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An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey, by Robert Meeropol; St. Martin’s Griffin, 273 pages, $14.95

An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey, by Robert Meeropol; St. Martin’s Griffin, 273 pages, $14.95

Reviewed by David Preston

The Rosenberg case: for most Baby Boomers it is an historical footnote, something one recalls vaguely from a history class or a documentary on the Cold War. For older Americans, the case usually stands out in sharper relief; during the McCarthy era, the Rosenbergs were a touchstone of one’s personal politics, just as Sacco and Vanzetti had been for an earlier generation. Surely, though, there is no one, young or old, to whom the name “Rosenberg” is more visceral than it is to Robert Meeropol, youngest son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. An Execution in the Family is his story.

In March of 1951, following a hasty indictment and seriously flawed trial, the Rosenbergs were convicted of conspiracy to give atomic secrets to the Soviets. The couple maintained their innocence during and after the trial, repudiating testimony by Ethel’s brother David Greenglass and other accused co-conspirators, all but one of whom had cut snitch deals with the government in exchange for lighter sentences. After the death sentence was announced, troubling contradictions of the trial began to emerge, and an international campaign was mounted in the couple’s defense. During the months leading up to the execution date the Rosenbergs were repeatedly offered (and repeatedly declined) the chance to recant and save themselves. On June 17, 1953, a “last minute” stay of execution was granted by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Under pressure from the prosecution, the stay was quickly vacated, however, and on June 19 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed, one after the other, in a Sing Sing electric chair.

Amid the grand, historical tragedy of the Rosenbergs’ death, one minor tragedy is frequently overlooked – the fact that they left behind two sons: Robert, age 6 and Michael, age 10. At the time of the executions, neither boy was old enough to fully understand what the political controversy was about; they were simply two orphaned children who wanted to get out of the spotlight and on with their lives. For Robert especially, whose emotional reserves were fragile and whose memory of his parents was vague, the need to distance himself from their legacy and cloak his identity as a “Rosenberg son” became imperative.

As a child, Robert divided the memory of his Rosenberg life into two camps. There was “us” (the victims), which included his parents and brother, his adoptive parents and the few other people he trusted – and there was “them” (the villains), which included the government, the relatives who had given hostile testimony in court, the media, and, in some sense, outsiders in general, who were not to be trusted. Given this bleak dichotomy of a world, it is understandable that a boy of six might wish to embrace any handy new identity that offers itself, and that’s essentially what Robert did in bonding with his adoptive parents, Abel and Anne Meeropol. Yet, the Meeropols, like the Rosenbergs, were devoted leftists, and the politically conscious upbringing they gave Robert, combined with the genetic (some might say spiritual) legacy of his parents, was destined to keep the reality of Robert’s other self, his Rosenberg self, constantly before him.

Meeropol thrived in the safe haven his adoptive parents gave him (he recalls idyllic days at “red” summer camps and schools) and as he grew from a politically conscious childhood into politically active adult his world expanded accordingly. In these conditions the cat was bound to get out of the bag. And finally it did. In 1973, twenty years after the execution, Robert and Michael went public in a legal effort to protect their parents’ prison letters from being published. Until the lawsuit, Meeropol had been forced to choose, friend by friend, whom he would reveal himself to. That he didn’t tell his fiancé until shortly before proposing is revealing of how difficult that choice must have been.

Against a political backdrop that scrolls from scenes of McCarthyite hysteria, through the blooming of New Left radicalism in the 1960s, to the retrenchment of Reaganism and the post-9/11 era, Meeropol recounts how his thinking on his Rosenberg identity gradually shifted. In the late 1980s, on the verge of a total breakdown at the prospect of enduring a career as a stressed-out corporate lawyer, Meeropol is forced to go a step beyond simply acknowledging his parents’ name; this time he must choose whether to embrace the Rosenberg legacy as well.

Running parallel to Meeropol’s personal search for identity is his struggle to unravel that of his parents. For most of his life he had assumed they were totally innocent: just two more martyrs to the excesses of McCarthyism. As he carefully deconstructs his parents’ court case, though, he is able to reexamine the question of their guilt with judgment unclouded by the reflexive defensiveness of an orphaned child. Midway through the book Meeropol describes an exchange in which Dr. Henry Linschitz, a scientist connected with the part of the atomic project the Rosenbergs were alleged to have filched secrets from (and a Rosenberg supporter), makes a trenchant observation. “The question is not whether [your parents] were guilty,” Linschitz tells him. “The question is guilty of what.”

Were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg really guilty of conspiracy to steal crucial atomic secrets? The evidence on that count is astonishingly weak. But does weak evidence on that charge necessarily prove that the Rosenberg’s did not pass any secrets, or at least intend to? Not necessarily, Meeropol admits – they were Soviet sympathizers, after all, and did have access to some information the Soviets might have found useful. But with Julius and Ethel gone, and most of the other principals in the case either dead or silent, the whole truth will never be known. What is known (from FBI documents made available following FOIA lawsuits filed by Meeropol and others) is that the FBI and prosecutors in the case acted improperly by coaching and even extorting witnesses, and that the judge, Irving Kaufman, also acted improperly by meeting with the prosecutors ex parte during the trial.

In Execution’s final chapter, “Constructive Revenge,” Meeropol leaves aside the question of his parents’ guilt or innocence and summarizes his final transformation from wanting simply to avenge the deaths of his parents to wanting to leave a more positive legacy to them. He achieves that goal beautifully by founding the Rosenberg Fund for Children (, an organization that offers direct assistance to children who find themselves in circumstances similar to Robert’s own on that June day in 1953.

“Most of us have negative experiences in our lives that can have devastating impact,” he writes.

These events can defeat us, causing us to become passive and dead inside. We can strike back violently by attempting to retaliate by visiting the destruction we endured upon others. A third reaction turns the rage inward, allowing us to wallow in bitterness. I believe the most productive course is to harness that anger and use it to develop something positive. I call this fourth path “constructive revenge.”

An Execution in the Family offers a vivid refresher course on the Rosenberg case in particular, as well a useful examination on the larger question of political prisoners in the United States. History and politics aside, though, the piece is primarily a psychological autobiography, worthwhile not just for its exploration of why a young boy would step into the closet of anonymity in the first place, but for why he would eventually step back out again, into the light of day.

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