By Anne Crowell, ’12
Before watching Heir to an Execution, I knew surprisingly little about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In my experience, they were usually confined to a brief mention in a paragraph about the fear of communist spies during the beginning of the Cold War, a supporting example of McCarthyism thrown in with an equally brief mention of Alger Hiss. My impression was always that the Rosenbergs’ execution by electric chair was somewhat controversial, but that they were probably guilty or, if they weren’t, it was too late to find out now, as their fates had already been decided.
I had never before considered that the Rosenbergs left behind a family who wanted to know the truth and sought some form of justice for them. Yet that was exactly what happened in Heir to an Execution, as Ivy Meeropol searched for the facts about her grandparents. Ivy’s father and uncle, Michael and Robert Meeropol, were Julius and Ethel’s two children who became orphans when the Rosenbergs were executed. The two boys were shifted between their grandmother, an orphanage, and an adoptive family before they finally found a stable living arrangement. Ivy made it her quest to find out why the Rosenbergs chose to die and abandon their two sons when probably at least Ethel could have been spared.
The surviving friends of Julius and Ethel who Ivy Meeropol interviewed seemed generally convinced of their innocence, at least of the crimes they were charged with. They said that, while it was possible Julius may have been a spy, they thought it was unlikely that he was passing secrets about the atomic bomb, and that Ethel was certainly innocent of the charges claimed by her brother, David Greenglass, who sold out the Rosenbergs in order to save himself and his wife. However, the release of the Venona cables in 1995 directly implicated Julius as a spy, which surprised many of these old friends who had remained loyal to the Rosenbergs’ memory. Even with the Venona cables, however, it still seemed that Ethel was innocent and perhaps died for nothing when she could have stayed to see her sons grow up.
One aspect of Ivy’s search which was particularly difficult for her was her efforts to contact surviving family members in hopes that she could talk to them about her grandparents. Most of the family had distanced themselves from the Rosenbergs and some had even changed their names out of fear that they would not be able to escape the negative attention generated by the executions. As a result, Ivy only found one distant family member who was willing to reconnect and talk to her about the Rosenbergs. While I can understand how the family might want to stay out of the public eye at the time, it is difficult to imagine how none of the family members were willing to adopt Michael and Robert who had become orphans, or how, half a century later, almost everyone continued to turn their backs on Julius and Ethel’s descendants.
Even though Ivy eventually found some amount of personal closure through her research and was able to accept that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died for principles they believed in, the facts of the case are still far from clear. Martin Sobell’s 2008 admission that he spied for the Soviets, which happened four years after Heir to an Execution, adds a new layer of complexity to the question of whether the Rosenbergs were guilty or innocent. This more recent evidence leads more strongly toward an indication of guilt than previous evidence did, but it still seems that we may never know for sure.