When an emcee of a university cultural event proclaims, “We’ve never had anything quite like this,” one has the right to be skeptical—especially when said emcee then proceeds to encourage the attendees to purchase visors and logo-embroidered polo shirts. But in this case, Thane Rosenbaum deserved our credulousness. Saturday night at the Forum Film Festival, part of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at Fordham Law School, was distinguished by the presence of the most famous orphans in American history: Robert and Michael Meeropol, who until the mid-1950s were known as Robert and Michael Rosenberg, sons of Julius and Ethel.
The Meeropol brothers appeared at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, on the Upper West Side, as part of a screening of the Sydney Lumet film Daniel, which was adapted by E.L. Doctorow from his novel The Book of Daniel; film and novel alike portray Daniel and Susan Isaacson, whose parents are executed for conspiracy to commit espionage. Though Daniel derives significant inspiration from the Rosenberg case, over the years Doctorow has insisted it is fiction, with the attendant liberties taken. Still, one of the principle themes of the night was the relationship between fact and fiction, particularly when, as in this case, the facts have been highly disputed over the years.
n On June 19, 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg became the first civilians in this country’s history to be executed for espionage. The couple, 37 and 35 years old respectively, were Jewish Communists from New York, and their conviction represented an indelible moment during the Red Scare. The historical consensus now has it that the Rosenberg case suffered from prosecutorial misconduct; that Ethel Rosenberg was likely innocent and convicted on the basis of false testimony; and that Julius Rosenberg, while a committed Communist and a willing spy for the U.S.S.R., provided little information of value to his handlers and certainly nothing that gave the Soviets “the bomb,” as common wisdom had it in 1953. Moreover, Julius Rosenberg was part of a large, though largely ineffectual spy ring, yet he by far received the harshest sentence, in part because he invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to name names, and because his wife’s brother, David Greenglass, who had passed along atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, became the state’s principal witness in exchange for a lenient sentence.
It has been a long road to reach this point of understanding, aided in part by the 1995 release of the VENONA papers, a mass of Cold War-era intelligence gathered by the U.S. and Great Britain. After many years believing that both of their parents were innocent, even the Meeropol brothers have come to accept this perspective. “VENONA is the beginning of a process that changes our point of view,” said Michael.
“It’s now clear that there was a spy ring. My father was not an atomic scientist. He was a recruiter,” said Robert. The government wanted him because he knew names. “It was real, but it wasn’t what [the government] claimed it was.”
Both brothers seem remarkably well adjusted given what they have gone through and, unlike their filmic counterparts, have led successful lives. Michael Meeropol is a retired economics professor. Since leaving Western New England College, he has taught at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and is now writing a macroeconomics textbook with Howard Sherman. With his brother, he has devoted years of his life to Freedom of Information Act requests, lawsuits, research, and other efforts to learn more about the facts surrounding his parents’ case. But he was quick to note that being a Rosenberg doesn’t define him.
Robert Meeropol, who while fulminating about the government’s mishandling of the Khaled Sheikh Mohammed case identified himself as a “radical lefty,” has been a lawyer and anti-war activist. For two decades he has run the Rosenberg Fund for Children, a foundation which offers support to the children of progressive activists who are targeted by the government.
While Michael claims to be a great admirer of The Book of Daniel (“an excellent work of fiction”), he had never seen the film based on the novel. Robert had seen the movie 20 years earlier, but this viewing still proved emotional. “It was harder to watch than I thought it would be,” he said. “The longer I watched the madder I got.”
It was, I admit, a peculiar experience watching a film about one of America’s most infamous court cases with the children of the convicted sitting two rows behind me. Despite the post-screening discussion about distinguishing fact from fiction—Robert emphasized that it’s the responsibility of the viewer to know what’s true and what’s not—it still felt like a sort of violation to be in the same room, as if we rubes were somehow not suited to enjoy a drama based on the all too real suffering of these men.
And yet, there was no hesitation among the Meeropol brothers, who were joined onstage by Thane Rosenbaum and longtime New York Times reporter Clyde Haberman, in picking apart Lumet’s film, praising some elements and dismissing others. The “liberties” are too numerous to name them all.
In the years following the trial, Judge Irving Kaufman has emerged as one of the villains, particularly for his decision to sentence both of the Rosenbergs to death. As was pointed out Saturday night, Kaufman, ironically, was a Fordham alumnus. Haberman remarked that Kaufman spent the rest of his life trying to keep the Rosenberg case from the first line of his obituary—he became a prominent speaker on First Amendment issues—but failed.
“You couldn’t get away from the fact that everyone involved with this case”—the Rosenbergs, Greenglass, Kaufman, the notorious prosecutor Roy Cohn—”was Jewish,” Haberman said. “New York was a very Jewish city back then,” more so than now, he added.
The city’s sense of memory has shifted along with its demographics. In 2003, on the 50th anniversary of the Rosenbergs’ execution, Haberman went to the couple’s grave at Wellwood Cemetery on Long Island. He expected at least a few old lefties to make pilgrimage to the site, but no one showed. Finally, a groundskeeper saw Haberman looking at the graves and, noticing that they died on the same day, asked, “An accident?”