Kudos once again to HBO for broadcasting the finest, most groundbreaking shows on TV. The latest example is Ivy Meeropol’s documentary film Heir to an Execution. You may also watch this video trailer. In it, she creates an indelible family portrait of the grief caused down through the generations by the execution of her grandparents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Her interview footage portrays not only the grief of the Rosenberg sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, but the suffering it caused for friends and colleagues caught up in the government net of subsersive hunting activity.
There are many indelible moments: Ivy’s father, Michael, describes screaming hysterically at his parents during his last visit before their execution, “One more day, one more day!” He explains that he was angry at his parents because they didn’t betray any strong emotion though both he and they knew that their deaths were imminent.
And perhaps the most profound interview is with the 103 year old Harry, who was secretary-treasurer of a CIO union local at the time of the Rosenberg execution. Ivy asks him the $64-million question she’s asked many of her grandparents friends, “Why didn’t my grandparents just cooperate with the government, and so save their own lives, and avoid the immense pain their deaths caused to their surviviing children?” He starts out with the stock (and unsatisfying) answer given by others previously: “They couldn’t do that because it would violate every atom in their being.” But then he grabs Ivy with both hands, looks her straight in the eye and says: “Ivy Meeropol, you must be very proud of your grandparents. They did an incredibly brave thing. Manny Block came to me two weeks before the execution and said that the government offered Ethel her life if they named 25 others as Communists. And you know what, they refused. Why? Because they knew that if they cooperated they’d merely be repeating their own suffering for those 25 families as well. They knew if they refused that only their own family would suffer, but others would be spared.” As he makes this harrowing statement tears are welling up in his eyes and pouring down his cheeks. As a viewer, you feel so sorry for raking this old man over such burning coals of memory and grief.
This statement puts the Rosenbergs’ actions in stark context and gives them an awful, but rational logic.
Another harrowing factor Ivy notes is that none of Ethel’s many siblings offered to adopt Michael and Robert due to fear of associating themselves with the children of “traitors.” Further, Ivy contacts every single surviving family relative of Ethel’s and Julius’ and only ONE SINGLE (very brave) cousin agrees to meet with her to discuss what happened. She has a deeply moving meeting with this cousin who breaks down in tears and hugs her to apologize for his family’s abandonment of her father and uncle when they were children. I’m getting teary now as I write this just remembering the scene!
A particularly brave element for Ivy to introduce into the film is an inter-family discussion of the issue of the Rosenbergs’ culpability for the crimes of which they were accused. I think that most families would not be able to face a candid encounter with the issue of guilt in a situation like this. It says much about the Meeropols’ fortitude and unblinking honesty that they not only face the problem, but that they can entertain the possibility that at least Julius might have been a spy for the Russians. But Michael makes the important point that even if he was, he certainly was not guilty of the charges levelled against him (betraying the atomic bomb secret).
Though Heir to an Execution is a political film, it is much more a film about personal grief and a granddaugher’s search for the meaning of the Rosenbergs’ deaths for the family survivors.