Robert Meeropol was three years old and sleeping, when FBI agents invaded his home late one night, grabbed his father, formally announced that he was under arrest, cuffed him, and hurled him into the back seat of an unmarked car. The toddler did not hear his seven-year-old brother’s shrill screams, his mother’s protests, his father’s sigh of resignation. He was in that deep stage of sleep where ordinary noises and even extraordinary sounds do not penetrate, but even had he been awake his awareness would surely have been opaque.
Three-year-old children—innocents in 1950 with no exposure to media, and consciousness still on the cusp of formation—couldn’t comprehend words like “arrest” or “prison,” and no one—neither his grieving mother, his traumatized older brother, nor his devout Orthodox grandmother—wanted to clarify the “situation” to Robert. Let him remain in complete oblivion for as long as possible, was his mother’s resolve, and those who surrounded Robert on a daily basis colluded to keep up the pretense.
“All I knew was that something was terribly wrong,” recalls Robert, now 71, in a phone conversation with Ami. “Maybe I’ve suppressed the memories, but that’s all I remember. Something bad had happened, and it didn’t seem to be going away. There was this terrible dark cloud hanging over our heads and I didn’t understand what it was. All I knew was that my father was gone. The sense I had was that the bad stuff was here to stay and was only going to get worse.” His premonitions were not wrong. Less than one month later, his mother disappeared, too, rendering both Robert and his seven-year old brother Michael homeless. None of his relatives stepped forward to “take them in.” They were all too afraid to harbor the tainted sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whose alleged espionage activities on behalf of the Soviet Union—providing the “archenemy with the ability to destroy the US with atomic bombs”—was the most sensational spy case of both the McCarthy era (see sidebar) and the 20th century.
When I opened this article with the name Robert Meeropol, my assumption was that it probably would not evoke any exclamations of instant recognition from Ami’s older readers or even history buffs (just as it hadn’t struck any chords with me), because the sons’ last names were changed seven years after their parents’ arrest. During the peak of the public furor that churned around them, three-year-old Robert and seven-year-old Michael found themselves unwillingly placed in the eye of the storm, relentlessly stalked by dogged reporters and unshakable photographers, light bulbs exploding in their faces at the most incongruous of times—the children having become their parents’ proxies in the media feeding frenzy that never abated. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were behind bars and beyond reach, but their children were easy prey, deemed guilty by association, not only by journalists, but by their relatives, neighbors, teachers, classmates’ parents, and school officials. No one wanted these two children around; both by birth and by extension, they bore the burden of their parents’ now infamous names.
As a very young child, I often heard my parents murmuring the Rosenberg names over and over again—even though it was already ten years since their execution in 1953. But the case had literally seared the public consciousness, especially the Jewish one. Secular American Jews were mortified that two of their own had betrayed their country and feared reprisals of anti-Semitism; Orthodox Jews—the bulk of them Holocaust survivors—felt greatly indebted to their new country as a makom pleitah and felt it was despicable that one of us had struck America such a fateful blow. (Both Ethel and Julius came from religious homes.) Leftist Jews, however, experienced a deep divide from the majority of their co-religionists; they were both devastated and outraged at the great injustice they believed had been meted out to the Rosenbergs, who had consistently asserted their innocence of the charge of passing A-bomb secrets to Russia up until the moment when they were strapped into the electric chair. And now that they are ages 71 and 75 respectively, Robert and Michael (Rosenberg) Meeropol are on a mission to prove that neither parent was actually guilty of atomic spying (although they do concede that their father was legally guilty of a conspiracy charge), staunchly maintaining that it was an utter travesty that their parents received the death penalty. (They were in fact the only spies in American history to receive capital punishment.)
Every generation has its seismic moments: When national and international crises, tragedies, and atrocities shake the fibers of our being, leaving behind scars that never really fade and scabs that don’t quite completely heal. My parents tried to explain the Rosenberg case to me and why it left them and other Yidden so traumatized, but somehow, other than remembering their names, my emotions were not deeply affected by the story. (President Kennedy’s assassination was infinitely more immediate and real.) My parents, however (like many of their peers) could not seem to shrug it off. For them and countless millions of other Americans (especially Jews) the accusations, the arrests and the subsequent execution was an apocalyptic earthquake that ten years later still trembled with aftershocks.
There was, however, a growing minority (the numbers of which have surged today) who were shaken for entirely different reasons. These were the people (many of them left-wingers and supporters) who perceived the Rosenberg case as a horrific violation and great miscarriage of justice that still urgently needed to be addressed. But in all the national conversation that persisted long, long after the Rosenbergs themselves had been electrocuted (according to Robert Meeropol, they were the only set of parents in US history to be executed together, rendering their children orphans), no one seemed to remember the two sons. What had happened to them? Who was taking care of them? Where were they? As a small child, I found mysteries unsettling, and demanded to know the postscripts of events. But I also never thought to ask: “And what became of the kids?”
Robert and Michael Rosenberg did in fact vanish from public view for decades, shielded by a new name. And until Rechy Frankfurter, the esteemed editor of Ami, spotted a news item by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reporting that Robert Meeropol had just celebrated a belated bar mitzvah at the age of 71, I had not in all these years come across any mention of the Rosenbergs’ children’s names, not even once. We were both enormously fascinated by the re-emergence of the elusive sons who had lived under the radar for so long, as well as the potential of an incredible “finding his Judaism at 70” story. (Although the Rosenberg family conducted a Pesach Seder each year—the grandparents were Orthodox—and a court-mandated directive required that the boys attend Talmud Torah after their adoption, the general atmosphere of both their biological and adoptive homes was politically radicalized,”universalism” ultimately incongruent with religion. Julius Rosenberg himself had once seriously thought of studying for the rabbinate, but the abandonment of religious belief and affiliation was a necessary step in the assumption of communist ideology.)
One of the Rosenberg “boys” had just celebrated his bar mitzvah at 71! What captivating news we agreed in tremendous excitement. Was he a newly-minted baal teshuvah? We were overjoyed at the prospect of a “scoop.” But when I dutifully called Robert Meeropol on the phone to discuss “the parameters of the interview,” as he had requested in an e-mail, he specifically insisted that religion in general and his recent bar mitzvah in particular be omitted as topics of conversation. I was sorely disappointed but reluctantly agreed to this condition, frustrated in my inability to lift the veil off this current mystery: Why did Robert Meeropol refuse to discuss his recent bar mitzvah? Was it because he regretted it, or because it was so laden with such positive and inspiring emotion that he wanted it to remain inviolate, his alone? Was the bar mitzvah an anomaly, or was it part of a long process and journey? Had Robert missed the lack of religion in his life all these years and decided to embrace it now—as he teetered on the cusp of old age and its attendant visage of mortality—or had he simply acceded to some well-intentioned friend’s or rabbi’s pressure to take this momentous step? In other words, was it merely a gesture or did it possess substance? Regrettably, I will never know, as I gave Robert my word that I would not question him about this “milestone” and “related matters” (i.e. religion).
What Robert clearly did want to discuss,however, after all these years, was the recently renewed and reinvigorated campaign launched by both his older brother Michael and himself to exonerate their mother’s name. Given the fact that Robert was only three when Ethel was taken away—and ultimately adopted by the exceptionally warm and loving Meeropols after being shunted back and forth between unwilling relatives and various Jewish orphanages —it seemed remarkable to me that at the age of 71, he is so driven to seek his mother’s vindication. For most of us, as we age, our passions dim, and we grow weary of old causes. How to account for Robert’s tireless crusade to see his mother pardoned? Was she such an extraordinary and loving parent? Are his memories of her still so vivid and haunting?
“No,” he surprisingly answers, stating emphatically that he remembers nothing about her except for one single trace: her voice. “There are barely any memories of my life with her until after the arrests. And, to be candid, I am suspicious of my memories as a three-year-old that do endure. I often ask myself: Do I remember what happened or do I remember what my older brother told me had happened?” Nonetheless, Ethel Rosenberg—those who once knew her would unanimously attest—did indeed possess a beautiful voice (she was always the one chosen to sing the national anthem at high school assemblies) and Robert does have faint recollections of a high-pitched woman’s voice lulling him to sleep with nursery songs. “Over the years, I’ve always seemed to have a preference for voices that are high-pitched, and I assume that it’s because they remind me of my mother,” he says matter-of-factly, with no real sentiment underlining his poignant words.
During the recital of his story, Robert is exceedingly polite but strikingly unemotional (a cerebral academic, Robert has worked at a number of different positions during his lifetime, all of which demand rigorous intellect—professor of anthropology, lawyer, and journalist). I puzzle over his lack of sentiment in describing the beloved mother whose cause célèbre he is still championing in his eighth decade. I tell myself that he is, after all, 71, and there’s been a lapse of 65 years since their execution. But there are other reasons for his relatively dry account, one of which I’ve already briefly mentioned before—his belief that he cannot trust his memory because he was so young, “and whatever emotions I did have I suppressed, concealing my problems and fears so no one would fuss over me.” Robert also expresses anger and vexation that he was so young when his parents were taken away that “I could not build up any real memory of them, and therefore there were none to endure.” These are all legitimate explanations for the almost rote-like way he narrates his story. But I also wonder if, in his incessant campaign in recent years to seek his mother’s vindication, he hasn’t told his story too many times to count. But as it is the first time I’ve heard it, I try to prod him about any other memories that might be forthcoming.
“Well,” he says thoughtfully, “I certainly always retained the sense of a happy, loving family. I can’t be positive whether I created the myth of an idyllic pre-arrest situation or whether it did indeed occur, but the fact that my brother Michael and I remained in remarkably good shape and bounced back relatively well after my parents’ execution would lend credence to our shared belief that our parents provided us with a strong base. The press painted them as fanatics who neglected their children for politics, but this is simply not true.
“Our most difficult years were between 1950 and 1953—the ‘long nightmare’ as my brother Michael characterized that period, when we lived with a number of different people or in institutions.”
People were either so frightened of being associated with the Rosenberg sons (fearful that they too would incur the government’s attention and wrath), or so furious at the parents for having “betrayed America” that the qualities of tenderness or mercy never entered into their considerations. The images of both a tetherless three-year-old and traumatized seven-year-old —adrift in a sea of terror and ignominy—failed to arouse any rush of compassion or pity in neither their aunts, uncles, cousins (on both the maternal and paternal sides), neighbors, or classmates’ parents—not one solitary person stepping forward to fill the terrible void and avow “I’ll take them!”
Rather than being seen as helpless and heartbroken victims who needed protection, the children were instead viewed as pariahs—although clearly they had no part in any espionage. People whose hearts would normally melt at similar scenarios uncommonly hardened theirs when it came to the Rosenberg boys. They were rendered orphans until an idealistic couple—the Meeropols—came to their rescue after years of being vagabonds. How could this pathetic sequence of events have even been allowed to take place?
In a sense, the fact that no safety net was devised for the children (after their father’s arrest) might actually bear eloquent testimony to this truth: Ethel Rosenberg was genuinely naïve about her prospects because she was innocent of the charge of atomic spying for the Russians. Her husband’s arrest preceded hers by almost four weeks, and if she had felt that the FBI would soon be closing in on her, (because she too was guilty) would she not have prepared for this eventuality? By all personal accounts (not media reports), Ethel was a dedicated mother, and surely she would have made special arrangements for her sons in the event of her own arrest? But she didn’t because, quite simply, she had never anticipated the scenario that ultimately unfurled—her own arrest and the sudden abandonment of her kids.
In sealed court records recently released, an assistant attorney general told the FBI that there was “insufficient evidence” to charge Ethel, but that she could be used “as a lever against her husband.” It was hoped that Julius, who refused to confess to the crimes with which he was charged, would say anything the government wished to elicit, in order to get his wife “off the hook,” a strategy that failed. (The government repeatedly tried to make “deals” with Julius, using as traction the subject of Ethel’s fate and that of their hapless children. Basically, Julius was told that if he would confess to “atomic spying” he would be given a life sentence in prison, rather than the death sentence that he faced, and “Ethel will be released and able to stay home and be a mother to your children.”) In February 1951, according to a second recently-released document, a federal prosecutor told a congressional committee: “The case is not too strong against Mrs. Rosenberg. But for the purpose of acting as a deterrent, I think it is very important that she be convicted too, and given a stiff sentence.”
When Ethel Rosenberg was suddenly called to testify before the grand jury on August 11 (she had testified once before and returned safely home), she asked the neighbor next door to watch her boys while she was away. When she didn’t appear at the promised time, the neighbor became impatient and summarily dropped the boys off at Ethel’s mother’s home, never knowing that with this one act, a wrenching series of sudden ejections and expulsions—all dispensed with utter disregard for the boys’ wellbeing—had just been set into motion, making them feel completely forsaken and further emphasizing their status as outcasts.
Perhaps the neighbor was sincerely well-intentioned, and genuinely believed that the Rosenberg boys would be better off waiting for Ethel at her mother’s apartment. After all, how could she have known that the home of Tessie Greenglass (Ethel’s mother) had metamorphosed into a veritable viper’s nest, and that it was Ethel’s own brother David Greenglass (arrested long before Julius on suspicion of atomic spying), who had betrayed his sister and brother-in-law to begin with, naming Julius Rosenberg as the person who had recruited him into a Soviet spy ring in 1944?
During World War II, David had worked as a machinist at the Los Alamos Atomic Project, in New Mexico, from which some uranium had gone missing, and when he was subsequently interrogated by the FBI, he cut a deal in which he deliberately implicated Julius and Ethel. For these favors, his wife Ruth, arrested with him, was released, and he himself had only to serve a diminished ten-year prison stint. The Rosenbergs, in turn, were offered similar deals, but both Ethel and Julius resolutely resisted the government’s pressure to “cooperate and name names,” even though they knew that their silence would cost them their lives. The only charge they readily acceded to—which was not an illegal act until August 1954, long after their execution—was the fact that they were indeed card-carrying Communists.
Ethel’s mother Tessie Greenglass had always favored her son David, and believed his version—rather than her daughter’s—of the murky and convoluted events that had transpired over the last few years. She was furious that her son-in-law had not capitulated to the FBI’s demands that he sign his name to a false confession—which government officials would dictate—or serve as a “snitch” in the same manner as her less-ethical son David. She resented both her daughter’s devotion to her husband, and her morally upright position in refusing to incriminate other activists.
Tessie Greenglass’ faith in her son David was sadly misplaced. According to an op-ed piece written by the Rosenberg/Meeropol brothers that appeared in The New York Times on August 8, 2015, “Many decades after his release from prison, David Greenglass admitted to Times reporter Sam Roberts that he had lied about his sister in an effort to protect his wife Ruth. (The grand jury transcript that shows endless contradictions in David Greenglass’ testimony was not made public until after his death.)
Because Tessie Greenglass had turned against her own daughter, when grandsons Robert and Michael Rosenberg were deposited at her apartment, they did not find there a safe harbor nor were they greeted with anything akin to nurturing love. “Tessie clearly wanted nothing to do with us. She complained that we were driving her crazy and running wild. She said she couldn’t handle us.” Two and a half months later, the brothers were jettisoned to the Hebrew Children’s Home, a shelter in the Bronx. At this facility, Robert remembers thinking: My parents are in prison, and this is my jail. “It was a place where I was miserable,” he explains, “not because I was mistreated, but simply because my mother and father were not there.”
In 1951, Sophie Rosenberg (Julius’ Orthodox mother), who had been hospitalized for a lengthy period during the outset of the crisis, had recovered sufficiently from her illness to rescue Robert and Michael from the shelter; she moved them into a new, large apartment in Washington Heights. “Living with Bubbie Sophie was an improvement, but not ideal,” remembers Robert. “Her husband had died not long after my birth, three years before. She was still grieving for him. Now her youngest son faced certain execution. I lived surrounded by her fear and sorrow.” Sophie Rosenberg was in fact so besieged by her own demons that she could barely do anything proactive to eradicate those bedeviling her grandsons. The physical environment she provided was clean and orderly, but the atmosphere itself was filled with dark undercurrents of despair.
Far worse than the tangible pain that enveloped the apartment, however, was the constant harassment that older brother Michael (then eight) was being subjected to, now that he had been removed from the safe cocoon that the Children’s Home provided. (Robert was still too young for kindergarten and stayed home with Sophie.) Savvy street kids from the neighborhood and bullies in school who knew the significance of Michael’s last time continuously teased, pranked and tormented him. And those few children who were more tolerant and accepting inevitably had parents who were not. Michael once attempted to visit a friend after school, but the classmate’s mother literally threw him out of the house when she learned who his parents were. Michael heard the boy’s mother yell at her son, after the door to their apartment had been slammed behind him, “That’s the last of your Communist friend!”
The persecution of Michael Rosenberg was harsh and, quite simply, intolerable. Hearing about the torments he suffered from the “grapevine” of Rosenberg supporters, former friends of his parents—Ben and Sonia Bach—felt anguished that the children were suffering so greatly and vowed to help. They offered the boys a haven in their home located in Toms River, New Jersey, where it was hoped that the brothers could live more anonymously. (At that time Toms River was “chicken farm” country, and as the whereabouts of their new quarters was kept strictly hidden, the haranguing of the press—which had vigilantly followed the brothers’ previous trajectories in New York City—mercifully subsided. And since most of the “country boys” were not the newspaper-reading sort, they consequently experienced no “epiphanies” when they were introduced to the Rosenbergs. “No one knew who we were, no one bothered us,” remembers Robert.
For the Rosenberg brothers, the absence of psychological assault by offensive journalists and mean-spirited adolescent ruffians represented a veritable idyll. During a brief interlude, the dust settled and the boys acclimated quickly to a very different landscape from the one they had known in New York. They reveled in the lush countryside, “the green lawns, scrub forests, fresh smells of crops growing in the fields, the still-warm chicken eggs, and the luxury of playing on grass instead of cement.”
But even during this respite, when their exterior landscape was at last serene and soothing, their interior world remained far more twisted and complex. For it was precisely during their sojourn at the Bachs’ sanctuary in Toms River that the brothers were finally given permission to visit their parents in Sing Sing prison, where they were now incarcerated on death row. (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, having resolutely clung to their personal code of ethics, had continued to refuse to confess to crimes they said they did not commit, nor would they hand over the names of fellow Communists whom they assumed the FBI would probably persecute as well. Consequently, on April 5, 1951, they were ultimately convicted of “conspiracy to commit espionage,” not atomic spying, and they were subsequently sentenced to death. Since conviction of espionage normally carries with it a prison sentence of 30 years, some pundits pronounced the disproportionate sentence “the greatest miscarriage of justice in espionage history.” The Rosenbergs’ executions, scheduled for May 21, 1951, was automatically stayed pending appeal.)
In a memoir entitled We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Michael Rosenberg, the older son and the chief author of the book, writes of those prison visits: “Both Robby (Robert) and I have clung to the memories of those prison visits. They are the parts of our family’s life that are closest to us in time, and it was from these visits that Robby got his strongest idea of our parents, of their warmth, good feeling and love.” (As stated earlier, the pre-arrest memories for Robert, who was then three, were faint, at best. But some of the last prison visits took place when he was six, and these memories endured.)
Manny Bloch, the Rosenberg brothers’ first legal guardian, escorted the boys to Sing Sing (they had not seen their parents for an entire year) and was deeply moved by the interaction he personally witnessed between the parents and their sons. “There was never a tear,” he said. “There was only laughter. Sometimes I sat in that room and wondered whether I was living in this world or some world of fantasy. To see these four together in that visiting room you would imagine that they were playing in their own living room. They would talk about school. They would sing songs. There were always smiles on the faces of the parents. Of course what happened afterwards in their respective cells is something else again, but this is one indication of the type of people they were who understood that they must not permit their own children to see their misery or show them they were worried about themselves.”
In November 1951, “The National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case” was formed by a burgeoning number of supporters, following a series of articles published by The National Guardian (a small left-wing news weekly), which concluded that the Rosenbergs were innocent and deserved a new trial. Once the initial panic that had enveloped the American public in the immediate aftermath of the Rosenberg arrests evaporated, some people began to regard “The Rosenbergs’ Case” from a calmer place, a more measured perspective, questioning whether the Rosenbergs were indeed quite as malevolent and amoral as they had originally been painted to be.
According to “This Day in History,” a website produced by the History Channel: “During the next two years, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg became the subject of both national and international debate. Many people believed that the Rosenbergs were the victims of a surge of hysterical anti-Communist feeling in the United States, and protested that the death sentence handed down was cruel and unusual punishment. Most Americans, however, still believed that the Rosenbergs had been dealt with justly.”
The “National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case” vehemently disagreed. One year after its formation, it had built a large international movement that (according to a retrospective piece that appeared in the New York Daily News in 1998) was “built largely on charges of anti-Semitism. The Rosenbergs were Jews ‘judged by Jews’ and ‘sentenced to death by other Jews,’” which the paper suggested was no mere coincidence, but orchestrated.
Although the Rosenbergs never directly spoke to their sons about their impending electrocution, activists on their behalf believed it was critical that the boys vigorously participate in a plethora of events rallying the American people’s support. It was vital that ordinary Americans be presented (television had begun to make inroads into many homes) with the images of two little lost boys—Robert now four, and Michael eight—and the unspeakable, insurmountable loss they would sustain if their parents were killed. They were brought to an anti-execution rally in Washington, DC (which drew a broad coalition of supporters and where signs were hoisted that read: “The electric chair can’t kill the doubts in the Rosenberg case!”), and also shepherded to the White House, where Robert and Michael clamored for a personal interview with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. They were of course refused entry, but they were permitted to hand over to one of the security guards at the White House door a letter appealing for clemency for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, which he promised to transmit. President Eisenhower had previously denied a petition for executive clemency, and he remained unmoved by the specter of little boys pleading for their parents’ lives.
During the three years that lapsed between the Rosenbergs’ arrests and their executions, many different appeals and “stays of execution” had delayed the scheduled executions over and over again. Various luminaries (including, among others, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Pope Pius XII) who opposed what they considered a disproportionately harsh sentence of death had also tried to personally intervene on the Rosenbergs’ behalf, but the president was unyielding. In his original statement declining to invoke executive clemency, President Eisenhower had said:
“I can only say that, by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world. The execution of two human beings is a grave matter. But even graver is the thought of the millions of dead whose deaths may be directly attributable to what these spies have done.”
On the day of the execution, Friday, June 19, 1953, thousands of protestors gathered in Union Square to chant prayers for the Rosenbergs, while hundreds more amassed near the White House and also, ironically, in front of the American Embassy in Paris, France (which still grappled with the anti-Semitism that had underpinned “The Dreyfus Affair”and scarred the national consciousness for decades to come). In general, there was much controversial debate about the Rosenbergs in Europe in particular, and on the day of the execution, guards were placed in front of American embassies in all its major capitals as a necessary precaution. But large throngs of angry protestors only figured prominently in France.
At the White House, the somber pro-Rosenberg crowds ultimately dispersed and their places were taken by anti-Rosenberg pickets who eventually outnumbered the supporters. The Rosenberg Case had, at its very beginning, initially united the American people in its sense of solidarity against “the Red Menace,” but over time it split the country with a divisiveness that was uncommon in its day (although the majority were still clearly aligned with the anti-Rosenberg faction). But no matter the side of the picket fence someone stood, the atmosphere in America on the day of the execution crackled with a sense of palpable urgency and tense expectancy. Invisible sparks of energy stretched nerves taut and the very air was charged with an inordinate amount of electricity, almost as high as the voltage that would soon burn the Rosenbergs’ flesh.
The execution had been originally scheduled for Friday night at 11 p.m. Incongruously, that timetable was changed when lawyers for the couple protested that this would represent a violation of the Jewish Sabbath, so the time was moved up to 8 p.m. Ethel and Julius were permitted to spend their final hours talking together in a visiting room cubicle. It was one day after their 14th wedding anniversary.
Prior to their execution, the couple were ministered to by Rabbi Irving Koslowe, who served as the Jewish prison chaplain of Sing Sing for over four decades. During the course of their incarceration, Rabbi Koslowe had often visited them, bringing them holiday gifts and ritual artifacts, as well as supplying them with “Jewish delicacies.” Minutes before they were scheduled to die, he said viduy with them, and then chanted various perakim of Tehillim. Rabbi Koslowe had promised them that he would be at their side “until the very end.”
Meanwhile, according to the Daily News article cited above, “The FBI had set up a prison command post and installed a direct phone line to its New York headquarters. Perhaps, agents figured, one or the other Rosenberg would break down and decide to talk once strapped into the electric chair.” The FBI apparently was still ready to halt the proceedings if a confession or name was forthcoming.
“That didn’t happen. Julius was the first to enter the death chamber, and he was dead three minutes later.”
Julius had remained calm and irrevocably silent when he was strapped to the electric chair. Ethel was more emotional. After she was ushered into the chamber by prison matron Helen Evans, Ethel turned to shake her hand and then impulsively drew Mrs. Evans to her, hugging and kissing her in a heart-rending scene. Mrs. Evans had originally been appointed to serve as one of the witnesses to the electrocution and was supposed to remain seated in the room, but after Ethel’s impassioned act, she bent her head and fled the room.
When news of the Rosenbergs’ deaths was announced on the radio, motorists driving their cars throughout the United States erupted into explosions of celebratory car-honking. At the Bachs’ home, watching a television broadcast, ten-year-old Michael—surrounded by some of his parent’s supporters and old friends—saw the news bulletin flash on screen and moaned, “That’s it, goodbye, goodbye.” Meanwhile, six-year-old Robert had been sent out to play baseball with his pals, a diversionary tactic to get him out of the house. When he returned, the adults and Michael himself fell silent, and the news was not divulged. Let him stay oblivious as long as possible, the old mantra was revived.
The week after the executions, Michael remained distraught, Robert clueless. Long before, when his parents had first been arrested, Michael had designated himself as the “big brother protector” of Robert, and he had shielded him from the dark truths that swirled around him but to which he was oblivious. For an entire week, Michael withheld the news from his younger brother. Then, when Robert started pestering Michael one day, repeatedly asking: “When are we going to visit Mommy and Daddy again?” Michael finally blurted out: “Mommy and Daddy are dead.”
* * *
With the Rosenbergs’ deaths, the Bachs felt assured that now, at the very least, the boys whom they were sheltering would finally be safe from the hounding of the press to which they had previously been subjected. But they were wrong. The executions ignited another media frenzy, and intrepid reporters feverishly launched new and exhaustive investigations into the whereabouts of the Rosenberg boys, who had for almost two years vanished from public view. Ultimately, they unearthed their new location in Toms River, and soon enough they were camped en masse outside the Bach home, besieging the boys as mercilessly as they had in the past. Far worse than the beleaguering of the press, however, was the fact that while the Bachs had done a herculean job of shielding the boys from publicity and injecting “normalcy” into their everyday lives, the veil of secrecy that had protected them was now exposed and the good citizens of Toms River were finally made aware of the boys’ true identities.
“Over the summer following the executions,” writes Robert in his memoir, “some of the residents of Toms River expressed their concern to the New Jersey Board of Education that their children were attending school with the children of the Rosenbergs. In response, the Board determined that only children of New Jersey residents could attend New Jersey public schools. Since my parents had been New York State residents, Michael and I had the dubious honor of being banished from the New Jersey public school system at the ages of ten and six.”
Once again, Bubbie Rosenberg opened her wide, sheltering arms to her two grandsons, and they relocated a second time to her apartment in Washington Heights. But the move was temporary. Bubbie’s health was rapidly deteriorating and the shock of her son’s execution had pushed her already precarious blood pressure over the edge. Living with her was not a feasible solution.
At this point, Manny Bloch, the children’s legal guardian, reconsidered a proposal that had been made as far back as 1950—when the Rosenbergs had first been arrested—by an idealistic young Jewish couple named Anne and Abel Meeropol. Hearing about the boys being shunted from one place to the next, the Meeropols had generously offered to “take them in,” but Julius and Ethel had vetoed the plan, stating adamantly that they wanted their children cared for by people whom they knew. With both Rosenberg parents gone and no other options left, Manny Bloch suddenly remembered the Meeropols, who, like the Rosenbergs, were an educated, sophisticated, cultured and politically left-wing Jewish couple, and even more significantly, loving, warm and childless. They showered abundant affection upon both boys, and they flourished.
In February 1957, with the approval of Sophie Rosenberg and Dr. Kenneth Johnson (dean of the New School of Social Work and co-guardian, together with Sophie, of Michael and Robert, replacing Manny Bloch, who had died of a heart attack at 51), the two Rosenberg boys were officially adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol, and their last names were changed. The Meeropols proved to be exceptional and loving parents, the two boys acclimated quickly, and they flourished well beyond anyone’s expectations. Despite all the trauma they had endured, Robert and Michael integrated easily into their new family circle, and felt no constraint in calling Ann and Abel “Mom” and “Dad.” The Meeropol surname eased their transition into their new neighborhood and new school, and the past was finally buried together with the infamous Rosenberg name that had once branded them as misfits. The Meeropol home was healthy, high-functioning and extremely loving; the boys thrived.
Robert never told anyone that he was a Rosenberg son (not even his best friends), until, at the age of 20, he met the woman who would eventually become his wife. The upheavals and ordeals of “the long nightmare” (the term Michael had coined) behind them, both moved on to live productive, fulfilling, stable and successful lives. Robert has worked alternately in the fields of anthropology, journalism, and law. Michael received a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, and dedicated his life to teaching on the college level. He is now professor emeritus of economics at Western New England University and editor of “The Rosenberg Letters,” a collection of his parents’ prison correspondence. Both men boast long and happy marriages (Robert has been married for 50 years) and have raised two children each.
Although both men remained close and devoted to the Meeropols for the entirety of their lives (Ann died in 1973, with Abel surviving her by eleven years), they never forgot their biological parents nor the ringing conviction of their parting words during their last prison visit together. “Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience!” the Rosenbergs said, as they bade their children a wrenching farewell.
Many decades have passed since those words were uttered, but that final sentence became permanently engraved on the sons’ respective psyches. They always regarded it as a clarion call to action, a mandate that they hoped they would one day fulfill and a crusade they would launch, if not in their young formative years, then later when their lives would be more settled.
In his 20s and 30s, Robert Meeropol was filled with bitterness at his parents’ fate, particularly his mother’s, whom he was convinced was not a spy, but a hostage held by the government to coerce his father to talk.
“Shortly before he died in 2001,” Robert says, “William P. Rogers, who was deputy attorney general of the United States at the time of our parents’ execution, admitted to journalist Sam Roberts that the government’s objective was never to kill the Rosenbergs, but to get them to talk. He said of Ethel, ‘She called our bluff.’ This statement shocks the conscience.”
When Robert was 40 years old, he looked at his checkered career (journalist,professor and lawyer) and decided he wanted to do something that he felt would truly repair the world. He launched a new organization called “The Rosenberg Fund for Children,” which provides for the emotional and physical needs of children of “targeted activists.” He (together with his brother Michael) became more involved with an organization called “The National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case,” and he also worked individually on an intense campaign of lobbying the American government to formally exonerate his mother, Ethel Rosenberg.
I ask him why his efforts are directed towards his mother’s rehabilitation only. “Was your father in fact guilty?”
“Well,” he equivocates, “my father was both guilty and not guilty.”
Robert explains: “The reality is that reality is subtle and what gets reported is oversimplified. Yes, my father was guilty of “conspiracy to commit military espionage”—the final charge with which he was convicted. But that had absolutely nothing to do with the atomic bomb. That was the fraud in my father’s case—saying he was a master atomic spy.
“In terms of my mother, it was well known at the time of my parents’ arrest that the KGB gave all its agents code names, but my mother had none. That’s because the KGB did not consider her a spy; this is not rocket science. As early as 1988, I felt that it was only fair to my mother’s memory that I start lobbying to separate my mother’s case from my father’s. They were lumped together—everyone always talks about ‘The Rosenbergs,’ and it’s as if my mother completely disappeared into my father. But when I tried to initiate this campaign, many of my parents’ supporters chastised me strongly: ‘You can’t abandon your father. If you separate Ethel’s case from Julius’, everyone will think your father was guilty of being an atomic spy. Your efforts will be entirely misconstrued.’ And so I was persuaded to abandon this line of action.
“But in 2008, when Ruth Greenglass’ grand jury testimony was finally released (following her death), it was noted by the press that she had not implicated my mother at all. This was the very first time that the mainstream media raised concerns that my mother had been ‘collateral damage.’ This revelation re-energized my original resolve to separate my mother’s case from my father’s and give her posthumous vindication.
“One day, I suddenly realized that in 2015, my mother’s 100th birthday was coming up, and I passionately wanted it to be marked in public. I started working with members of the New York City Council to get that august body to issue a proclamation stating that she was wrongfully convicted, and I took great personal satisfaction when the proclamation was successfully passed. It was something I had wanted to do for decades and I feel I really accomplished something important.
“Following the publicity that the proclamation generated, the producers of the ‘60 Minutes’ show got in touch with us, and a segment about my parents eventually aired in the fall of 2016 on CBS. Buoyed by an unexpected swell of public support that followed the broadcast, we then prepared a legal petition asking President Obama to exonerate Ethel, by declaring the guilty verdict as a ‘nulllity.’ We never received a response from him, but we aren’t giving up. It is never too late to correct an egregious injustice and try to make the world a better place.”
Robert Meeropol is one of the rare people who can manage to achieve their goals. For the last 31 years he has been assiduously pursuing the implementation of three goals he set out for himself when he turned 40: Dispel the bitterness and anger that had been simmering inside him since he was three years old; exonerate his mother’s name; and parlay the acrimony that had engulfed his being into something positive—by working with the “National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case” and by launching his own non-profit social-service initiative, “The Rosenberg Fund for Children.”
In analyzing Robert’s project, it seems clear that he has now reclaimed his old name, and that it is no longer a burden, but a personal calling instead—an impetus that both invigorates him and his crusade to ensure that children of activists never need bear their parents’ blame again.
UNDERSTANDING THE CONTEXT OF THE ROSENBERG HYSTERIA
Beyond the screams through the night that tore at my soul (my father’s Holocaust nightmares, which didn’t subside until I was about eight), my childhood was pockmarked by unremitting fear.
As the daughter of a well-known Yiddish and Hebrew journalist, Reb Laizer Halberstam, a”h (he was Elie Wiesel’s editor at the underground Irgun newspaper in Paris), I was uncommonly exposed to the vicissitudes of national and international affairs (“THE NEWS”) at a high decibel frequency, much more intensely saturated than my friends were—precisely because of my father’s profession. A veritable news hound, my father littered the house with almost all of New York City’s daily newspapers (which was quite remarkable given that a decade earlier, he couldn’t speak a word of English), and the radio blared incessantly. I was an overimaginative child to begin with, and my father’s screams at night had already rendered me vulnerable. At night, I twisted and turned in my bed, turning up the shades of the window nearby so that I could watch the high beams of searchlights crisscross the New York skies. “Don’t worry, “ I tried to lull myself to sleep, “if the Russians come, the searchlights will find them, and the enemy planes will be shot down.” Although some people tend to paint the post-World War II years as an idyllic time, like any other generation there were bogeymen, and for baby boomers it was “The Cold War” or “The Red Menace”—i.e. Russia.
Americans had never really believed that they would personally be caught in the crosshairs of conflict with the Nazis during World War II (that battle was being fought on terrain across the Atlantic), but following the triumphal rise of communism in the post-War era, fears of our country being invaded by Russian war planes or, far worse, A-bombed into annihilation, reached a feverish high pitch mid-century. “The Russians want to take over the world!” I remember occasionally eavesdropping on the adults’ conversations when relatives came to visit. “First they’ll take over Eastern Europe, and next it will be us!”
I vividly remember reading features on designer bomb shelters for celebrities (with the newest amenities for underground living), and instructions directed at more ordinary housewives on how to equip their basements with canned food and dry goods in order to survive the “fallout” (I don’t believe bottled water was common at the time).
Whenever I would venture into the basement to help my mother with the laundry, I would stare at the hundreds of neatly stacked cans she had prepared “for when the time comes” and shudder. Public schools were among those facilities designated as “bomb shelters,” and schoolchildren underwent constant drills to prepare themselves for evacuation. At least once a day, the radio and television would conduct “tests,” declaring in advance “This is only a test. Do not be alarmed. This is only a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System,“ and a long whining siren-like-noise that elicited absolute terror would commence for a full minute.
My generation was in fact so preoccupied with the scenarios of apocalypse that when I was a nine-year-old at Camp Bais Yaakov, and “color war” broke out (the teams were Yachid vs. Klal), Klal’s play was about a man who survived a nuclear attack but couldn’t bear living alone in the world, ultimately going mad (the play ended there and Klal won, its point vividly made).
When the Bay of Pigs crisis erupted, and America had its dramatic showdown with Russia-backed Cuba (its missiles pointed at America from only 90 miles away), countless frum people in Boro Park packed up their belongings and headed to the Catskills, because “after all, the Russians will target New York City, but not the country, so there we can survive. And the mountains will surely protect us, barriers against the fallout,” they reasoned as well. They had not escaped the Nazis and started to resurrect their lives only to be annihilated by the Russians. This paranoia was widespread, the atmosphere thick with fear. One daily newspaper instructed us on how to detect the advent of a nuclear attack—”if you see a glowing fire-red orb in the sky moving rapidly towards you, run!”These are of course my childhood memories, and they may have become re-imagined or embellished over time, but I seem to recall them most vividly, their burn marks still emblazoned on my psyche. When I speak to other members of my generation, their own personal memories pretty much validate mine.
Probably, although it’s no laughing matter, every generation must think that it is the one trembling towards extinction, balancing precariously on the cusp of obliteration. Today, in retrospect, the United State’s obsession with Russia seems a bit off-the-wall and over-the-top, but it was definitely a large and significant part of the national climate, a time of high anxiety, taut nerves, and tense waiting for the “button” to be inevitably pushed.
While most historians say that the “Cold War” (the term used to describe the hostile and tense relationship between the Soviet Union and the US from 1945-1989) began right after World War II when communism expanded throughout Eastern Europe, others trace it back to the October 1917 Revolution when the Bolsheviks seized power. In 1919, Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Communist Party, declared that his new state was surrounded by a “capitalist encirclement,” and in order to dismantle it, he established “Communist International,” which called for “revolutionary upheavals abroad.”
This perspective, however, belongs only to a minority of historians, with the majority of academicians attributing the origins of the Cold War to the immediate post-World War II era. Even though the US and Russia had been allies during the War, it was only because they shared a mutual enemy—Nazi Germany—and underpinning the reluctant alliance was an aura of deep distrust. Even before the War, America had depicted the Soviet Union as “the devil incarnate,” and the Russians returned the compliment. According to the History Learning Site of the UK, the animosity between the two superpowers was in fact so intense that “one of America’s leading generals, Patton, stated that he felt that the Allied army should unite with what was left of the Wehrmacht in 1945, utilize the military genius that existed within it and fight the oncoming Soviet Red Army.” Although this bizarre proposition was never seriously considered, it illustrates how deeply entrenched was the fear that the Soviet Union was seeking nothing less than world domination.
This ideological and political struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for global primacy came to assume “mythological overtones of good versus evil” and was fought by proxy “client states,” such as South Vietnam (which was anti-Communist and supplied by America) and North Vietnam (which was pro-Communist and used Russian weapons). When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, America supported the rebel Afghans with both money and weapons, and similar scenarios were played out across the world stage in other countries as well.
The Soviet Union became entrenched in Eastern Europe, installing governments loyal to the Kremlin and pushing to expand its security zone into North Korea, Central Asia and the Middle East. In turn, US foreign policy sought to “contain” this expansionism, and the two countries continuously jockeyed for dominance. The United States regarded its power as pre-eminent when it first won the race to acquire nuclear weapons, assured that its possession of the most destructive weaponry in history was a deterrent that the Soviets could not overlook. However, when the Russians acquired the atomic bomb four years after America, that deterrent no longer posed a threat. This is why the suspicion that the Rosenbergs were the actual spies who had passed atomic secrets to Russia and consequently undermined the United State’s advantage—leveling the playing field between both sides—resulted in the public outrage and hysteria when they were “caught.” (While most pundits today generally view Ethel as innocent of these charges, subscribing to the widely held view that she was simply used as a pawn to pressure her husband, the jury is still out on the precise role that Julius played. The majority consensus is that he did indeed run a spy ring for the Russians, but whether he was passing atomic secrets to them is still disputed.)
According to the website of the History Channel, “During the 1950s, the prospect of communist subversion at home and abroad seemed frighteningly real to many people in the United States. These fears came to define—and corrode—the era’s political culture. For many Americans, the most enduring symbol of this ‘Red Scare’ was Republican Senator Joseph P. McCarthy of Wisconsin. In the hyper-suspicious atmosphere of the Cold War, Americans were convinced that their government was packed with traitors and spies. Senator McCarthy spent almost five years trying in vain to expose Communists and other left-wing “loyalty risks” in the US government. His accusations were so intimidating that few people dared to speak out against him. It was only until he attacked the US Army in 1954 that his actions earned him the censure of the US Senate.”
Just like the fear of the “Red Menace” continued to seep into America’s political landscape in the ’60s, the terror and trauma that McCarthy had inflicted upon the United States malingered long after his power was gone. I remember as a child viewing endless enactments of, and news features about, the McCarthy era. It had been such an unnerving, chilling and reprehensible time that Americans were unable to process its reverberations and repercussions, which echoed long after McCarthy himself had been dethroned.
Leftist Jews—who prominently inhabited the worlds of politics, journalism, and were dominant in Hollywood—were especially under siege, interrogated unremittingly at the notorious “McCarthy hearings” where they were asked: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Many Jews—especially those who worked in Hollywood as writers, producers and directors—were ultimately declared to be “traitors” to their country and were consequently blacklisted—unable to find work until McCarthy’s power began to decline in 1954.
Ultimately, McCarthy was condemned by the Senate for his “inexcusable, vulgar and insulting” conduct “unbecoming a senator” and he died in 1957 at the age of 48, stripped of his power. However, during the height of it, with his paranoia and persecutory hearings, he whipped millions of Americans into a frenzy of fear and irrationalism, suspicious and mistrustful of even those closest to them.
This specific context of high anxiety, feverish fear and obsessive paranoia served as the unfortunate backdrop for the Rosenberg Case. The stampede to denounce, convict and electrocute Ethel and Julius could have only occurred within the particular temper of the time, a confluence of the two perfect storms that came together simultaneously: The McCarthy era and the spectre that originally midwived it—Russian expansionism.
“Most historians would agree that the Rosenbergs would not have faced the death penalty if they were put on trial at any other time than the early ’50s,” notes Dr. Lori Clune, associate professor of history at California State University, Fresno, and author of the book: Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World.
Although she numbers among those academicians who believe that Julius Rosenberg did indeed pass along to his “handler” a prototype of a fuse for the atomic bomb and consequently violated the “Espionage Act,” under any other circumstances at any other time, she states, he would probably have been given a 30-year prison sentence, but never death. l