By Rafael Sternbach ’12
Ivy Meeropol’s Heir to an Execution was a fascinating take on one of the most debated moments in the twentieth century, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Because of her familial perspective, I was originally skeptical about the contents of this documentary. Chances are, I thought, she’ll just make a very weak case for why her grandparents weren’t spies, and what monsters the US government is for executing them.
So walking in with that attitude, I was very much pleased when the film goes in a completely different direction. It deals with the fall out, the pressure that the Rosenberg/Meeropol/Roberts family had to deal with in the decades since then. In fact Ivy at one point even acknowledges with certainty that Julius, at the very least, was passing secrets (whether it was of an atomic nature is still very much up for debate) to the Soviets. So this candor was refreshing.
Throughout the film I kept noticing how familiar it all seemed. Of course I knew the story of the Rosenbergs quite well, and this family side of it was one I had not seen, yet still I felt like I knew these characters. Turns out I sort of do. The Meeropols now live in Northampton, MA my hometown. If Julius’s codename in the Venona documents was Liberal, the town his son moved to should be Uncomfortably Liberal.
So parts of the movie were filmed in my town, and I’ve been to events that the Meeropols have also attended. I had no idea I had such a close connection to them. My neighbor for whom I occasionally babysit for is even friends with them.
The last thing I wanted to comment on was the experience for Robert and Michael of becoming famous overnight. During the 1950s they were the most famous orphans since Oliver Twist. Having been thrust into this spotlight as children, I think the thing I was most surprised about was the comfort they have in it. Ivy of course created this documentary, yet her mother is also an author, as is her father. Having the history that they do, I am very surprised Robert et al
did not want to immediately sink back into obscurity. Its not as if they were lobbying for their name on Hollywood Boulevard but they are certainly still public figures. If this Rosenberg case had happened in a different country it is entirely possible that Robert and Michael would have also lost their citizenship, to be sent to Russia or elsewhere. But of course they were innocent children. As a citizen, Robert Meeropol has used the rights granted by that citizenship to unceasingly question the government. Sure he has a historical bone to pick, and every reason to be skeptical….I only wish he would do it a little further down the road from me.