Heir to an Execution

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            People do not flock to documentary films in theaters.  Too short, too serious, too true, not enough entertainment bang for the buck.  Even the best of these have trouble finding distributors.  It’s especially rewarding to find and review documentaries that contribute a new piece, however small, to the puzzle of history. 

            One of these is “Heir to an Execution” by Ivy Meeropol – director, filmmaker, and granddaughter of convicted American spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  Ms. Meeropol’s father and uncle have lived for nearly fifty years with the fact that their parents were executed for passing atomic secrets to Russia at the beginning of both the Cold War and the McCarthy persecutions.  During those five decades the controversy over their guilt or innocence has been intense, particularly in the national academic community.  Why are we still talking about this case fifty years after the fact?  Because the secrets of the atomic bomb were the stakes, and the Americans who developed it understood at the time that it could and would probably eventually destroy the world.  In that very American decade, we trusted only ourselves with that new and humbling secret. 

            Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were surrounded in the late ‘40s by poverty and dreamed of a socialist world that could solve social problems.  They either did, or didn’t do, what they were accused of to further that cause.  They were turned in by Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who later testified at his sister’s trial.  Ethel was sent to Sing Sing Prison, her two young sons taken from her and put in various custodial arrangements until they were adopted by the Meeropol family, adoptive parents they came to love. 
            A week before the Rosenberg execution, the FBI asked the couple to witness the guilt of 25 names they had on a list.  The Rosenbergs refused, and one of those men, now 103, breaks down on camera, fifty years of gratitude later.  After Julius was executed, the FBI asked Ethel once gain to witness the names; again she refused.  In June of 1953 she was killed in 4 ½ minutes.

Ivy Meeropol wanted to reclaim the story of her family.  To do this, she knew she had to seek out her grandparents’ friends before they die.  These friends have vivid, valuable memories of a young couple with two small sons, working hard, part of a big extended family, idealists in their immediate world of poverty. 

            Is it the American in us that always looks for a silver lining?  If there is even a hint of one in this terribly sad story, it is that so many Americans, perhaps naively it now seems, spent their adult lives convinced and dedicated to the Rosenbergs ’ innocence.  So determined were these intellectuals to hold McCarthyism at bay that they held fast for fifty years.  What we know now is that enough time, as “The New Republic” recently remarked, has passed for the process of disentangling McCarthyism and anti-Communism to begin.


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