On The Bookshelf
Rosenberg Case Revisited
In a new book, Robert Meeropol writes about his political odyssey
from youngest son of convicted spies to prominent political activist.
Special to the Jewish News
n Friday, June 19, 1953,
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a
Jewish couple from New
York, were executed — at
one minute before sundown, so as not
to violate Shabbat.
It was an ironic ending to a highly
controversial legal case, concluding —
for the time being — one of the most
hotly debated chapters in U.S. politi-
It was a drama played out on a stage
of fear in the and-Communist era of the
late 1940s and early 1950s, with an
almost entirely Jewish cast.
Today, one of the central figures talk-
ing about the case is Robert Meeropol,
who was 6 years old when the
Rosenbergs, his parents, were sent to the
electric chair in New York State's Sing
Sing prison for their part in an alleged
conspiracy to help the Soviet Union in
its race to make the atom bomb.
In the 50th anniversary year of that
event, Meeropol has written a book, An
Execution in the Family: One Son's
Journey (St. Martin's Press; $25.95), a
memoir that tells how he and his broth-
er, Michael, who was 10 at the time,
survived the loss of their parents; were
adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol,
who, like their parents, were avowed
Communists; and established their own
identities in the shadow of a case that
drew worldwide notoriety and protest.
As part of a nationwide book tour,
Robert Meeropol will be at Wayne State
University's Law School on Oct. 21 to
read from his book and discuss the case,
the death penalty and the parallels
between 1953 and the political climate
of post-9/11 America.
On Oct. 22, he will do the same in
Lansing and at the University of
Michigan in Ann Arbor, where
Meeropol received a degree in anthro-
pology in 1969, then did graduate work
for two more years.
Charged And Convicted
The Rosenbergs were nonobservant, sec-
ular Jews, living on Manhattan's Lower
East Side, when they were arrested in
1950, a few weeks after the Korean War
began, and officially charged with con-
spiracy to commit espionage.
Julius, 35, was operating a failing
machine shop. Ethel, 37, was an ama-
teur singer and secretary. They had
become Marxists as teenagers. They
always denied their guilt, and during
their trial, mainly pleaded the Fifth
Two of the key witnesses in the case
were David and Ruth Greenglass, Ethel
Rosenberg's brother and sister-in-law,
who testified the Rosenbergs helped
recruit David, an Army machinist, into
an atomic bomb
Gold, a chemist
convicted as a spy
courier helping to
bomb sketches and
data (later claimed
to be worthless),
who served 20 years
in prison; and
Morton Sobell, an
engineer, also con-
victed of being a spy
courier, who served
in his 80s, escaped
the death penalty
and served 10 years. Robert Meeropol
never confronted Greenglass, his uncle,
whose testimony, in effect, sent his own
sister to the electric chair.
Those circumstances resulted in a
famous line by comedian Woody Allen
in one of his movies: "I love him like a
brother — David Greenglass."
Other Jewish participants in the case
were prosecuting attorneys Irving
Saypol and Roy Cohn (who became
more well known in the McCarthy-
Army hearings of the 1950s); defense
attorney Manny Bloch; and Federal
Judge Irving R. Kaufman, whose sen-
tence was appealed nine times —
unsuccessfully — to the U.S. Supreme
Court. Presidents Truman and
Eisenhower also declined to intervene.
Kaufman said he considered the
Rosenbergs' crimes to be "worse than
murder," and concluded their "love for
their cause dominated their lives. ... It
was even greater than their love for their
Issue Of Anti-Semitism
"Almost everyone in the case was Jewish,
and I think it resulted in reverse anti-
Semitism," declared Robert Meeropol in
an interview with the Jewish News from
his office in Easthampton, Mass., head-
quarters of the Rosenberg Fund for
Children (RFC), a foundation he started
13 years ago to benefit children whose
parents have been harassed, injured or
jailed during their activism.
'Anti-Semitism came out in subtle
ways; the judge and the prosecutors had
to prove their loyalty and
show they weren't siding
with my parents because
they were Jewish, so they
were overzealous and
Defense attorney Bloch
was named guardian of
Robert and Michael, who
had attended left-wing
summer camps while
with the Rosenbergs, and
who were shuffled around
among relatives during
the trials and appeals.
Bloch found them a
home with the
Meeropols, whom the
Rosenbergs never knew,
and died soon afterward.
Abel Meeropol was a
sometime teacher and songwriter, whose
best-known songs were the patriotic
"The House I Live In" and "Strange
Fruit," an anti-lynching anthem popu-
larized by singer Billie Holiday.
The Meeropols also were nonobser-
vant Jews, but the boys attended
Hebrew school and became bar mitzvah.
(The Rosenbergs often attended Jewish
services while in prison, and received
comfort from Rabbi Irving Koslow of
"Those were turbulent times for us,
resulting in legal skirmishes, because
Bloch and others didn't want us to be
adopted by known supporters of my
parents," said Robert Meeropol.
"My mother was not a spy of any
kind, but I'm agnostic about whether
my father engaged in some other non-
atomic spying during World War II,"
"The main charges were conspiracy,
not treason, so it's a complicated ques-
tion of guilt, with no definitive answer.
There really was no transfer of any valu-
able atomic bomb knowledge."
In 1995, the government released the
"Venona Cables" of the 1940s, which
intercepted KGB messages between the
United States and Russia, and suppos-
edly proved the Rosenbergs' involve-
ment, but Meeropol refutes the inter-
pretation, and adds, "The government
knew all along that Ethel wasn't an
In Search OfJustice
In the 1970s, Robert and Michael
came out" as to their true identities
and successfully sued the government
to force the release of 300,000 previ-
ously secret documents related to the
The government also paid them
almost $200,000 for their legal fees.
But the brothers gave up in their effort
to reopen the case as to the question of
guilt or innocence.
Robert went on to work on a maga-
zine and attend law school in New
England, but he quit to start the
"I was adrift a bit and groping," he
admitted, "and I needed a positive out-
look on life, so I started the RFC."
Fred Miller, of Pleasant Ridge, a
lawyer with UAW Legal Services in
Detroit, has been Robert's friend since
the latter's days at U-M.
"I think it was very gutsy for Robert
to have 'come out' under difficult cir-
cumstances and cope with the death of
his parents in a public way like this,"
said Miller, who also is Jewish.
"The case was definitely a miscar-
riage of justice, especially the execution
of Ethel Rosenberg. But it came from
the fear and frenzy of the McCarthy
Meeropol sees some irony in recent
cases where FBI agents, such as Robert
Hansen, have been convicted of spying
for other countries and imprisoned,
with no apparent move by the govern-
ment for the death penalty, while his
parents were executed for what he feels
were lesser charges.
"Some people now languish on
death row for 10 to 15 years, awaiting
appeals," he points out. "My parents
went from arrest to execution in less