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 executed on June 19th, 1953. At the time, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover accused the couple of committing “the crime of the century.”
Robert Meeropol talking:
we’re asking for an exoneration, as opposed to a pardon. First of all, a pardon implies that somebody is guilty. It’s a forgiveness for something they did. We know, from KGB files and other places, that Ethel Rosenberg was never given a code name, so we know that the KGB did not consider her a spy. And she wasn’t a spy. So, we’re not asking for a pardon.
Instead, what we’re saying is that the trial, the entire trial, was a perversion of justice. The judge and the prosecutor secretly communicated. The prosecution developed this plan to use my mother as a hostage, basically, to use her as a lever to coerce my father into saying what the government wanted him to say. And then the prosecution encouraged the chief prosecution witnesses, David and Ruth Greenglass, the only people who gave information against my mother at the trial, all oral, to invent a story of my mother typing up certain notes from David Greenglass, which never happened.
So, when Seton Hall took a look and sort of deconstructed this trial in a 26-page, very painstaking report—that we did not commission, this was independent—what they basically said was she was used as an afterthought. She was there to coerce cooperation from my father. And that’s the only reason they did it.
And what’s particularly dangerous about this—it’s not just about my personal desire to exonerate my mother, to have President Obama, before he leaves office, essentially nullify the verdict in that case against my mother, but instead to demonstrate that if the government is going to create evidence and facilitate the conviction of someone in a capital case for political purposes, this is a threat to civil society. This is the way the judiciary is used in authoritarian societies. It is incompatible with a free and open society. So we’re not just doing this for ourselves. We’re doing it to preserve, I would say, freedom in this country, in general, and the right to dissent, because the courts can be used as devastating instruments of repression, as they were during the McCarthy period. And we can fear in the coming years that this may happen again.
there’s actual television footage. I mean, one of the things about our campaign is that it’s not just our claims. We use all the government’s material in order to destroy the government’s case. And in the Roy Cohn case, there’s actually a television interview in which he talks about how he coerced David Greenglass into making up this testimony about my mother’s typing. So, that’s—he is—Roy Cohn can be said to be one of the principal architects of my mother’s execution.
And he did represent both Donald Trump’s father and Donald Trump, and Donald Trump has said, “This is my mentor. He taught me how to respond to attacks.” So, it’s one of the reasons that we’re pushing Obama in the last days of his administration, because we know, once his administration is over, that President Trump is not going to admit that his mentor executed someone who was not a spy for spying. So that’s—that’s the connection. And it’s—we don’t think that this is—this is our last chance, at least for the next four or eight years.
once Morton Sobell, my parents’ co-defendant, in 2008 essentially said, “Hey, Julius and I did it. We were engaged—it wasn’t the secret of the atomic bomb, but we were engaged in trying to help the Soviet Union defeat the Nazis during World War II. It was electronics. It was other military information.” But at the trial, Julius was accused, essentially, of conspiring to spy, and we now know that he did spy. Now, it’s true the trial was just as unfair in his case. He was executed for stealing the secret of the atomic bomb, something he didn’t do. But it’s a much more subtle claim. It’s a much more difficult situation than with my mother, who, again, perhaps the most powerful and simple evidence is the fact that she wasn’t given a code name. Well, David Greenglass had a code name. Ruth Greenglass had a code name.
Julius Rosenberg had a code name. Ethel Rosenberg had no code name. So we know she wasn’t a spy. We know the KGB did not consider her a spy. And anybody who claims that she was a spy is essentially saying, “We know better than the KGB who was a KGB spy,” which is a laughable claim, if it weren’t so tragic.
To use family members to hold them hostage, it’s actually what terrorists do. And then, as one of—a former secretary state, Secretary of State Rogers, was quoted as ultimately saying, “Ethel Rosenberg called our bluff.” In other words, the whole thing was a bluff. Well, that’s outrageous. And we can’t allow the judicial system to be used in this manner.
And I do want to urge—one thing I want to emphasize, we have—we’re somewhere between 45,000 and 46,000 people on our online petition urging President Obama to do this. I’d love to get to the 50,000 mark. You know, every signature counts. But big numbers are symbolically important.
In some ways, the inspiration for this campaign, because it was his proclamation about Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian anarchists who were executed in the 1920s by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, that could be a model for this presidential proclamation. And it’s at the Rosenberg Fund for Children. That’s—if you go to their website, really easy website, RFC.org, you’re going to go right to the petition.
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.
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.
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.
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.
– Abel and Anne Meeropol who adopted, Abel’s stage name was Lewis Allan. He wrote this astounding song for Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit,” about lynching.
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.
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.
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.
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.
– June 19, 1953, the day they were executed, massive protest in Union Square.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dukakis. 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.
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.
— source democracynow.org