You would hope that the passage of fifty years might have cleared the passions that once inflamed the Rosenberg case. The end of the cold war has cooled the ideological battles, and many of the factual questions that once divided the parties seem to have been resolved. Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy; the evidence against Ethel was flimsy; judge and prosecutor were overzealous and broke the law themselves. So now maybe the personal issues at the center of the dramatic case might be examined.
This is the task that Robert Meeropol, the younger of the Rosenbergs’ two sons, has taken on in his earnest memoir, An Execution in the Family, published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the execution. His subject is his parents’ political and psychological legacy, and his efforts to come to terms with it. The writer’s manner and position at once command sympathy and respect. For Meeropol has led a worthy life, now as the head of a foundation, called the Rosenberg Fund for Children, that helps children of activists who have been targeted by the law. A man who loves the company of children and mistrusts the state has found the right job.
It wasn’t easy getting there.
He was 3 and his brother 7 when their parents were jailed in 1950. The Rosenbergs’ extended family shunned the boys, and they spent months in a shelter before landing in the upper Manhattan home of Abel and Anne Meeropol, who were members of the Rosenbergs’ Old Left community. The Meeropols adopted the boys and brought them up in a loving and generous way. As a youth, Robert Meeropol says, he faced two great challenges. One was being identified as a Rosenberg son, something that could destroy his privacy and deeply complicate his life. He deceived even close friends till his mid-20s, when he joined a lawsuit against the author Louis Nizer over Nizer’s use of Rosenberg letters in a book on the case. On June 19, 1973, the twentieth anniversary of their parents’ deaths, Robert and Michael Meeropol identified themselves publicly.
The other challenge was political. All four of his parents were Old Leftists, Abel Meeropol so die-hard he was unfazed by revelations of Stalin’s crimes. “I sprang from that party-line tradition,” Robert writes. Yet he also rebelled against that tradition, with its emphasis on disciplined, peaceful organizing among the working class, gravitating toward the revolutionary spontaneity of the New Left. In the late 1960s he took part in militant actions at the University of Michigan. Abel Meeropol was fearful about the risks Robert was taking. “I’m afraid I’ll never see you again,” he said, and before long the author, by then married and forming a very stable family of his own, came to share his fear. In the end he chose to continue his radical political activities, but in a legal way. “My childhood experience had fostered a political ethic that was at the core of my being…. I needed to be a troublemaker.”
This book, however, is subtitled “One Son’s Journey,” and the deeper quest here is of a psychological and spiritual character. Perhaps inevitably, Robert and Michael Meeropol became heirs to their parents’ effort to establish their innocence. In 1975 the boys published the book We Are Your Sons, combining their own stories with excerpts of their parents’ jailhouse letters, and asserting that the Rosenbergs had been framed because their radical political beliefs had elicited McCarthyite hysteria. For a time, Robert gave public lectures demolishing the government’s evidence point by point.