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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

October 4, 2001

Hanging prominently in Robert Meeropol's living room, above the stereo, is an image of his biological parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The couple, convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, were executed on June 19, 1953, when Meeropol was 6 years old. His brother, Michael, was 10.

Questions surrounding the Rosenberg case have been a polarizing force in American politics and culture. Were they dangerous traitors who passed the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union? Or were they leftists caught up in the maelstrom of McCarthyism's worst and most lethal excesses?

Meeropol's anguish over losing his parents is still real. The criminals, as far as he is concerned, were the executioners. As a young man, he wanted to see those who orchestrated his parents' death themselves charged with murder and executed.

But 30 years ago he had a conversion and became an outspoken critic of capital punishment. He keeps his parents' memory alive through a foundation he started 11 years ago called The Rosenberg Fund for Children ( It makes grants to children of what he calls "targeted progressive activists" and political prisoners.

In almost every room of the modest suburban cape in Easthampton that he shares with his wife, Elli, a pediatric nurse practitioner, are posters or photographs, mostly connected to the foundation, that bear his parents' likeness or their name. (The couple's grown daughters are Jenn, 28, and Rachel, 25.)

Meeropol says that given the large amount of artwork the Rosenberg case inspired, he could line his walls with images of his parents. Instead, he gives a place of honor to his favorite piece: a framed silk scarf designed by the French cubist Fernand Leger. A line drawing of Julius Rosenberg in profile slightly overlapping a frontal view of Ethel Rosenberg's face is framed by the words "Liberte, Paix, Solidarite" (Liberty, Peace, Solidarity).

The artist created it to raise money for the Rosenbergs' defense. Before plans to mass produce and sell the scarves were realized, however, "the executions took place and there was nothing to raise money for," says Meeropol.

His scarf, which is starting to fade, bears in French the hand-inked inscription: "For Robert, orphan." Displaying it "makes them a part of my life," says Meeropol. "The only way they could be a part of my life is through images."

He remembers the day his parents died. It was hot and he and his brother were playing ball at a home in New Jersey where they were taken by friends to avoid reporters. After the arrests in 1950, they had been shunted among various relatives, some wary of being associated with them, and a city-run shelter in New York, where they lived. For a time, they stayed with their maternal grandmother, Tessie Greenglass, who pleaded with Ethel Rosenberg to testify against her husband to save her own life. Ethel's brother, David, a machinist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, gave key testimony. Sentenced to 15 years in prison after admitting to passing atomic secrets, he was released in 1960.

The latest addition to the small library of books about the case focuses on him. "The Brother: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair" by Sam Roberts (Random House) was released last month.

After the execution, the boys were forced to leave New Jersey when the local school board discovered who they were. They spent some time with their paternal grandmother, Sophie Rosenberg, before being introduced to Anne and Abel Meeropol, who adopted them.

They lived in relative anonymity until the early 1970s when, in part feeling compelled to respond to their portrayal in a book by Louis Nizer - "The Implosion Conspiracy" (Doubleday) - they went public. Besides assailing Nizer's conclusions, they successfully sued him for violating copyrights they inherited to their parents' extensive prison correspondences.

In 1975, as part of a campaign to reopen the Rosenberg case, they published their own book, "We Are Your Sons" (Houghton Mifflin). "We made a real dent in public opinion," says Meeropol.

Seven years later, Meeropol, at age 54, started law school and entered private practice in business and tax law, then left that to create his foundation for children faced with issues similar to those forced on him and his brother, now an economics professor at Western New England College in Springfield.

Getting the foundation off the ground was difficult, he says, because he had to raise money, give it away, create an endowment, and pay himself, all at the same time without a major benefactor. He couldn't have done it without his legal training, he said. Most donations come as $25 checks, and the foundation is well on its way to making a quarter of a million dollars in grants this year, up from $188,243 last year.

When he started, most of the money came "from people involved with my parents' case," says Meeropol, but as that generation passes from the scene, more and more of the money comes "from people who just like what we are doing."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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