He was only 6 years old when his parents — Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — were executed in 1953 by the United States government, after being accused of passing atomic secrets to the Russians.
“I was 3 when they were arrested and 6 when they were executed, and I don’t remember any of that sort of thing,” said Robert Meeropol, who took the last name of his adoptive parents.
But that hasn’t stopped him from dedicating his life to helping other children in similar positions, by starting the Rosenberg Fund for Children in 1990.
Its mission is to “provide for the educational and emotional needs of the children of targeted activists in the United States,” said Meeropol. “Those who are working for one or more of the following principles: all people have equal worth, world peace is a necessity, people are more important than profits and society must function within ecologically sustainable limits.”
“I think that post-9/11 the Bush administration used many of the same lines that were used during the McCarthy period in my parents’ time,” he said. “We were all taught that the international communist conspiracy was out to destroy our way of life and that civil liberties and human rights had to take a back seat to national security. And post-9/11 we’re told that the international terrorist conspiracy is going to destroy our way of life.”
He cites soldiers who refused to fight in Iraq and people who demonstrate against torture at the military training schools, as examples of targeted activists today.
“They might end up in prison, they might lose their job, they might be physically attacked, they might even be killed — if that happens then their children are eligible for support,” he said.
After his parents were arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage in 1950, Robert and his brother Michael lived first with their maternal grandmother, then for a short time in an orphanage and then with their paternal grandmother, before Abel and Anne Meeropol adopted them.
“It was very hard to figure out where was the right place for us,” he said. “There was a fair amount of publicity and people were trying to protect us as much as they could.”
Meeropol and his brother have spent decades of their lives lecturing and advocating on behalf of their parents, and against government persecution of individuals. In 2003, St. Martin’s Press published Meeropol’s book, “An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey,” which details his personal journey to political activism.
In 2008, a judge ordered 43 of the 46 testimonies given in the grand jury trial of the Rosenbergs released. This included testimony by Ruth Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s sister, and their co-conspirators, which indicated that Ethel was not involved in the crime. However, this release prompted Morton Sobell, a co-defendant in the case, to change his testimony and admit that he and Julius were in fact involved in government espionage.
In light of these new developments, Meeropol will be giving a lecture, “New Revelations in the Rosenberg Case,” at the Central Queens Y on Tuesday, June 9 at 1:30 p.m.
The last time Meeropol spoke there, people had to be turned away from the packed room, according to Peggy Kurtz, the librarian at the Y’s Hevesi Library.
“The thing that I found the most fascinating when he came is all of the local connections: the room was full of people who knew the Rosenbergs,” said Kurtz. “This was the case of their generation — all you have to do is say the Rosenbergs and people know exactly who you’re talking about — you don’t have to explain.”
And today, for Meeropol, the legacy of his parents’ case is still relevant.
“There is an atmosphere of hope that things are going to get better,” he said, about President Barack Obama’s election, “but as long as that legacy [of Bush] survives for the people who are on the firing line it’s not going to get better — that’s the bottom line.”