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Rosenberg Boys Appear at ‘Daniel’ Screening

Fact versus fiction (versus other people’s facts)

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Michael Meeropol at the screening.(Bruce Gilbert/Forum Film Festival)

When an emcee of a university cultural event proclaims, “We’ve never had anything quite like this,” one has the right to be skeptical—especially when said emcee then proceeds to encourage the attendees to purchase visors and logo-embroidered polo shirts. But in this case, Thane Rosenbaum deserved our credulousness. Saturday night at the Forum Film Festival, part of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at Fordham Law School, was distinguished by the presence of the most famous orphans in American history: Robert and Michael Meeropol, who until the mid-1950s were known as Robert and Michael Rosenberg, sons of Julius and Ethel.

The Meeropol brothers appeared at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, on the Upper West Side, as part of a screening of the Sydney Lumet film Daniel, which was adapted by E.L. Doctorow from his novel The Book of Daniel; film and novel alike portray Daniel and Susan Isaacson, whose parents are executed for conspiracy to commit espionage. Though Daniel derives significant inspiration from the Rosenberg case, over the years Doctorow has insisted it is fiction, with the attendant liberties taken. Still, one of the principle themes of the night was the relationship between fact and fiction, particularly when, as in this case, the facts have been highly disputed over the years.

n On June 19, 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg became the first civilians in this country’s history to be executed for espionage. The couple, 37 and 35 years old respectively, were Jewish Communists from New York, and their conviction represented an indelible moment during the Red Scare. The historical consensus now has it that the Rosenberg case suffered from prosecutorial misconduct; that Ethel Rosenberg was likely innocent and convicted on the basis of false testimony; and that Julius Rosenberg, while a committed Communist and a willing spy for the U.S.S.R., provided little information of value to his handlers and certainly nothing that gave the Soviets “the bomb,” as common wisdom had it in 1953. Moreover, Julius Rosenberg was part of a large, though largely ineffectual spy ring, yet he by far received the harshest sentence, in part because he invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to name names, and because his wife’s brother, David Greenglass, who had passed along atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, became the state’s principal witness in exchange for a lenient sentence.

It has been a long road to reach this point of understanding, aided in part by the 1995 release of the VENONA papers, a mass of Cold War-era intelligence gathered by the U.S. and Great Britain. After many years believing that both of their parents were innocent, even the Meeropol brothers have come to accept this perspective. “VENONA is the beginning of a process that changes our point of view,” said Michael.

“It’s now clear that there was a spy ring. My father was not an atomic scientist. He was a recruiter,” said Robert. The government wanted him because he knew names. “It was real, but it wasn’t what [the government] claimed it was.”

Both brothers seem remarkably well adjusted given what they have gone through and, unlike their filmic counterparts, have led successful lives. Michael Meeropol is a retired economics professor. Since leaving Western New England College, he has taught at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and is now writing a macroeconomics textbook with Howard Sherman. With his brother, he has devoted years of his life to Freedom of Information Act requests, lawsuits, research, and other efforts to learn more about the facts surrounding his parents’ case. But he was quick to note that being a Rosenberg doesn’t define him.

Robert Meeropol, who while fulminating about the government’s mishandling of the Khaled Sheikh Mohammed case identified himself as a “radical lefty,” has been a lawyer and anti-war activist. For two decades he has run the Rosenberg Fund for Children, a foundation which offers support to the children of progressive activists who are targeted by the government.

While Michael claims to be a great admirer of The Book of Daniel (“an excellent work of fiction”), he had never seen the film based on the novel. Robert had seen the movie 20 years earlier, but this viewing still proved emotional. “It was harder to watch than I thought it would be,” he said. “The longer I watched the madder I got.”

It was, I admit, a peculiar experience watching a film about one of America’s most infamous court cases with the children of the convicted sitting two rows behind me. Despite the post-screening discussion about distinguishing fact from fiction—Robert emphasized that it’s the responsibility of the viewer to know what’s true and what’s not—it still felt like a sort of violation to be in the same room, as if we rubes were somehow not suited to enjoy a drama based on the all too real suffering of these men.

And yet, there was no hesitation among the Meeropol brothers, who were joined onstage by Thane Rosenbaum and longtime New York Times reporter Clyde Haberman, in picking apart Lumet’s film, praising some elements and dismissing others. The “liberties” are too numerous to name them all.

In the years following the trial, Judge Irving Kaufman has emerged as one of the villains, particularly for his decision to sentence both of the Rosenbergs to death. As was pointed out Saturday night, Kaufman, ironically, was a Fordham alumnus. Haberman remarked that Kaufman spent the rest of his life trying to keep the Rosenberg case from the first line of his obituary—he became a prominent speaker on First Amendment issues—but failed.

“You couldn’t get away from the fact that everyone involved with this case”—the Rosenbergs, Greenglass, Kaufman, the notorious prosecutor Roy Cohn—”was Jewish,” Haberman said. “New York was a very Jewish city back then,” more so than now, he added.

The city’s sense of memory has shifted along with its demographics. In 2003, on the 50th anniversary of the Rosenbergs’ execution, Haberman went to the couple’s grave at Wellwood Cemetery on Long Island. He expected at least a few old lefties to make pilgrimage to the site, but no one showed. Finally, a groundskeeper saw Haberman looking at the graves and, noticing that they died on the same day, asked, “An accident?”

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Bill Pearlman says:

The Rosenbergs got exactly what was coming to them. The North Koreans started the korean war because they knew the Russians were behind them. The Russians got the bomb early because of the Rosenbergs and the rest of their cohort. Hence, a lot of Jewish serviceman didn’t come back from Korea.

Bennett Muraskin says:

Jacob Silberman has got it mostly right, but Julius Rosenberg’s (non-atomic) spy right did yield important military secrets to the Soviets.

Further, although legally innocent, Ethel must have known what her husband was up to and probably knew what her brother, David Greenglass was up to as well.

David Greenglass is still alive and was interviewed by a Samuel Roberts, a New York Times reporter, a few years ago for a very interesting book called The Brother.

Walter Schneir’s posthumously published book argues that Greenglass was solely responsible for stealing atomic secrets from Los Alamos, where he was employed as a technician, but I find that unbelievable. He was part of Julius Rosenberg’s spy ring and there is every reason to believe that Julius encouraged or directed him to find out what he could and pass it along to the Soviets.

True, Greenglass did not come up with very valuable information, but it was not for lack of trying.

There were much more effective atomic spies than Greenglass. It was they, not Greenglass or Rosenberg, who did indeed give the Soviets information that accelerated their development of the A-bomb.

Bennett Muraskin says:

I meant “spy ring.” Sorry for the typo.

Dennis says:

Silverman’s paragraph 3 is wildly off the mark: Harvey Klehr wrote in 2000: “But to scholars of the Rosenberg case the main points are not subject to debate. The evidence available in the 1950’s was enough to sustain their conviction. And more recent documents available from Russia and the Venona files make clear that Julius headed an extensive Soviet espionage apparatus, engaged in atomic spying, and his wife Ethel not only knew about his activities but actively assisted her husband. About the only disputed question is whether the death penalty was excessive.” From The Communist Experience in America: A Political and Social History, 2010.

Bennett Muraskin says:

The Venona files confirmed Julius’s military espionage,not his atomic espionage. Julius stumbled into atomic espionage by sheer coincidence when his brother in law Davis Greenglass was assigned to Los Alamos, where the A-bomb was being developed.

I don’t believe there is any solid proof that Ethel actively assisted her husband.
Alexander Felkisov, Julius’ Soviet handler wrote in The Man Behind the Rosenbergs that Ethel was not directly involved.

Finally, the fairness of the trial is certainly subject to debate and the consensus is that it was rigged against the defendants.

Michael Meeropol says:

For Mr. Muraskin — Walter Schneir’s book is based on KGB files which show that my father was “fired” by the KGB in early 1945 because the FBI had discovered he was a communist and had him fired from his government job. The KGB was afraid the FBI might be on to his spying as well — so they cut him out of the loop. THus, things David and Ruth Greenglass testified to at the trial which included my father and mother (especially the important September, 1945 meeting where the so-called secret of the Atom Bomb was conveyed) never took place. Proof? The diagram Greenglass drew didn’t get to Moscow till December of 1945 — consistent with a later meeting of the Greenglasses directly with their KGB contact.

For Mr. Pearlman — even if every word spoken at the trial were true (and David Greenglass admits he lied about my mother’s involvement) my parents had NOTHING to do with the Soviets getting the bomb — that was the work of Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Alvin Hall to name two —

You can believe what you want but the documentation is clear my mother was merely a hostage taken to get my father to talk.

Bennett Muraskin says:

To Michael Meeropol:

My family was devoted to saving the Rosenberg’s lives and for many years Ibelieved in their total innocence. My father worked tirelessly to free Morton Sobell on the grounds that he was innocent as well. I am sure we know people in common.

We were deceived.

The new Schneir book has not, as far as I know, changed the scholarly consensus that Julius Rosenberg recruited David Greenglass to steal atomic secrets at Los Alamos. If I am wrong, please give me some citations and I would be happy to investigate further.

Given the close relationship between the Greenglass and Rosenberg families, I find it hard to believe the Greenglasses operated on their own. Certainly they knew that the Rosenbergs would approve of their spying activity. At a minimum, the Rosenbergs must have known what the Greenglasses were up to. More likely Julius was in on it.

That said, I agree that Ethel was legally not guilty and that the information Greenglass stole was not critical to the Soviet Union’s development of the A-bomb.

But it was not for lack of trying. Please accept that the Rosenbergs and the Greenglasses were totally committed to spying for the Soviet Union–and it was Julius who recruited David.

Bennett Muraskin says:

I did some checking and it appears that Julius Rosenberg continued to spy for the Soviet Union and coordinate the activities of other spies in his ring until 1948.

Does Mr. Meeropol really believe David Greenglass stole atomic secrets at Los Alamos and gave them to Soviet agents without the knowledge and connivance of his brother in law Julius Rosenberg????

With all due respect, that does not ring true.

Michael Meeropol says:

“Knowledge” and “connivance” are two different things —

Knowledge is not a crime —

Connivance in atomic espionage ended when my father got his (to use Walter Schneir’s words) “pink slip” from the KGB …

That he and Morton Sobell engaged in espionage after World War II is not relevant to the charges made at the trial and before the bar of history —

Bennett Muraskin says:

Are you conceding that Julius Rosenberg was aware that David Greenglass was passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union? He knew, but he was not directly involved? Is that what you are saying?

He certainly did not make this claim in court! “David told me what he was up to, but I did not have anything to do with it” would have made for a better defense that just blaming the Greenglasses.

In your last paragraph, you concede that Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell continued to engage in espionage after WW II.

Do you realize that you have just exploded the claim of certain apologists who defend Julius Rosenberg on the grounds that his motive was simply to aid a wartime ally of the US?

Furthermore, you just admitted that he was not pink slipped by the KGB after all!

Once again, I ask if the new Schneir book has caused any scholars of the case to change their minds?

I was fed a ton of lies about the innocence of the Rosenbergs and Sobell growing up–which, of course, does not compare to the tragedy of your situation as their child.

I know that the trial was unfair and the sentence too severe, but there is still the issue of historical truth.

Michael Meeropol says:

I will answer Mr. Muraskin point by point —

I don’t know what my father knew about David Greenglass’s spying after he was pink slipped in 1945. Maybe Greenglass told him — maybe Greenglass dealt only with the KGB contacts. What we do know is the story (told at the trial by both Greenglasses) about the jello box and the September 1945 meeting were false — according to information in THE HAUNTED WOOD.

Yes, at the trial my parents committed perjury — they were trying to save their lives. You should read Walter Schneir’s book (or re-read it). He makes a convincing case that both my parents were faced with an impossible choice — If my father confessed to what he did (and my mother confessed to what she knew) how could they convince the jury that they didn’t do all the atom bomb stuff?

Your second point — conceding what my father did with Morton Sobell after World War II does not change his motivation in 1941 (though some so-called historians have tried to argue that he started spying before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union — a lie contradicted by the KGB documents that claim he began contacts with Jacob Golos in late 1941).

He helped an ally defeat Hitler. After World War II, he continued to help the Soviet Union — Both of those facts can be true. His motivation is unfortunately impossible to ascertain. (another reason the Death Penalty is such an abomination)

I did not admit he wasn’t pink slipped. Obviously, sometime after the war ended he got back into contact with them and they figured he wasn’t in danger after all.

Pink slips are layoff notices — and often people laid off are recalled.

If you are going to try to deny that he was pink slipped you have to deny that the KGB document quoted by Walter Schneir was somehow forged by a Rosenberg supporter trying to trick people like you 66 years later.

The Schneir book didn’t change Ronald Radosh’s mind — neither Steve Usdin’s.


Michael Meeropol says:

Final comments for Mr. Muraskin —

You should re-read the original arguments made by the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case back in the 1950s. THey argued that there was “GRAVE DOUBT” about the fairness of the trial and the severity of the sentence. The coalition that tried to save their lives included many people who thought they were guilty but didn’t deserve to die — or those who thought they probably were guilty but that it hadn’t been proved in a fair trial.

It is true that they and Morton (and Helen) Sobell lied about the whole and complete truth.

I do not think it is fair to say that either Walter and Miriam Schneir or John Wexley or Wiliam Reuben knew they were guilty of “something” (definitely not of stealing the secret of the Atom Bomb).

They used the evidence in front of them.

WHen my brother and I went around the country arguing for complete innocence we often criticized the approach of the defense at the trial.

You should check out my brother’s blog about Walter Schneir’s book because he makes a very strong point — Manny Bloch (my parents’ lawyer) had it right. The Greenglasses did build up my father’s role to downgrade their role — and the government went along because they wanted my father to name names.

They also took my mother as a hostage and later murdered her.

I do not think anger at being lied to by Helen and Morton Sobell and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg should blind you to the fact that a terrible crime was committed by the US government in this case — and that crime became part of a generalized repressive atmosphere that poisoned our body politic for decades …

Even before the KGB files were opened, the Venona decryptions revealed that people inside the government knew my mother was not an espionage agent — but they acquiesced in taking her as a hostage.

Save your anger for them — for that — and much more.


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Rosenberg Boys Appear at ‘Daniel’ Screening

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