Feature

The Sins of the Father Shall Not Be Visited on the Son

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's son has devoted his life to aiding children of imprisoned radical leftists. And his work is about to become more urgent than ever.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES:  Julius (R, 1918-53) and Ethel Rosenberg (L, 1915-53) are seated in a police van in 1953 in New York shortly before their execution for espionage. Rosenberg, husband and wife, joined the US Communist Party, and were convicted of being part of a transatlantic spy ring uncovered after the trial of Klaus Fuchs in Britain. They were found guilty in a highly controversial trial of passing on atomic secrets to the Soviet Union and became the first US civilians to be executed for espionage in Sing Sing Prison 19 June 1953. (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: Julius (R, 1918-53) and Ethel Rosenberg (L, 1915-53) are seated in a police van in 1953 in New York shortly before their execution for espionage. Rosenberg, husband and wife, joined the US Communist Party, and were convicted of being part of a transatlantic spy ring uncovered after the trial of Klaus Fuchs in Britain. They were found guilty in a highly controversial trial of passing on atomic secrets to the Soviet Union and became the first US civilians to be executed for espionage in Sing Sing Prison 19 June 1953. (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

Just down the road from the Manhan River Reservoir and across from the back side of a public driving range in Easthampton, Massachusetts is a sprawling red-brick structure that began its life more than 100 years ago as a textile mill. During World War II, the U.S. military used the building for bomb development, after which Stanley Home Products took over, making everything from cosmetics to brushes to industrial degreasers until shuttering the plant in 1996.

Today, the building serves as a mixed-use space, which at least partially reflects the area’s decidedly crunchy political leanings. The third floor is home to the Country Dance & Song Society, a couple of social work practices, the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, and an LGBTQ legal clinic. Robert Meeropol, an amiable 69-year-old with a full, neat beard that is more white than gray, also keeps an office here. A large framed photo of Meeropol’s parents adorns one wall; a rack of hard-left publications — the Socialist Review, Prison Legal News — leans against another.

Meeropol used to work as a business and tax attorney at a local firm but quickly realized he hated it. In the fall of 1988, after less than three years as a practicing lawyer, he quit without a plan.

“Here I am, 41, 42 years old, and I still haven’t figured out what I was going to do when I grew up,” recalls Meeropol. “It just turned out that there was a trial taking place in Springfield, where I lived: three married couples and one single man, all charged with seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government.”

The seven accused were members of the United Freedom Front, a neo-Marxist organization that claimed credit for at least 20 bombings and nine bank robberies between 1975 and 1984. Although they were all from New England, the defendants came to be known as the Ohio 7, for the state in which five of them were ultimately captured after evading authorities for a decade. The six married co-defendants had nine young children between them, three of whom who had been seized by child-welfare authorities and held for more than two months before being released to the care of relatives.

Meeropol volunteered to do pro bono legal research for the defense team. It had been many years, but the memories of his own parents’ incarceration remained fresh; he related to the intense feelings of separation and anxiety he knew the children must have been experiencing. After all, Meeropol, whose original last name was Rosenberg, was just three years old when his father, Julius, was arrested; four when his mother, Ethel, was apprehended; and six when the two of them were executed for allegedly passing U.S. nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.

Getting close to the Ohio 7 — and their children — led to a revelation for Meeropol. When his own parents were arrested, “the vast majority of Americans considered them to be the epitome of evil, worse than any of the Ohio 7 defendants,” Meeropol wrote in a blog post several years ago. “But people came forward to protect my brother and me, even some who felt my parents might have been guilty. These people were our champions and I owe my survival to them.” He vowed to find a way to do the same thing for children in similar situations.

In April 1990, Meeropol held a fundraiser at the Chicago home of former Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, close friends with whom Meeropol had attended the University of Michigan. His speech that night included a telling of his life story, something Meeropol had never before done publicly. Chesa Boudin, 8, who was living with Ayers and Dohrn while his parents — radical activists Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, did time for a 1981 Brink’s robbery that left a security guard and two cops dead — told Meeropol that the experience sounded just like his own, “only worse.”

That September, Robert incorporated the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC), based largely on the African National Congress’s Defence and Aid Fund, a scheme that cared for the families of dead and imprisoned ANC rebels. A month later, Pete Seeger headlined an RFC kick-off benefit concert in neighboring Northampton. In May 1991, the RFC made its first grant: $802.50 to send two children of one of the Ohio 7 co-defendants to a Quaker summer camp. In the 26 years since, the RFC has independently raised and distributed roughly $6 million to nearly 1,000 kids.

Until recently, an organization that funded prison visits, arts programs, dance classes, and the like for the offspring of Black Panthers, American Indian Movement members, Puerto Rican separatists, war resisters, and other “political prisoners” might have seemed like little more than a quaint throwback to a bygone era. But Meeropol believes the RFC is now as relevant as it’s ever been.

When the Rosenberg case broke, the so-called Second Red Scare was in full swing. Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy was on his infamous hunt for the communist infiltrators he imagined within institutions across American society, from the State Department to Hollywood studios to the U.S. Army. Federal employees were required to prove they were devoid of any communist sympathies by taking “loyalty oaths,” suspected subversives were barred from entering the country, and public health and welfare programs were cast by the far-right as communist attempts to control the American population. Although certain details have changed, Meeropol sees natural parallels between the political climate of the early 1950s and that of the Trump era.

“Donald Trump learned his attack methods from [one-time Joseph McCarthy advisor and prosecutor in the Rosenberg case] Roy Cohn,” Meeropol says. “In some ways, echoes of the tactics used in my parents’ case are being heard throughout the land to this day. I wish [the RFC] was a little less relevant now.”

Meeropol’s daughter, Jenn, who herself bears more than a passing resemblance to her grandmother Ethel, took over the executive directorship of the RFC in 2013. A graduate of Harvard and Brown universities, Jenn spent the previous 10 years working as a nonprofit administrator, which included a stretch at Campus Compact, a Boston-based organization that promotes civic engagement and social responsibility among college students.

“The fact is,” she says, “people continue to be targeted in a variety of ways — loss of jobs, arrest, harassment, in some cases significant injury, death, of the threat of execution — because of their political activism.”

A childhood interrupted

On July 17, 1950, at 7:42 p.m., agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Julius Rosenberg at his Lower East Side apartment. U.S. District Judge John F.X. McGohey set bail at $100,000 — roughly $880,000 in today’s dollars. On August 11, the Feds grabbed Ethel as she walked to the subway after refusing to testify against Julius before a grand jury. Robert, 3, and Michael, 7, were spending the afternoon with a neighbor.

The Rosenbergs, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared, had committed “the crime of the century.” Nationalism had firmly taken hold of American society, and anti-immigrant sentiment — particularly against Italians and Eastern Europeans — ran strong. According to a 1948 survey by the American Jewish Committee, 21 percent of Americans at the time believed “most Jews” were communists. 

The extended family was terrified of being associated with alleged communists, and rejected the boys. Julius’s older sister offered to take them in, but her husband, a shop owner in Queens, refused on the grounds that his business would be ruined if customers discovered there were Rosenbergs living in their home. As Robert told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes last year, “Being the Rosenbergs’ children in 1950 was almost like being Osama bin Laden’s kids here after 9/11.”

Tessie Greenglass, Ethel’s mother, reluctantly agreed to let the boys stay with her, but quickly began complaining that they were driving her crazy; after three months she sent them to the Hebrew Children’s Home, an orphanage in the Bronx. In the summer of 1951, Julius and Ethel’s attorney, Emanuel Bloch, arranged for Robert and Michael to move in with Julius’s mother, Sophie. That August, they made their first prison visit to see their parents at Sing Sing. A year later, Sophie decided she couldn’t handle the responsibility anymore. She lied to the boys that her apartment didn’t have hot water, and they would have to leave before the weather got cold. Robert and Michael were sent to live with Ben and Sonya Bach, family friends of the Rosenbergs in Toms River, New Jersey.

They would stay with the Bachs for almost two years. It was a rare period of continuity during a time Robert describes as filled with “constant shifting, anxiety, worry, and uncertainty.” The chief witness against Ethel was her brother, David Greenglass, who would admit years later he had lied on the stand. The jury pronounced Julius and Ethel guilty after only eight hours of deliberation. (Although the Meeropol brothers now accept Julius’s guilt, they have waged a years-long campaign to clear her name, an endeavor that’s likely all but stalled with Donald Trump in the White House.)

On June 19, 1953, right before sundown, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death in the electric chair. Robert had just finished kindergarten; Michael, the third grade.

“Reporters were swarming on the lawn of the house and all of a sudden, the people in Toms River figured out who these kids were,” recalls Robert. “And so over the summer, there was a certain amount of agitation from parents about the fact that their kids were going to school with the children of the Rosenbergs, and there were a certain number of people who didn’t want that.”

That December, New Jersey school officials banished the boys from the state public education system. After another brief stay with their grandmother, Manny Bloch — who had been appointed the boys’ guardian by Julius and Ethel prior to their executions — introduced Robert and Michael to Anne and Abel Meeropol, a childless couple who lived on 149th Street and Riverside Drive. Abel was a Bronx public-school teacher whose 1936 anti-lynching poem, “Bitter Fruit,” was later turned into a song, “Strange Fruit,” by Billie Holliday. The boys were introduced to the Meeropols at a Christmas party at the Brooklyn Heights home of W.E.B. Du Bois, and started living with them at the beginning of January 1954. A few weeks after they moved in, Manny Bloch had a heart attack and died. He hadn’t yet completed the documents that would legally transfer guardianship of the boys to the Meeropols.

Since the Meeropols were not technically their legal guardians, a judge ordered Michael and Robert removed from the home. The New York Police Department brought the boys to the Pleasantville Cottage School, a turn-of-the-century orphanage built for New York City’s destitute. When a second judge overturned the first judge’s ruling, Robert and Michael were released from the shelter. Kenneth Johnson, the dean of the Columbia University School of Social Work, was appointed the boys’ legal guardian, and he eventually deemed the Meeropols fit parents.

“In 1957, they adopted us, our name was changed, and we dropped from public sight,” said Robert. The boys lived quietly thereafter, emerging briefly in the early 1970s when they petitioned the U.S. government to release documents related to their parents’ case. Michael taught economics at Western New England College; Robert taught anthropology there for two years, then bounced around for a while before getting a law degree in 1985. Starting the RFC was an endeavor he called a form of “constructive revenge.”

Jenn and Robert Meeropol, in front of a picture of Robert’s parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Photo credit: Justin Rohrlich

 

Normalizing the descendants

For Cyrus Peltier Mueller, RFC grants have meant being able to visit his grandfather, American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier, who is serving a double life sentence for the 1975 shooting death of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Cyrus and his young son, Cyrus Jr., have been able to make annual visits from their home in Grand Forks, North Dakota, to federal penitentiaries as far away as Coleman, Florida, and Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

“Without their help, I wouldn’t be able to make that trip,” says 31-year-old Cyrus, a laborer at a sugar beet processing plant. “Even though it’s only once a year, it’s been great to be able to go and spend two days with him. Really, I think you’re supposed to have the money up front to do it all yourself and then you get reimbursed, but they make all the arrangements so I don’t have to come out of pocket for anything except food and gas, and then I send them receipts.”

For anti-nuclear activist Greg Boertje-Obed, RFC grants have meant help affording his daughter Rachel’s school books and tuition. He and his wife Michelle chose a life of voluntary poverty as members of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Greg, a 62-year-old U.S. Army veteran, says the RFC has been “quite key” in helping his family stay afloat during their combined 10-plus years of incarceration. (Boertje-Obed’s most recent conviction was in 2013, after he and two fellow pacifists, including an 82-year-old nun, broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where they spray-painted biblical references and splashed blood on the walls of a top-secret uranium storage facility.)

And for Ida McCray’s children, who were sent to live with an elderly grandmother while their mom did time for helping her then-Black Panther boyfriend hijack a commercial airliner to Cuba in 1972, RFC grants have given them a chance to simply be like other kids. In addition to financing prison visits, one of McCray’s sons was able to get his dyslexia diagnosed, which was followed up with specialized tutoring. One of her daughters, who asked that her identity not be revealed here, was able to take photography classes and attend a performing arts camp, which she says helped make her feel “sort of ‘normal.’” (McCray, who now works as a counselor for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department’s Women’s Resource Center, declined to be interviewed for this article.)

In addition to grants, the RFC — whose advisory board includes academic and activist Angela Davis; singer Harry Belafonte; New Left activist Richard Healey; and Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy and his wife, Gaye Theresa Johnson, a professor at UCLA — organizes and finances semiannual gatherings for the people they serve.

“They have really cultivated a sense of cohesiveness; it’s part of their plan, and it’s another reason people feel so embraced when they’re around the RFC,” says Linda Sue Evans, a former member of the Weather Underground and onetime cellmate of McCray’s, who introduced McCray to the RFC during her time behind bars. (Evans, who was arrested in 1985 with 740 pounds of dynamite and a list of U.S. government targets in her possession, says she first found out about the RFC through friends in the Ohio 7 who also happened to be doing time in the same prison.)

To others, RFC’s net benefit to society is slightly less clear-cut. Former FBI Special Agent Dana Ridenour spent much of her career infiltrating extremist environmental groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, an organization from which at least one former member’s family has received financial support from the RFC for prison visits.

“The sins of the father shouldn’t be on the son, but these people have been through the trial system, they’ve been convicted, and I have confidence in our jury system,” says Ridenour. “I do like the fact that they take care of the children, but I don’t know about them getting preferential treatment because their parents have done some pretty heinous things.”

Since April 2000, retired FBI Special Agent Edward Woods has campaigned against clemency for Leonard Peltier. “My initial reaction is that anything that connects [Peltier] and ‘nonprofit’ is suspect, but if they want to spring for airfare for his grandchildren, it’s up to them,” Woods said in an email. “And then there’s always the issue of who are legitimate offspring…. By his own words several women [had] his kids … but then, I guess they are still technically his descendants.”

Even the RFC’s supporters have their limits. When the organization hosted a lecture a few years back by Raymond Luc Levasseur, one of the Ohio 7 defendants, someone posted a comment on the fund’s website saying, “I have made several donations in the past to RFC. I am afraid that I will have to hold back this year. As a peace activist, I cannot make common cause with a man who bombed a Boston courthouse and maimed an innocent man. I have read up on the machine guns, explosives, shrapnel, and other means UFF used against people and I cannot in good conscience support those tactics.”

However, not all grantees are necessarily cut from such radical cloth. There’s the California Walmart worker fired after agitating for better pay; an RFC grant of $500 allowed her 7-year-old son to continue participating in an organized sports program. There are also people like David Morales, a California high school student harassed by his principal for protesting the presence of a Marine Corps JROTC rifle range on campus. The RFC provided Morales with money for books and college expenses after he graduated. One 14-year-old girl, now living in Illinois, received $1,230 for summer camp from the RFC; her father had been a student organizer for an opposition party in his home country, which the RFC declined to identify, where he was tortured in a military detention center before fleeing to the United States. Robert and Jenn Meeropol say that although there is no political litmus test for applicants, those who apply are pretty much exclusively from the left end of the spectrum.

Staying connected

A 2014 study by sociologist Kristin Turney of the University of California, Irvine found that kids with a parent behind bars are more than three times as likely to have behavioral problems or depression than children without an incarcerated parent, and are twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, and anxiety. More than 5 million American children — that’s one in 14 kids — have had a parent with whom they reside incarcerated after their birth.

Research has found that children who maintain contact with a parent (or parents) behind bars have markedly better outcomes than ones who don’t. Robert and Michael Meeropol were able to visit their parents at Sing Sing for two years before they were executed. “For my dad, those are the only source of his memories of his parents,” Jenn Meeropol says, noting that the FBI had seized all the family’s personal property, including every one of their family photos. “The commitment of individuals to help them stay connected to their parents for as long as possible, and the real effort that my grandparents made to provide a safe family setting in the midst of these really difficult circumstances, was all incredibly important.”

Chesa Boudin, who attended that first RFC fundraiser back in 1990, went on to win a Rhodes Scholarship in 2002 and is now a public defender in San Francisco. He says keeping in close touch with his mother and father through calls and visits was a vital part of his growing up.

“It’s impossible to replace the mother-child or father-child relationship, and in cases where the biological parents can continue to play a role, my experience, even through prison bars, is a really classic example of how important that can be,” says Boudin, now 36. Still, “I had a temper I couldn’t control. I acted out in school, I threw books and chairs, and that’s despite having two older brothers and two adopted parents who treated me like their own. I thought, ‘If I had been more lovable, maybe my parents wouldn’t have risked losing me. Or if I had been old enough to talk, maybe I could have convinced them not to go that day. And the men who died in the commission of my parents’ crime, I felt terrible.”

“There were undoubtedly bumps in the road, and I witnessed them all, but Kathy and David were geniuses about building a relationship over the walls,” says Boudin’s surrogate father, Bill Ayers. “They would write these, kind of, serial stories that they would tell over the phone over many weeks, and make games that were relevant to where [Chesa] was in life.” (Kathy Boudin was released in 2003 and is presently an adjunct lecturer at the Columbia University School of Social Work. Gilbert remains imprisoned and is not eligible for parole until 2056.)

For Robert Meeropol, the RFC allows him to keep his parents’ names alive nearly three-quarters of a century after their deaths. Yet, as time goes by, he says the Rosenberg Fund will have less and less to do with the Rosenbergs. And that’s a good thing.

“My parents’ generation is pretty much gone. The next generation, which is my generation, has a strong personal connection to the case, but any younger than that, it becomes a historical event. The challenge is for the RFC to move the younger people based upon the kind of work the RFC has done, not based upon what happened to the Rosenbergs. It’s not my challenge anymore, it’s Jenn’s challenge. And it is a very big challenge.”

Photo credit: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

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