Love, Conscience, Conviction

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).

Comments

They should put some big rocks on top of his grave, just in case he tries to come back...

Actually that would be mistaken for a Jewish burial custom. It is traditional for mourners to place a stone on the grave when they visit

I have always been horrified at the unjustifiably harsh, vengeful sentences that were passed on your grandparents. At the time that these secrets were given to the Soviets, they were our brave allies fighting a common enemy. However, at the time your grandparents came before the court, the mood in this country had swung to the other extreme. Also, anti-semitism was alive and well in this country, and a Jewish judge probably felt the need to prove that not all Jews were traitors.

The contrast with how the British dealt with a similar situation is astounding. You may recall that a prominent British physicist, Dr. Alan May Nun worked on nuclear fission and passed secret information on to the Soviets. He received a sentence of 10 years of hard labor.' and was released.

I hope that the day will come when this country will take a more balanced view of your grandparents' actions.

Marian H. Rose

A vile person. I am glad that we are rid of him. It should have happened sooner.

Anonymous, Thursday, 10/16/2014

I had followed the case against The Rosenbergs from the very beginning. That David was some piece of work for telling outright lies about Julius and his own flesh and blood, Ethel. He was what I would call a "Chazah".

Ruby D.

As older teenagers, a group of us went door to door in 1953, trying hard to get ordinary folks to listen to us and understand the incredible unfairness of the death sentence placed on the Rosenbergs, hoping we could convince them to sign our petitions. Some did, often surreptitiously. We never gave up hope and withstood many many doors slammed in our faces.
When I read that David Greenglass died, I felt as many others. He contributed to the murder of his sister, Ethel.
One day I hope this country can view their deaths in a different light. One can always hope.
Leni

I have always wondered what the true story was behind the killing of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. When I happened upon the story of David Greenglass's death and his part in their murders in my newspaper, the Seattle Times, I was shocked and horrified.

The same thing could happen in today's courts -- public fear gets in the way of common sense and true justice.

I am so sorry that your grandparents and your family had to pay the price of David Greenglass's lies. He had to somehow live with himself, and that cannot have been a pleasant thing.

Your family has my admiration. There were many people of your grandparents' generation who believed that communism was the one way for people to be able to live their lives in an unselfish way. True communism as a belief system actually would be that. Unfortunately, the political system of communism hasn't worked out that way, but no one knew that at that time.

May your grandparents sleep together peacefully. They deserve to be together happily forever.

...for making this site available. Wrongful accusations are a part of my family's history. In the summer of 1918, my father was the union representative on the docks in Boston and someone accused him of disloyalty.

The Bureau of Investigation ("Federal" was added a few years later) investigated the allegation and it was found that the accuser was a member of the management of a shipping company, opposed in every way to the work my father did. The case was dismissed, but there were some long-lasting repercussions, having to do I suppose with shame -- my father died in 1934 and my mother in 1967; she never spoke about this incident, nor did any of my six brothers and two sisters, who may not have been told about their father's exoneration.

Best,

Leo Vanderpot
Red Hook, New York

The evening of the murder by legal means, I was on a Hudson Cruise ship. By shear coincidence, we passed SingSing just as the killing was taking place. I was the only one of my high school chorus whose outing it was to realize the depths to which this country had sunk. As I stood by the stern crying, my classmates were calling me a communist.

Alas, we have not improved much as witness the case of Chelsea Manning.

Esther Breslau

I was a kid when the trials were taking place and I was 13 in 1953. It was the first time, as a kid, that I realized that my country could and would kill parents with very young children, and Jewish parents at that. Being Jewish and the child of lefties, I was terrified. I have never forgotten this and I would say that it has shaped my life indelibly. The horrible circumstances around the investigations and having to choose between the life of your older sister to save your wife from prosecution must have taken the most terrible toll on Mr. Greenglass. That they would even offer him that choice is a dark cloud over our system. I blame our system more than I blame Mr. Greenglass, a weak individual. Let's not forget who the real culprits were in this case.

We hear a lot of propaganda about how this is a country governed by the Rule of Law. The sickening trial & execution of your Grandparents is another chapter in the long list of fascist jaillings & killings of dissident voices in our history right up to the present day….Lynne Stewart, the Black Panthers, Leonard Peltier, various "whistleblowers"….the list is long & frightening. Throwing terrorism into the modern-day mix, with no-fly lists & the NSA monitoring of all our telephone calls, emails etc proves my point. How terrible the McCarthy period was as exemplified by the wrongful killings of the Rosenbergs, how terrible the present period is proving to be. David Greenglass, a pathetic pawn in the government's game, should rot in hell for going along with the other perpetrators of this political crime.

I think the biggest hindrance to man is our ability to let fear of change drive us into one-sided groups, in which bias turns into extreme prejudice. Hysteria get's the better of us, and our side that we try to hide, our primal side, comes out. We alienate each other and everything gets worse. It's aweful that this trial ws in one of our worst states of mind as a whole. Maybe, they would have received some mercy, and if not them, the children.

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