With a couple of exceptions, I usually have spent June 19th, the anniversary of my parents’ execution, quietly. This year on the 19th, I’ll be leading a talk-back at Judson Memorial Church (55 Washington Sq. South, NYC, 4:00-6:00PM) after showing a film that, at first, I wanted no part of.
In early 2008 when two French documentarians, Robert & Clara Kuperberg of Wichita Films, first called me, I was quite skeptical. I was reluctant because they asked if they could interview me for a film they intended to have aired on French National Television entitled: The Brother who sent the Rosenbergs to the Electric Chair.
The film’s title was inspired by New York Times reporter Sam Roberts’ book, The Brother, published in 2001. Sam Roberts had induced David Greenglass, my mother’s younger brother and the chief prosecution witness at my parents’ trial, to tell his story in return for a share of the profits from the book. Some felt I should react positively to the book because David Greenglass admitted in it that he lied when he testified that my mother was involved in espionage, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with a book that would put money in David Greenglass’s pocket. Moreover, as I’ve described it repeatedly: “Reading this book and getting this close to David Greenglass is like taking a bath in sewage.”
But the Kuperbergs explained to me that while Sam Roberts’ book was the hook, the film was more about the case and family dynamics than about David Greenglass. They intended to interview three people, Sam Roberts, an FBI agent and me, and include some archival footage. I agreed to the interview only after I was convinced that none of the proceeds from the film would end up with Greenglass.
The filmmakers spent most of a day in May 2008 at the RFC office. They filmed me at length, and also interviewed my daughter, Jenn, the RFC’s Grantmaking Coordinator. I thought they were favorably impressed with what I had to say and particularly with the RFC project. But I had no idea how I’d feel about their distillation of hours of raw footage into what would become 15 minutes in the edited version.
Months passed, and other work intervened. I admit that it took me a second to place the DVD from France when the finished product (in English) arrived in the fall.
I was wary and anxious when I started watching. By the time it was finished my mouth was hanging open. The film started with David Greenglass and the case, but it ended with Jenn, me and the RFC. I believe that the filmmakers, whatever their initial intention, saw how negative and destructive David Greenglass’s actions were, and couldn’t help but contrast them with the positive response that the RFC embodies. Jenn’s and my participation in a project that transforms the nightmare of my childhood into something to help children in similar circumstances today left such a strong impression on the filmmakers, that what started out as a documentary about David Greenglass ended up as an ode to the RFC.
I look forward to discussing this film with those who can join me and Jenn on June 19th, and I hope I have the opportunity to share it elsewhere with other RFC audiences and the general public in the future. Please contact the RFC office if you’re interested in arranging a screening in your city.
To see David Strathairn and Eve Ensler reading Julius and Ethel's prisoner letters to their sons, Robert and Michael, visit the RFC’s You Tube channel at www.youtube.com/wwwrfcorg and view these videos: "Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Prison Letters, Part 1," and "Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Prison Letters, Part 2," and "Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's Last Letter," (written the day of their execution, June 19th, 1953).
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