Except for vague impressions of living in a tiny apartment with a warm and loving family, Robert Meeropol remembers very little about his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sentenced to death 59 years ago today for passing atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets.
Meeropol, who was 3 when his parents were arrested, says his first real memories of his parents were of the times he visited them in prison. Rather than being traumatic, those visits were comforting, he recalls.
The Rosenbergs’ impending executions prompted protests worldwide. Robert, then 6, and his brother Michael, 10, also demonstrated with their grandmother at the White House just days before their parents were put to death in the electric chair in the summer of 1953.
“I doubt I fully comprehended that my parents had just been killed, but I feigned complete ignorance to avoid the commotion, and went to bed,” Robert Meeropol recalled in his 2003 memoir, An Execution in the Family.
In the years after their parents’ arrest, the boys were shuffled between grandparents, friends and a shelter. After the executions, Rosenberg supporters Anne and Abel Meeropol adopted them. Anne had given birth to a stillborn child, and the couple was unable to have children of their own.
They lived happily and anonymously on the upper west side of Manhattan, a circumstance Meeropol considers remarkable.
“From 1954 to 1973,” he says, “there is not one word written about Michael and Robert Rosenberg. There’s no exposure. There’s no confrontation. How could that happen today?”
In 1973, the brothers came out as the Rosenbergs’ sons when they sued famed trial lawyer Louis Nizer for copyright violations after he published their parents’ prison letters. After six years of wrangling, the case was settled out of court.
They grew up believing in their parents’ innocence, but by the mid-1980s, as more details of the case became public, they began to have their doubts.
A blockbuster revelation came in 2008 when Morton Sobell, convicted with the Rosenbergs, admitted to the New York Times that he had been a spy and implicated Julius Rosenberg. While Ethel knew what Julius was doing, Sobell said, she was guilty only of being Julius’ wife.
Today, Meeropol says, the overwhelming evidence is that his father may have passed some type of “military industrial” information—not atomic bomb secrets—to the Soviets, but that his mother was innocent.
“The thing that I want the American public to understand about my parents’ case,” Meeropol says, “Is that the idea that somehow all the evidence that Julius was guilty means that the government wasn’t wrong in what it did is a vast oversimplification and rationalization of the execution of two people for a crime they didn’t commit.”