- Robert Meeropol
younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. He is the founder and former executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children. Meeropol is author of the autobiography An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey. He and his brother Michael are calling on President Obama to posthumously exonerate their mother, Ethel Rosenberg.
Watch Part 2 of our interview with Robert Meeropol, who is calling on President Obama to posthumously exonerate his mother, Ethel Rosenberg. Supporters say there’s no evidence that Ethel Rosenberg took part in espionage that led to her execution.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, with Part 2 of our conversation about a critical story, a request for exoneration before President Obama leaves office.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, two brothers are making a last-ditch appeal to President Obama to clear their mother’s name. Michael and Robert Meeropol are calling on Obama to posthumously exonerate their mother, Ethel Rosenberg. She, along with their father, Julius Rosenberg, was charged with sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union and was executed on June 19th, 1953. The government alleged Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, along with Morton Sobell, helped the Soviet Union acquire the secret of the atomic bomb. But supporters say there’s no evidence that Ethel Rosenberg took part in espionage. A new report by the Seton Hall School of Law suggests Ethel was used by the government as a pawn for leverage in its attempt to build a case against her husband.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us for the second part of our conversation is Robert Meeropol, the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. He was six years old at the time of their execution at Sing Sing, upstate New York. He’s author of the autobiography An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey. He’s also founder and former executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.
Robert Meeropol, welcome back to Democracy Now!
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Always glad to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: In Part 1, we talked about your request of President Obama to exonerate your mother. But let’s take a step back for what we didn’t have time to do in the first part of the show, and talk about your experience of what happened to your parents. Start off now, as an adult, by explaining how they were arrested, where they were, and then bring yourself and your brother Michael into this and what happened to your parents.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Essentially, my parents were arrested in the summer of 1950. We lived in a small apartment in Knickerbocker Village, Lower East Side of Manhattan. I don’t remember the arrest. My brother does. It was after dinner. I was already asleep. And FBI agents knocked on the door and took my father away. And a month later, my mother went to testify before the grand jury, that was still investigating, and she was arrested when she finished her testimony. So, she left us with a babysitter, and she never came home. And except for a few brief prison visits, my brother and I never saw either of our parents again.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So how old were you at the time of their arrest?
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Just over three. It was just past my third birthday. And by the time they were executed, I was six. Now, this was the McCarthy period. Relatives were terrified. We ended up in a children’s shelter for a while.
AMY GOODMAN: First, your—their lawyer took you, right?
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Well, no, actually, Manny Bloch never took—Manny Bloch ultimately found Abel and Anne Meeropol for us, and considered adopting us, but he never did. We ended up being shuttled around. We ended up with friends or acquaintances of my parents in Toms River, New Jersey, which is where we were living when the executions took place on June 19, 1953. And that’s where the press found us. That’s where local people became very concerned about their children going to school with the children of the Rosenbergs. I was actually thrown out of the New Jersey public school system at the age of six. So—
AMY GOODMAN: And you had already been in an orphanage?
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Yeah. Well, in a shelter. And then, we—after we were finally reunited with—or finally got to meet Abel and Anne Meeropol at W.E.B. Du Bois’ house in—on Christmas Eve of 1953, we started living with them, and Manny Bloch, the lawyer, who was still our legal guardian, died of a heart attack. Right-wingers then started proceedings in court to have us seized and put in an orphanage, because we were being abused—not physically abused, but politically abused—by supporters of the Rosenbergs. But we won that battle. Our names were changed. And that’s why I’m here today.
AMY GOODMAN: But I want to ask about Abel and Anne Meeropol—
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —who adopted you. Abel’s stage name was Lewis Allan.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: He wrote this astounding song for Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit," about lynching.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah, he actually—first he wrote a poem, and then he put it to music—music, by the way, that nobody can classify. It’s often referred to as blues, because Billie Holiday sings—is a blues singer. But it really doesn’t fit that genre. No one knows where it came from. And it was performed a few times, and Abel Meeropol played it for Billie Holiday at Café Society in Greenwich Village. And Barney Josephson, the owner, encouraged Billie to sing it. And she sang it. And the rest is history, because it exploded, in terms of interest. The thing about "Strange Fruit" that I think is so important for people to understand, it’s not a dirge. It’s not a mournful song. It’s an attack song. It’s an attack against the perpetrators of lynching. And as such, it is extremely powerful, and it’s why it was banned, it’s why it caused riots, it’s why it helped destroy Billie Holiday’s life.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip of "Strange Fruit," written by Robert Meeropol’s adopted father, Abel Meeropol, whose stage name was Lewis Allan.
BILLIE HOLIDAY: [singing] Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
AMY GOODMAN: So that’s "Strange Fruit," that was written by Lewis Allan. That’s his stage man, for Abel Meeropol, the father of—the adopted father of Robert and Michael Meeropol. In fact, Billie Holiday said each time she sang that song, she had to go in the bathroom and throw up afterwards. It so wrenched her. This song became big again, Robert Meeropol.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Yeah, well, it’s been growing recently. But really one of the things that gave it a tremendous boost is somewhat ironic, in that Kanye West put Nina Simone’s version, or singing, "Blood on the leaves, blood on the leaves," in the background of a rap. And it was a pretty bad rap, in my opinion. And that caused an internet controversy, particularly African Americans feeling that this was the equivalent of sacrilege to do this to this song, which got everybody thinking about "Strange Fruit," everybody buying Nina Simone’s record, more people recording it. So, whatever Kanye West did that may offend people, it actually served a positive purpose in the long run.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go back, though, to what happened to your parents. They were charged with conspiring to give secrets to the Russians, right? Not exactly giving them.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: That’s right. In some ways, conspiracy is a planning crime. It just means two or more people got together and took one overt act in furtherance of a crime. And the reason the government charged my parents with conspiracy, as opposed to treason, as falsely mentioned in the clip you played earlier, is that you need certain kinds of evidence that the government didn’t have to convict someone of treason. And you need to—working for the enemy, and the enemy has to be in a declared war. And the Soviet Union, during World War II, was our ally. And the reason they went with conspiracy, as opposed to just spying, is, again, it’s easier to prove. And it’s spongy. You can have a conspiracy conviction without any physical evidence. And that’s what happened to my mother. The only testimony against her was oral.
And now that we know, with the release of the grand jury transcript of David and Ruth Greenglass’s testimony, that they swore Ethel wasn’t involved, before the grand jury, and they swore she was, before the trial, and in the meantime the government developed this whole scenario of using her as a lever—and you can see the creation of the perjury. You can see the government’s role in doing this. And as I’ve said before, the power of our argument is that we don’t claim this; the government files say this. And that’s, we think—I mean, a lot of people have asked me, "Well, is there a real chance? Is Obama going to do this?" I see it as a possibility, not a probability. But the more people, the more noise we make, the more probable it becomes. And presidents sometimes do surprising things just before they leave office. And I think, if we can get his attention and demonstrate how powerful our case is, especially given the upcoming Trump administration and what it could do to the judiciary, we’ve got a real shot.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Robert Meeropol, let’s just go back again.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: You were six years old, your brother was 10 years old, at the time of your parents’ execution. What did you understand of what had happened? I mean, from what you’ve said, obviously, there was a stigma associated with your name, until you ended up with Abel and Anne Meeropol. What did you understand then? And how did you come to learn of what exactly happened?
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Well, I knew very early on, though I can’t tell you when because it’s the fog of early memory, that something was terribly wrong with my family. It was like a dark cloud of generalized anxiety hung over us. And I understood, as I got four and five, that there was us and them. I didn’t know who they were, I didn’t know who we were. But I knew they were powerful, and we were weak, and we had to keep our heads down in order to prevent anything worse from happening, and that something worse might happen. And then, of course, it did.
But in terms of understanding the execution itself, I think I was still at that age where I believed that if you really, really, really wanted something to be true, it could—you could make it true. Sort of the age of magical thinking. And so that I think I understood that my parents had been killed, but within a week after their execution, my brother remembers me saying, "When are we going to go visit Mommy and Daddy in prison?" So, it’s clear that I understood and not—didn’t understand. And throughout that whole fall, I can’t tell you exactly when, but I know, by the start of 1954, I knew my parents were dead. I knew that I was never going to see them again.
AMY GOODMAN: June 19, 1953, the day they were executed, massive protest in Union Square. Were you and your brother brought there?
ROBERT MEEROPOL: No. We were—we went to one demonstration, or maybe two, but we were protected. I mean, one of the things—one of the myths that is good to dispel is there was a Hollywood film called Daniel, in which the children are brought to a rally and passed over the crowd and put on stage, which of course terrifies the children. Nothing like that ever happened. We were protected. The people around us made sure that that didn’t happen. But still, we—so we were actually in New Jersey living with acquaintances of my parents. We were taken to another friend’s house to play ball. And we basically—I was playing ball with—you know, playing catch with my friend, when the executions took place at sundown.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, if you can bear with us, we’re going to turn to a news clip, which I’m sure you’ve seen since then, from 1953, featuring a reporter who witnessed the execution of your mother, Ethel Rosenberg, in the electric chair.
BOB CONSIDINE: She died a lot harder. When it appeared that she had received enough electricity to kill an ordinary person and had received the exact amount that had killed her husband, the doctors went over and pulled down the cheap prison dress, a little dark green printed job, and placed the stethoscope—I can’t say it—placed the stethoscopes to her and then looked around and looked at each other, rather dumbfounded, and seemed surprised that she was not dead. Believing she was dead, the attendants had taken off the ghastly strappings and electrodes and the black belts and so forth. These had to be readjusted again, and she was given more electricity, which started again a kind of a ghastly plume of smoke that rose from her head and went up against the skylight overhead. After two more of those jolts, Ethel Rosenberg had met a maker she’ll have a lot of explaining to do to.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Bob Considine of the International News Service, 1953. They were executed on June 19th. Robby Meeropol, I’m sorry to play that for you today, but it’s for your mother, Ethel, that you are requesting this exoneration. Can you talk about how it came to be that she was tried with your father for conspiracy to sell secrets to—
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Well, or give.
AMY GOODMAN: To sell or give secrets to the Russians? And talk further about the role of the attorney, the prosecutor, Roy Cohn, since he plays, though he died 30 years ago, a key role today, with Trump having learned at his knee and revering Roy Cohn.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Well, I just—first I want to go back to that reporter’s final comment, she had a lot of explaining to do. Actually, she didn’t have any explaining to do. It was the government that has a lot of explaining to do, and it’s time for the government to do that explanation, to show its strength by righting that wrong.
That said, well, basically, after the arrest of my father, the government prosecutors were very keen to get him to say what they wanted him to say, in part because my father was no scientist in—well, he was an electrical engineer. He had a college degree in electrical engineering. But he was not the person who was actually involved in gathering some cutting-edge technological material during World War II to share with the Soviet Union. He was the recruiter. He was the person who got others involved. The government wanted to finger him, because he could name everybody else. And this wasn’t the atomic bomb, but it was a—but the government really wanted a big spy case. One of the prosecutors actually said, "If Julius Rosenberg would cooperate, we’d have the biggest spy case in the history of the world." And it was going to pin all of this on the Communist Party, which is exactly what Roy Cohn said in his clip. It was all part of this political process to convince the American people that the international communist conspiracy was going to destroy us. And involving the atomic bomb was a graphic way to do that, even though my father was not involved.
Well, when my father said, "No, no, I’m not going to say anything to you. I didn’t do this"—he denied doing this—the prosecutors wrote a memo, in which they said, "Well, you know, the only way we can get this guy to talk is to arrest" his mother—I mean—his mother—"his wife"—and my mother—"and give her a stiff prison sentence. We can use her as a lever." That’s the exact word they use. So, another prosecutor said, "Well, you know, there’s not really enough evidence." But they convinced them to do it anyway. They arrested her, and that was how she got involved. They really—she was an afterthought, as the Seton Hall report showed. So they didn’t really develop any evidence against her. They arrested her in the summer, and then in—of 1950. It’s now the—early 1951, and the trial’s going to take place in March, and it’s February, and there’s still no evidence against Ethel Rosenberg.
Well, then there’s an FBI memo that says, "Well, we have to develop the case against Ethel Rosenberg." And then it’s shortly after that that first Ruth Greenglass and then David Greenglass—
AMY GOODMAN: David Greenglass, your mother’s brother.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: —with Roy Cohn coaching him, fabricates the story. And Roy Cohn was the assistant prosecutor, but he was in charge of twisting David Greenglass’s arm.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain where David and Ruth were.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Well, David, who was my mother’s younger brother, was an Army sergeant who, during the war, was stationed at Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was being fabricated. Now, he had a high school education. He was a machinist building pieces of the bomb. He was no scientist. He ultimately did, without either of my parents’ involvement, through his wife Ruth, who had a code name and actually passed secrets—he ultimately did pass on a sketch of the atomic bomb, which all the scientists looked at and said, "Well, this is a baby drawing. This has got all sorts of errors. It can’t help the Soviet Union in any way." But that was years later, after they analyzed it. Back then, everybody thought the atomic bomb was magic. And this sketch, which was, by the way, a copy that David drew from memory just before the trial, not—there’s no physical evidence here. That’s the sketch that would justify the death sentences.
And my mother got involved—the way Greenglass got my mother involved was he said he had bad handwriting, and my mother was a typist, so she typed up the notes. And the prosecutor, in his summary, actually said, "Ethel Rosenberg, with each keystroke she made, she struck a blow against her country." And one of the jurors, who was later interviewed—there was one holdout about my mother. And one of the jurors, who was later interviewed, said, "There was one holdout very reluctant to convict Ethel. But when we pointed out her typing was what made this possible, that’s why the holdout was convinced."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in 2001, Bob Simon of 60 Minutes interviewed Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass.
BOB SIMON: You haven’t seen the Rosenberg children, the two boys, since the trial?
DAVID GREENGLASS: Mm-mm.
BOB SIMON: What would you say to them if they were here today?
DAVID GREENGLASS: I would say I’m sorry that your parents are dead.
BOB SIMON: Would you also say, "I’m sorry for the role I played"?
DAVID GREENGLASS: No, I can’t say that. That’s not true.
BOB SIMON: And you’re sitting here today a man with a clean conscience?
DAVID GREENGLASS: Absolutely. I sleep very well.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s your mother’s brother, David Greenglass, speaking to 60 Minutes in 2001. Can you respond to what he said?
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Well, way back then, I thought David and Ruth Greenglass were just weak. They were—the government said, "We’re going to—you say this, or we’re going to kill you." And so they said what the government wanted them to say. They had—Ruth had two small children. They cut a deal. She could—she would testify against my parents, and she would never be indicted, which she never was. She would get to stay home and take care of the kids.
AMY GOODMAN: They could have as easily indicted them and—
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Right
AMY GOODMAN: —over your parents.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Right. Well, they—you know, that’s—they could have as easily just arrested Ruth Greenglass, who actually did have a code name. But they didn’t. And so, David—but that was 2001. What we’ve learned since—and this really came out 2008, 2010—is that David and Ruth Greenglass weren’t just weak. They actually did some things, without my parents’ involvement. They actually then pinned what they did on my parents. So, in some ways, my belief—my understanding now of the case is their role was even worse than we expected. And they got away with it, to a large degree.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to a scene from the film Angels in America of Ethel Rosenberg, played by Meryl Streep. In this clip, she confronts Roy Cohn, played by Al Pacino.
ETHEL ROSENBERG: [played by Meryl Streep] I decided to come here so I could see: Could I forgive you? You, who I have hated so terribly. I have borne my hatred up into the heavens and made a needle-sharp little star in the sky out of it. It’s the star of Ethel Rosenberg’s hatred. And it burns every year, for one night only: June 19. It burns acid green. I came to forgive, but all I can do is take pleasure in your misery, hoping I would get to see you die more terrible than I did. And you are, because you’re dying in [bleep], Roy, defeated. And you could kill me, but you couldn’t ever defeat me. You never won. And when you die, all anyone will ever say is "Better he had never lived at all."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s a clip from the 2003 film Angels in America, with Meryl Streep playing your mother, Ethel Rosenberg. And it’s actually a TV version of the Tony Kushner play. So, could you talk more about that?
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Well, I think Angels in America is brilliant. I think that what Tony Kushner did was fabulous. I think that—and I think Meryl Streep’s ability to look like my mother—I don’t think she—I mean, I think she may have overdone the accent a little bit. My mother spoke probably with a strong New York accent, not a little bit of Yiddish, but—because she was born in this country. But in any event, there were people who were upset that it shows my mother saying Kaddish over Roy Cohn, and they thought that that was—that she shouldn’t have been so understanding. But I think the general tone is such that it doesn’t bother me.
And it’s also really important because the—my mother—the story of my mother and Roy Cohn, through this and through other work, sort of seeps into our cultural consciousness, and it pervades the culture. And one of the things that I’m so pleased about our exoneration campaign is particularly because we’ve used the vehicle of an online petition, and because we’ve gotten so much publicity, we have introduced my mother to a new generation. And that means that this story is going to live on.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you, Robert Meeropol, and the Rosenberg Fund for Children and your brother Michael are asking President Obama to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg. And among those who have signed this petition at RFC.org, the Rosenberg Fund for Children, are, well, the former governor of Massachusetts, former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. In the first part of this conversation, you talked about his seminal role here. Maybe you could now expand, because you were talking about Sacco and Vanzetti. For young people, they don’t know if you’re talking about a clothing store, Sacco and Vanzetti—who they were and why this plays into your mother’s story?
ROBERT MEEROPOL: Sacco and Vanzetti were a pair of Italian anarchists who were executed by the government, the state government of Massachusetts, in the 1920s at a time of anti-anarchist hysteria. And the trial was a travesty. And Governor Dukakis, on the 50th anniversary of their execution, issued a proclamation. He didn’t declare them innocent. He said, essentially, the trial was unfair. The—
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what they were convicted of.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: They were convicted of bank robbery and killing a bank guard. Or, actually, I should correct that. I think they were convicted of a payroll robbery and killing a guard. And they—Dukakis basically said the trial was so unfair, we are nullifying the verdict, and we are removing all stigma and stain from them and their families. And that proclamation was issued in 1977. Thirty—25 years after that, or more—this was in 2003, I believe, could have been 2004—at a Sacco and Vanzetti event, which I attended, in Boston, Dukakis was there, and he handed me the proclamation. And I read it, and I looked at it, and I said, "Whoa! This is what we need to do in my parents’ case." And that idea, that seed, was planted. But it took a long time to figure out how to bring it to fruition. And in the meantime, because of Morton Sobell’s admission of my father’s involvement, we focused just on Ethel, not both my parents. But he—he has provided a model.
AMY GOODMAN: Dukakis.
ROBERT MEEROPOL: And if he could do it—if Dukakis could do it in Massachusetts, and the sky has not fallen, then Obama can do it for the country. And it will benefit us all.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Robert Meeropol, the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the founder and former executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children. Robert Meeropol is also author of the autobiography An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey. He and his brother Michael are calling on President Obama to exonerate their mother, Ethel Rosenberg.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.