Last week I attended the opening of the new exhibit of my grandparents’ prison correspondence at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. The event offered attendees a preview of the exhibit, which includes hundreds of letters Ethel and Julius wrote to each other, their attorney, my father and uncle, and other family members from their arrests in 1950 until just before their executions in June 1953. Of the set, dozens were newly discovered and never published or made available to the public before.
I viewed the exhibit privately with my family just before the opening. It was a moving and unusual experience to be in a room surrounded by physical objects connected to my grandparents and to my dad’s early childhood. It took me a moment to figure out my unexpectedly emotional reaction to the exhibit: despite working at the RFC, it’s rare that I come in contact with items from Ethel and Julius rather than about them. I see famous paintings of them (or at least prints or reproductions) every day at the office but there are few tangible items in my life which my grandparents touched, wrote, lived with, or cared about.
This scarcity makes what we have even more precious. My father and uncle have long wanted to insure that their parents’ letters are both preserved and open to public and they explored various options. They donated the papers of their adoptive father, Abel Meeropol, to Boston University two decades ago and have been impressed with how BU treated that collection (more information is available here). This experience, along with the fact that The Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, The Committee to Secure Justice for Morton Sobell, and Walter and Miriam Schneir (preeminent researchers and writers on my grandparents’ case) all have their papers at BU, made it a good home for my grandparents’ letters.
It was jolting yet comforting to stand in front of case after case of letters and memorabilia connected to both sets of my dad’s parents. Letters Ethel and Julius wrote to each other regarding their concerns about their sons (which comprised the majority of the content of the newly discovered letters), lay side by side with photos of Anne Meeropol singing at summer camps, Abel’s sheet music, and my dad’s meticulously detailed schedule for a typical day (drafted when he was just eight).
The BU photographer who was documenting the opening for the archive saw me taking pictures with my phone and pulled me aside to show me a fascinating perspective: if I bent over to be eye-level with the display cases, I could look through them like a kaleidoscope. From that angle, the letters stretched on as far as I could see, a tunnel of words, written more than 60 years ago but still meaningful today. (Click here to see a larger version of the photo above.)
The continuing significance of both my grandparents’ letters and the case was evident this week when news broke of David Greenglass’ death earlier this summer. David was Ethel’s younger brother and (along with his wife, Ruth) the chief prosecution witness against both Ethel and Julius. The Greenglasses provided the only damning testimony against my grandmother—which David later admitted he fabricated to save Ruth from prosecution. David’s death resulted in a slew of articles all over the world about the Rosenberg case, evidence that people’s passion and interest in the case remain strong. [You can read my dad and uncle’s statement on David’s death here.]
BU entitled the collection “Love – Conscience – Conviction: The Rosenberg Case” and that’s what I saw and felt at the opening. Their love, their conscience, and their conviction were on display and available for review and reflection by current and future generations. I hope you get a chance to see it during its run through the end of this year (more details about the exhibit are available at http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/exhibitions/rosenberg).