the Rosenberg Defense Committee, Communist Party members, other sympathizers, as well as the Meeropols. They all saved us. At the RCF, we focus on American children who might be overwhelmed by the world.

Who was responsible for the execution of your parents?

There are layers of answers. On the simplest level, the person responsible was Judge Irving Kaufman who sentenced them to death. He didn't have to impose the death penalty but he was politically ambitious and thought he might ultimately get a seat on the Supreme Court, which was difficult for any Jew. Had he not sentenced my parents to death -- he knew he would never make it.

In a more general way, the death sentence was part of a government strategy to extort cooperation … if my parents said what the government wanted them to say, they could be spared. One FBI agent said years ago, "We didn't want them to die, we wanted them to talk."

Their trial and execution served the government's purposes at a time of war [in Korea]. Judge Kaufman said, "These people have done something worse than murder." What? Everyone agrees there was nothing of value stolen. At the time, there was a general policy of frightening the American people about communism. Now, after 50 years, the government is frightening people, trying to convince us that we have to give up our freedoms. They claim that if we don't, we're going to be destroyed. This book is not about history, it's about today.

Now we have big protest marches again -- take out the word communist and insert terrorists. When we step back years from now, we'll see that this looks like a massive overreach…. I think our way of life is more threatened by the USA Patriot Act than by Osama Bin Laden.

Did either of your parents do anything illegal? Were their convictions solely the result of a government frame up? Do you feel that you have vindicated them?

For many years, when speaking around the country about my parents' case, I have presented the same major points: First, my parents had not stolen the secret of the atom bomb; second, they had not committed the act they were killed for; third, the government knew this and executed them anyway; and, fourth, I could not prove that neither one of them ever had any contact with the KGB between their marriage in 1930 and arrest in 1950.

This way, I demonstrated that they were framed, but I had not proved them completely innocent. I was regularly asked by the press if I sought my parents' vindication. In the 1970s I always said yes; by the '90s, I was saying no. I wanted to force both the American and Russian governments to release all their secret files. I became an agnostic in regard to my father's involvement with the KGB. I know my mother was never involved.

From documents released in the late 1970s, I knew that David Greenglass had always maintained that my mother [his sister] was not involved in spying. From the files, I learned that weeks before the trial, in a secret meeting, government officials acknowledged the weak case against my mother, and then Ruth and David Greenglass gave the FBI a new version claiming that my mother was present at their meetings and had typed up David's handwritten notes describing the atomic bomb. On December 5, 2001, in a televised interview on Sixty Minutes II, David Greenglass finally admitted that he had lied under oath when he stated during the trial that he remembered my mother typing his notes. Even more significantly, J. Edgar Hoover, chief government prosecutor Irving Saypol and his assistant Roy Cohn, all knew at the time of her arrest that she was not an espionage agent.

Will we ever know more about the Rosenberg case?

I'm sure we will. Everybody involved with the case was very young. We may still get posthumous publishing of accounts. What comes out may or may not be accurate. So far the KGB files are largely closed so that everything from CIA and FBI files, including the Venona transcripts, are without corroboration. In 1974, we had to sue the FBI, CIA, and other government agencies to force the release of the 300,000 secret documents relating to their case. The government had to pay us $295,802.50 for our legal fees.

The current administration has stopped all FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests. There are still 100,000 pages of the Rosenberg file kept secret. Maybe they will be released. -- Interviewed by Nomi Schwartz