NEW YORK – Does it seem odd that the commemoration of the execution 50 years ago of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for a crime they didn’t commit would be a joyous affair?
Both members of the Communist Party, Julius, an electrical engineer, and his wife, Ethel, were accused of giving “the
secret of the atom bomb” to the Soviet Union. They refused to admit this and proclaimed their innocence even after the authorities said they would let them live if they confessed.
In 1953 the government thought they could terrify people into silent acquiescence to the Cold War with these murders. Instead, by their simple act of resisting, the Rosenbergs, 50 years after their death, are still inspiring and giving courage to those who want to build a better world.
And that’s why the gala “Celebrate the Children of Resistance,” hosted by the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC) here June 19, was indeed a celebration – of family, hope and community.
It was also a vivid reminder that we are living in a time that “chillingly mirrors” that of 1953. “Fifty years later, once again we live under a regime that equates dissent with disloyalty and protest with treason,” said Robert Meeropol, the Rosenberg’s younger son and RFC founder, at the City Center’s packed house.
“The government tells us we must give up our freedom because we are at war with international terrorism,” he said. “Fear of the ‘international communist conspiracy’ served that same purpose 50 years ago and it brought us the Korean War and, later, Vietnam. Many of us in this room didn’t buy it then and we don’t buy it now. We fought against it then and we’re fighting against it now.”
Both Robert and older brother Michael Meeropol (they took their adoptive parents’ last name), were on hand, as were their wives and children. Seeing them all together in the pressroom – laughing, joking and affectionate – was the first indication that Ethel and Julius would indeed be proud of the men their boys have become.
The RFC is a public foundation that provides for the emotional and educational needs of the children of parents who are “injured, harassed, jailed or killed as result of pursuing progressive actions,” Robert said. Since 1990, the foundation has awarded over $1 million in grants to such children for schools, camps, music lessons, counseling services, and visiting parents in prison.
The June 19 program began with Broadway actress Tovah Feldshuh and Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, reading from Julius and Ethel’s letters to each other from prison.
It continued with words from some of the thousands who stood vigil in New York City’s Union Square on the night of the execution, June 19, 1953. Actor Harry Belafonte, reading the words of a worker who was there in 1953, said, “I don’t know much about the atom bomb, but I do know about union-busting stool pigeons,” referring to those who helped frame the Rosenbergs.
A message from Mumia Abu-Jamal, another political prisoner facing execution, said: “To prepare for this event, I read the infamous ‘Death House letters,’ wrenching and haunting accounts of two loving young parents who find themselves on the brink of hell, subject to the tender mercies of ambitious public officials.” Abu-Jamal noted that on Oct. 9, 1952, Julius had written, “The political climate is one of fear, a rising hysteria against all those that don’t conform.”
“Reading those words,” Abu-Jamal wrote, “we are reminded how politicians ruthlessly exploit fear to achieve their political ends. … The Rosenbergs were progressive folks who dared to dream of a world where fascism and racism were no more. [That they did not succeed] does not mean their noble dream was wrong; it only means there’s work to be done.”
Abu-Jamal’s son, whom the RFC had sent to camp, also addressed the crowd during the program, which included songs by Ronnie Gilbert and Holly Near, as well as performances by the Camp Kinderland Chorus, gospel singer Janiece Thompson, dancer Bill T. Jones and poet Martin Espada.
In their last letter to their sons, the Rosenbergs wrote that they died “secure in the knowledge that others would carry on after them.” With “Celebrate the Children of Resistance,” their sons have honored not only their parents, but also themselves.
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