by Anna Hansen ’12
The movie Heir to an Execution is a documentary the granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, Ivy Meeropol, created as she explored their story. In the movie she interviews people connected to her grandparents, visits places that were part of the story, and looks at the evidence of the case. Meeropol tries to answer both the question of whether her grandparents were really guilty, as well as why at least one didn’t confess to avoid execution and raise their two young sons.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were charged with spying for the Soviet Union. Worst of all, they were supposed to have given secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviets. The trial was full of misconduct and most evidence was false, including dishonest testimony from Ethel’s brother David Greenglass. Examples that Ivy Meeropol showed in the film included a Jello box and table they actually bought at Macy’s. The Rosenbergs maintained their innocence. Neither turned on the other or gave up any other names. The two received the death penalty. They were executed on June 19, 1953.
Much controversy has surrounded the trial and executions. First, that the trial itself was unjust. Even if one is sure that they were guilty, the evidence provided by the prosecution was sketchy at best. Second, many do not think the Rosenbergs deserved the death penalty, even if they were guilty.
The Rosenbergs had the misfortune of having their case coincide with a wave of fervent anti-Communism in the U.S. This hysteria surely played a large role in their conviction and sentence, especially given the flimsiness of the actual evidence.
In 1995, the release of the VENONA documents revealed that Julius was indeed guilty, although Ethel was probably not. As Ivy Meeropol’s interviews show, this was difficult for the Rosebergs’ defenders to accept. However, it doesn’t resolve the controversy. The trial and executions are still seen by many to have been unfair, particularly to Ethel.
In the film, Ivy Meeropol and her family are not ashamed of their heritage, but rather proud. Although spying for the Soviet Union itself may not be the most laudable of activities, the Rosenbergs are admirable in that they stood by their principles, as well as each other. They truly believed in the Communist cause, unlike some spy cases, in which the spies were motivated by money. The Rosenbergs are also sympathetic in that they were the victims of a miscarriage of justice. After an unfair trial, they received the excessive punishment of execution- all in the country which was supposed to be the leader of freedom and democracy.