The documentary, Heir to an Execution, depicts the love story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and their sons Michael and Robert, ages 10 and 7, as the parents were convicted by the U.S. government of passing secrets to the Soviets and were put to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in New York on June 19, 1953.
In splendid detail the film, produced and directed by the Rosenbergs' granddaughter, filmmaker Ivy Meeropol, charts the ends of her grandparents' lives, the trial, and the aftermath in a balanced portrait with film history, newspaper clippings, interviews with major characters, visits to the courtroom, and the apartment where the Rosenbergs lived on the Lower East Side when Mr. Rosenberg was arrested. Also, the cemetery where they are buried which Michael Meeropol had never visited until the movie's filming.
Both Meeropols are so likable, so homespun, far more charming than anyone could have expected. If Michael Meeropol had a chip on his shoulder, who could blame him? But there was none to be found.
Ivy and Michael Meeropol at National Archives, November 12, 2014/Photo by Patricia Leslie
When no family member came forward to adopt the boys after their parents' deaths, activists Abel and Anne Meeropol did. "They literally saved our lives," Michael said onstage. "We have love and tremendous respect for Anne and Abel." He said his stepparents had lost two children at birth and later, from photographs, Michael Meeropol learned Abel was a pallbearer at his parents' burials.
In the film, a cousin, one of the few relatives who agrees to communicate with Ivy Meeropol about her grandparents, breaks down and cries over his parents' refusal to help the Rosenberg children after the executions. He apologizes to Ivy.
Spliced throughout the film are visuals of the two boys, dressed up in coats and ties, coming and going to visit their parents in prison.
They saw their mother and father separately in prison because authorities wanted to keep the couple apart, to prevent their physical closeness. The Rosenbergs were able to meet and touch fingertips when Mr. Rosenberg, in a cage, was transported to visit Mrs. Rosenberg in her cell, Mr. Meeropol said.
They were executed on the same day. Mr. Rosenberg went first. Because of Mrs. Rosenberg's diminutive size, the electrical charges did not initially work, and a second round of electricity was applied. Eyewitnesses reported smoke rose from the top of her head.
Until the government released the Venona papers in 1995 which provided proof their father passed secrets, the boys grew up firmly believing in their parents' innocence. The guilt of their mother has never been proved. She was not linked with any direct proof to the case, and never had a code name, like her sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, saved by Ethel's brother, David Greenglass who later admitted he lied about his sister's role in the spy ring to protect his wife. Ultimately, he sentenced Ethel Rosenberg to death. Greenglass died July 1, 2014, but his death was not uncovered and reported until October 14, 2014, by the New York Times.
Mr. Meeropol said Heir To An Execution was his daughter's idea, and although he and his wife were skeptical initially, "we felt she was ready and capable, and we had total trust in her....and felt like she could make a real contribution." Another of Ms. Meeropol's documentaries is All About Abe (2007), all about D.C.'s Abe Pollin, the developer of Verizon Center.
With eerie and haunting qualities, Heir's music by Human matches the film contents.
One questioner in the audience asked the speakers about comparisons between Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and the Rosenbergs. Michael Meeropol replied that if Mr. Snowden returned to the U.S. from Russia, he would be tried under the same Espionage Act the U.S. government used to find Mr. Meeropol's parents guilty.
Along with Freedom Riders, Ms. Meeropol's Heir to an Execution: A Granddaughter's Story, first released in 2004 and shortlisted for an Academy Award, should be part of every American history class. Both films paint modern-day true portraits of America which are so unthinkable, they could pass for fiction.
The people of the United States are grateful to National Archives for screening the film and inviting the Rosenbergs' heirs to appear. The event was part of Archives' exhibit, Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures, on display through January 4 or 5 (two dates given), 2015.
The National Archives has the original letter Michael wrote to President Eisenhower on February 16, 1953, pleading with the president to save his parents from execution.