Fifty-one years after the fact, I still find it impossible not to become impassioned about the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, put to death in the electric chair on June 19, 1953, on flimsy, some say ‘trumped up” evidence of “conspiracy to commit espionage” for the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cold War, during the terror of the McCarthy era, simply being “accused” was tantamount to being guilty. Ethel Rosenberg’s younger brother, David Greenglass, caught spying for the Russians, accused his brother-in-law Julius of passing secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. And because David implicated Ethel, who had typed up her husband’s notes; she too was convicted and put to death.
From the beginning, there was a sensational aspect to this case. Not only had a family member testified against his relatives (lying or grossly exaggerating the facts to save his own life—he had to serve only 15 years in jail), but even Ethel’s own mother turned against her, placing the Rosenbergs’ two young boys (Michael, 7, and Robert,3) in an orphanage to pressure her daughter to confess, or at least to “name names.” During the three years Ethel and Julius were incarcerated in Sing-Sing prison, and especially in the months preceding their execution, public opinion was sharply divided. While some trumpeted the Rosenbergs’ guilt and called for their death, many more supported them with rallies and worldwide pleas for clemency. To the very end, the Rosenbergs themselves insisted on their innocence.
Previously classified documents from U.S. and Soviet sources, made public in the last decade, reveal that Julius (under the code name “Liberal”) had indeed passed information to the Russians. But it is equally clear that he did not commit the crime (stealing the secret of the atom bomb) for which he was executed. The fact that Ethel had no code name and is not even mentioned in these files confirms that she herself had never spied, but was held hostage by the government in order to put pressure on Julius to talk. Some believe that even these documents implicating Julius were “doctored” after the fact by the FBI.
“Heir to an Execution,” directed by Ivy Meeropol, the Rosenbergs’ granddaughter (child of their older son, Michael), fixes the Rosenbergs in their socio-cultural and historical contexts. But the film also adds a previously unexplored dimension by documenting the impact of the trial and execution on the extended family. Relatives abandoned the two boys in spite of Ethel’s pleas to her sister-in-law (on Julius’ side) to take them in. As Michael Meeropol mournfully asks in the film, who knows what would have become of him and his younger brother Robert had they not been adopted by Annie and Abel Meeropol?
Only recently, through the efforts of the grandchildren, are the rifts in the extended family slowly being healed, although even now some family members refused to have their voices taped for this film. And David Greenglass remains a pathetic villain, a shadowy figure who hides behind the closed blinds of his house (shown in the film); he managed to remain alive, but at a very high price, and remains a symbol of cowardice and betrayal. Michael Meeropol says he is glad that his parents remained true to themselves and did not have to live with shame like his uncle David. Resigned to accept the past, Michael claims he has relinquished the impulse for revenge.
Also included in this film are interviews with Ivy Meeropol’s cousin Rachel (Robert’s daughter) and her brother Greg, who are carrying on their parents’ and grandparents’ commitment to social change. Although Rachel recognizes that “justice is not easy,” she has become a lawyer, sometimes fantasizing herself in the place of her grandparents’ defense attorney.
One of this film’s great strengths is that it humanizes the Rosenbergs— especially Ethel, repeatedly ^ portrayed as an uncaring mother who gladly abandoned her children, an “unnatural woman,” and a domineering shrew. Footage from old family films shows Ethel and Julius as loving partners, devoted parents and idealists with aspirations. Yet the question that continues to haunt me (and I suspect, most viewers) is why the Rosenbergs refused to try to save themselves for the sake of their children. Harry Steingart, one of their close comrades, answers simply “They couldn’t. If either of them had ‘talked,’ they would not have been able to face the other.” This answer doesn’t help us understand how they thought about leaving their children orphaned, though their concern for the boys is evident in the many loving letters they wrote to them from prison.
The impact of the sexism of the 1950’s is well demonstrated in the film by a photograph that was set up by the defense lawyers and widely circulated: Ethel standing in the kitchen, wearing a house dress, dish towel in hand, making certain that the world sees that she knows her place as a woman. In the public eye, being a Jewish woman made Ethel seem even more monstrous once she had crossed the line from the domestic sphere into the political arena, placing her ideals above her children’s welfare. An unusual aspect of this film is the interview with Dr. Elizabeth Phillips, a psychotherapist to whom Ethel took Michael at age 6 because he was a difficult, willful child who had eating problems. Dr Phillips seems to have admired the games Ethel devised to get him to eat; she visited Ethel in the women’s detention center and speaks movingly of her as an “endearing” person.
Perhaps it is not fair to ask that a film focusing on family responses include all aspects of this case, but it seems to me that the Jewish dimension (and the open anti- Semitism of the period) marked the Rosenberg case from the beginning and was insufficiently explored in the film. Many believe that the Rosenbergs were singled out because the words “Jew” and “Commie” were virtually interchangeable under McCarthyism. While some argued that anti-Semitism could not have been a factor because the judge, prosecutor and prosecution witnesses were all Jews, others suggested that these Jews were harsher on the Rosenbergs and bent over backwards trying to prove that not all Jews were “Commies.” Because not a single juror in this New York City trial was Jewish, many argue that the jury selection was skewed against them from the beginning. Only a decade after the Holocaust, in the face of anti-Jewish purges in the Soviet Union, Jews on both the political right and left felt vulnerable and frightened. In fact, Morton Sobel, who was a co-defendant with the Rosenbergs (but was not electrocuted), said he was flabbergasted that Julius stood up to the government, as he knew him to be a fearful person—with good reason.
In those years, I too was afraid. Like the Rosenberg’s sons, Robert and Michael, I too had witnessed my father’s arrest (by the Nazis, rather than the FBI). Therefore, when, in the spring of 1953, I (a young college student still living at home), was asked to sign a petition to “Save the Rosenbergs,” I did not add my name, afraid that if I supported them I too would be accused of being a communist. Perhaps it was this refusal (which still discomforts me) that fueled my determination never again to remain silent. Perhaps it led to my researching the Rosenberg files in the recently opened FBI archives 50 years after their execution. As a Jewish feminist, I longed to understand Ethel as a person in her own right, but reading through the files did not provide answers, and I cannot say that Ivy Meeropol’s film about the survivors of this family legacy answers my questions either, but it does provide a much needed perspective on the Rosenbergs, described by one of their peers as “just ordinary people, but political.” “Heir to an Execution” shows us that ordinary people can do extraordinary things, both for good and for evil, and often in the name of “the larger good.” It also demonstrates just how personal the “political” can become.
Evelyn Torton Beck is former chair of Judaic and Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland and author of Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology.