Who remembers Julius and Ethel Rosenberg? I do, and I date myself by my answer.
The Rosenbergs were electrocuted at Sing Sing prison in 1953 as “atomic spies.” They left two young sons, Michael 10 and Robert 6. We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg is their account of what they remember of life with their parents before their arrest in 1950, their experiences in the years the Rosenbergs were in prison prior to their execution, and what came afterwards.
Forget about guilt or innocence. It is a terrible story and painful to read. They live now as Michael and Robert Meeropol, having taken the name of the couple who adopted them in 1957. By then, as Robert remembers,
I was the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. I never talked about them with any of my friends, Even with Michael, Abel and Anne [adoptive parents], I had the briefest of exchanges about them. In fact, I suppressed most of my memories.
Michael felt the he had betrayed his “real” parents. Robert continues,
For me the past was painful to remember and easy to forget, but Michael continued to be tormented by his memories of having denied he was a son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. From the time we adopted the Meeropol name, he tried to set his sights on a year when he would assume his real name….
Written in 1975, the book is structured as a double memoir. Michael, who had the clearest memory of life with his parents, wrote Part I, The Long Nightmare. Robert then continues the story in Part II, A New Life. Much of Part I is made up of excerpts from the letters the Rosenbergs wrote from prison. Julius, until the very end, believed that they would be released. In late 1951, he writes to Ethel:
I’ll save up my gift to you until the day we go home together and then both can live again. Nothing I say or do can bring our joyous moment close but I am very optimistic.
And again to Ethel,
Oh my darling even though I’m confident and know we’ll eventually be set free, for the sake of our children and our innocence I hope our going home happens fast.
Julius also continued to believe that their resistance to pleading guilty was the right course.
As long as we do the right thing by our children and by the good people of the world nothing else matters. We will have to call on the great strength of the solid union of our hearts and souls to find the stamina to face what is in store for us, with courage and dignity. If I may say so myself I think we ought to be proud that we didn’t weaken to any blandishments that would leave compromised any of our principles.
Michael recounts the prison visits that began a year after the initial arrest, as well as his memories of being shuffled from family member to family member and also spending some time in an orphanage. Their later adoption by the Meeropols did not erase the past, but made it possible for them to grow up in spite of it. Most of that story is told by Robert, with enlivening accounts of his experiments with left-wing activism, all the while concealing his Rosenberg connection.
Many whites had a hard time internalizing their oppression, but I never had much difficulty with that. The government had taken an active part in destroying a segment of my life – my anger was not theoretical but internal.
Several years ago I heard Robert Meeropol talk about his present activities. After a career as an educator, editor and lawyer, he now heads the Rosenberg Fund for Children. The anger is internal, but he been able to turn it toward public service.