Visiting Ethel & Julius in Havana

(guest blog by RFC Communications Director, Amber Black)

It’s large, the monument. It resides on a nondescript corner of an intersection in Havana, Cuba. The striking portrait in stone honors a young couple, killed by the U.S. government on June 19, 1953. They’re viewed as traitors by some, heroes by others. In this country where a tank rests on the lawn of the university in the capital, the legacy of the Cold War affects citizens’ lives in a visceral way. There’s tremendous irony involved, but it makes perfect sense that there would be a memorial to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in Havana, and that I would go and find it.

This monument to these two Americans is not on the “must see” list for most international visitors. But it was on mine, because Ethel and Julius weren’t just infamous figures in the McCarthy era battle for our nation’s soul, they were also parents to two little boys. And for the last 18 years, I’ve known of one of those sons, who’s now a grey haired grandfather himself. For almost two decades I’ve come to a workplace filled with portraits of that “boy’s” parents: the office of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, the organization that son created in his parents’ name and in their honor.

And so it was that I found myself trudging in the blazing midday sun, looking for the memorial to the Rosenbergs on my recent visit to Havana. I nearly missed it, actually. I had a paper street map stuffed in the pocket of my shorts, and a general description of the monument’s location from the one source I found online that mentioned it when I was planning my trip.

On the second day of my stay, I had set out on foot from my rented apartment in the center of this city of two million people. While exploring the University of Havana campus, I ended up talking with some students about history, politics, and daily life in our two countries. The conversation was insightful, but because of the unexpected delay, it was at the hottest moment of that sweltering afternoon when I began the walk to the monument several miles away.

When I finally reached the intersection where it was supposed to be, I didn’t see anything and there didn’t seem to be anywhere promising to inquire about it. Refusing to accept that I might have just slogged all that way for nothing, I began to backtrack. Then a few hundred feet away on the other side of the busy, divided road, I spotted it, nestled in a postage stamp-sized park at the fork of a small side street.

Once my traveling companion snapped my photo, I rested in the dappled shade of the stone slab and sparse trees, contemplating where I was and what I was seeing. I mulled my earlier conversation with the students, a young couple who were pretty much the same age as Ethel and Julius had been during World War II. It was in the 1940s when the events were put in motion that profoundly altered the trajectory not just of the Rosenbergs’ lives and those of their children, but also the lives of those two students, and mine, and everyone in both our countries and to some extent, the rest of the world.

My thoughts about how the U.S. had condemned the Rosenbergs while in Cuba they had been honored, were not just academic considerations of a dusty past. I was in Havana on a much needed vacation after many, intense months of work on the campaign to convince the U.S. government to acknowledge its horrible transgression against Ethel. While we made tremendous progress in moving the needle on public opinion by illuminating the facts showing that Ethel’s prosecution and execution were wrongful, we failed to move President Obama to action.

I sat sweating in the fierce Havana heat, trying to process the irony that my visit was possible because Obama had softened our government’s restrictions on travel there. I had gone independently, not with an organized group. On my visa application, I had marked “support for the Cuban people” from the list of the 12 officially sanctioned reasons our government allowed* for U.S. citizens to journey to this Caribbean island. Yet the president hadn’t been willing to fully lift our blockade that has been punishing this tiny country for decades, or acknowledge our politically-motivated execution of two idealistic young Americans who had the misfortune of being Communists in a time of ginned up fear.

There I was, in the capital of this Communist nation just 90 miles off our shores, looking up at a monument celebrating these two people who were an indelible part of the Cold War legacy that still deeply affects our two countries. I was staring at a larger than life version of the faces I see every day in my office in Easthampton, Massachusetts. I was thinking about how fear and idealism, and the actions taken on battlefields, in ballot boxes, and in courtrooms, affect people’s lives for generations.

I was visiting Ethel and Julius in Havana.

(*Six weeks after my trip, President Trump announced he was rescinding the Obama administration policy that allowed U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba independently for “support for the Cuban people” and 11 other approved reasons.)

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Comments

Are there any monuments to the Rosenbergs in North Korea, Russia, or the former East Germany?

"ASSASSINATED 06/19/1953" The only thing missing from the blog post is the very important English translation and the words chosen by those Cubans who erected the memorial, especially the word "assassinated." This was an important stop for the majority of participants on Road Scholar's "Sholom Cuba"

Robert, thanks for your comment. You're right, the inscription is powerful. The part above Julius and Ethel's faces is a quote from their death row correspondence, and the use of "assassinated" by the monument makers is also potent. (P.S. Your subject line refers to peace, blood and roses...it's actually peace, bread and roses. An inadvertent error, I'm sure.)

Thanks for catching that error! I think both the original commenter, and I, misread. I'll make a note in my earlier comment.

Is certainly beautiful.
As much as I wish Obama was still in office, I do fault him greatly for not issuing a pardon. I hope I see it in my lifetime.

I was able to visit Cuba with a social work group when Carter was President.I do not believe the monument honoring the Rosenbergs had been erected at the time....or surely I would have made it a point to visit. I was very involved in the movement to have the Rosenbergs exonerated. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

For a long time the depiction of the Rosenbergs was totally black or white: either they were evil traitors to their country who deserved to die or they were innocent citizens wrongly targeted because of their beliefs and arbitrarily put to death by their government. But we know now that their true story and legacy were more complex than either of these stereotypes, just as we know that the reality of post-revolutionary Cuba is more complex than either the right's picture of an evil empire or the left's dream of a utopian heaven. Amber alludes to this several times by mentioning the ironies of her visit to the Rosenberg monument in Cuba. It can sometimes be easier to stick to the simplistic clarity of a caricature than to probe the sometimes disturbing ambiguities of real people and real history. But now, when our country is so badly split between angry political camps, it seems more important than ever.

2 years ago, I traveled with 50 others from Camp Kinderland to Cuba.
A highlight of the trip was visiting this monument , and Julie Eigenberg singing the last letter song.
What a moving experience. Organize, resist, organize , resist..

Yes, the inscription reads "for peace, bread and roses, we face the executioner." It is an excerpt from the Rosenbergs' correspondence from death row.

I hadn't known of the monument. Like so much of the work of the foundation, I appreciate you for bringing it to my attention. When we were raided by the FBI in 2010, some of the children impacted by the raids became 'Rosenberg kids.' Our boys loved Cuba when we took them there in 2000. They'll enjoy learning that this monument is there. And in Vedado, where we stayed! www.stopfbi.net

what a wonderful article...I am a product of that "Cold War" a dismal, period full of unbridled fear and paranoia.
Sadly, America lost whatever credibility, whatever blessings were coming her way after the killing of thousands of innocents in 1945...the A Bomb. a diabolical contraption has forever altered the landscape of decency.
One can only imagine what would have happened to Korea, to Viet Nam had the USSR not achieved the balance of power. Thank you Julius and Ethel...
as ever, Jules

Thank you for this report. That great period of postwar growth and optimism (for white people) was marred by the troglodytes of the Cold War, McCarthy on top, but also the sinister Dulles brothers. Julius and Ethel were the sacrificial lambs that warned the left they were not longer free (the Peekskill riot against Paul Robeson in 1949 was another one). Now the optimism is gone, the left is in disarray, and we have a militarized government of mean incompetents. But now the cold warriors are discredited, and the skepticism towards the "War on Terror" is gaining strength. We can be inspired by Julius and Ethel's idealism and mourn their loss, and at least be consoled that in some parts of the world their vision was broadly shared.

I was in Cuba two years ago and, regretfully, had not known about this monument, which I'd have otherwise gone to see. The English words above the Rosenbergs' likenesses state, "for peace and bread, we meet the executioner".

Thank you for making this very special journey to the monument which is dedicated to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Although I was only 14 years old when they were executed,my parents told me about it and made sure that I was aware of the horrific injustice about their case,and needless to say,as an African-American teenager growing up in New Orleans at that time,my political awareness was sharpened in what was a rigidly segregated culture.
I was deeply moved by your comments and was also profoundly disappointed that President Obama did not pardon them. At this point,all I can say is that I hope to live to see it happen with someone else in the White House.
America lost its credibility during that time with the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,and sadly,we are still complicit in the killing of innocent civilians,including children. I remain convinced that war is NOT the answer to solving problems and conflicts between nations;they only make situations much worse but we still have not learned that cosmic lesson.
Thank you for bringing this most important memorial to our attention.

Thankyou for this interesting piece; I visit with my wife & daughter in Nov 2016, but felt so attached to our tour group that we feel we missed a lot. This is one! For a so-called People-to- People tour, we hardly met Cuban people!.

Thanks for sharing! Our family will live always grateful of the work carried out by honoring the memory of the Rosenberg's. They are alive and present in every fight for justice and every claim of equality. They were present at the opportunity that took my son to study, thanks to the RFC Foundation. Thank you!

I knew Roy Cohn. While attending New York Law School, the Rosenberg boys visited the campus. They were cheered, Not jeered. After classes, I told Roy about it. He became enraged and proclaimed thet "they were guilty as hell".
But I knew better. Especially Ethel deserves a pardon.

Was just in Cuba for May Day. My host drove me around Vedado the first day and we drove past the park... he told me the monument was to the Rosenbergs. I wanted to go back on my own but time eluded me. I was so surprised and pleased to know that the Cubans had this monument to the heroes I'd grown up hearing about.

I am old enough to remember the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs. It wasn't clear to me at the time whether they were innocent or guilty but what was apparent almost immediately was that the trial was a travesty of justice. Together with the mass round-up and incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII, this stands as a very evil chapter in our history.

I feel proud that somewhere in the world, and yes it had to be the brave island nation of Cuba, the Rosenbergs are honored. That Obama did not act in time to remove the taint from Ethel is in line with a series of half measures and no measures he took that finally allowed a monster like Trump to ride to power. Obama's spirit may have been willing to do the right thing but his flesh was weak. That was not so with the Rosenbergs. They felt for the poor and powerless of the world and what they did, right or wrong, was done from the highest human instinct for justice and fair-play.

What a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing. It really is a shame that Obama didn't do the right thing and pardon Ethel.,I have very little hope that Ethel and Julius, for that matter, will be pardoned by this administration. I hope it will happen in my lifetime .

I really appreciate these sends and would like an easy click to share on Facebook. I am not on Linked In, and would not like to be. If you can..

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