Sunday, December 28, 2008
Posted by Maggie May Labels: ethel julius rosenberg
I have long been fascinated with the story of
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the infamous
Jewish citizens of the United States who were
put to death by our government, accused of
being spies in the 1940's who released information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.
Starting with my middle school absorption with
the story of Anne Frank, I read everything I
could get my hands on about Nazi Germany,
then Hitler, then Jewish immigrants to the US
during Nazi occupation, then Jewish people in
the United States, which lead to broader reading
on what it was like to be Jewish in the US ( one of my favorite novels of this ilk is Michael Chabon's book ' The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay' ) and the governmental and
societal response toward Jewish citizens ( another great way for insights to this time is to read
any of the biographies of Eleanor or FDR- I highly recommend the biography (there are three books to the set ) of Eleanor ).
Ethel and Julius were intellectuals, fascinating people with an intense politically active life at a
time when politics were highly combustible and the country was on tender hooks. Their granddaughter Ivy, who grew up to be a filmmaker, made a documentary film on the married couple that I highly recommend: Heir To An Execution, aired on HBO.
The Rosenberg's were admitted Communist and part of a small political organization that was
ultimately taken apart by the government and picked clean for information. Julius and Ethel
claimed innocence of all charges against them after their arrest in their small New York apartment, in the presence of their two adolescent sons. After a protracted legal battle, the Rosenberg's- amidst much controversy- were both executed in 1953. Their two children lived briefly with their grandmother until she claimed she could not care for them, and they were moved to foster care, living with Abel and Anne Meeropol in the Bronx. They took on their foster parent's surname until adulthood.
The Rosenberg boys began a campaign in the 1970's to prove their parent's innocence. They went to court against the US government to demand that all records of the Rosenberg's guilt and trial be made open to the public. In 2008, Morton Sobell, an old college and political colleague of Julius Rosenberg, came forward and admitted that he and Julius had engaged in espionage.
The NYT article, the confession of an old friend, was confirmation enough for the sons that their parents were guilty- but still not deserving, they say, of the electric chair. Of death.
Reading Sobell's confession was sad; I felt let down that the story I had followed all these years ends on a sour note. It is a human note, an honest note, though, that there wasn't 'good' and 'evil' so clearly in this case- nor simply the 'innocent' and the 'guilty'. The Rosenberg's made mistakes, and the government, in the eyes of many, made the irascable mistake of killing two people, two parents.
I look forward to reading more about these people and hopefully one day, one of the son's will put out a book telling the story through his eyes, his memories, his understanding. This is much more than simply the story of two people- it is a story about how our government functions in crisis, of how our media responds, how political organizations both small and large function, how Jewish people both felt and were viewed during this time period, and how history records our actions.