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My parents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American communists executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage. I was three years old when they were arrested and six when they were executed. It was the McCarthy era; the US government basically said there’s an international communist conspiracy that will destroy our way of life, and national security takes precedence. I believe the government knew my mother was innocent. They took her hostage anyway and, figuratively speaking, held a gun to her head and told my father, “You’ll talk or we’ll kill her.” When he didn’t talk, they killed her. I don’t remember exactly when I learnt my parents had been executed. My older brother, Michael, who was seven, told me they were dead, but I pretended not to understand. There’s a point in a kid’s life where he thinks if he wants something to be true, he can make it true, just because he wants it bad enough. I was at that age where I still had that kind of magical thinking. I’d say to Michael, “When are we going to visit Mommy and Daddy again?” And he’d look at me and say, “We can’t. They’re dead.” But about six months after their execution, I knew I was never going to see them again.
After my parents were arrested, we were shipped off to my grandmother’s house. She decided she couldn’t care for us, so we were placed in a shelter. There were aunts and uncles, but they were terrified to take us in. After six months, a relative took us into her home in Manhattan.
I was raised to believe both of my parents were innocent. Now I believe my father was a recruiting agent for the Soviet Union. He organised a group of men during the second world war to supply Russia with industrial information – not with atomic secrets, as was alleged. As my father saw it, he was helping the Soviet Union defeat Hitler. It was espionage, but it wasn’t atomic espionage. Had he been given a fair trial and sentenced for what he actually did, I’d have very little to complain about. But that’s not what happened.
One of the things that makes me saddest is that I have so few memories of my parents before they were arrested. I have impressions of a warm and loving family, but I don’t trust that memory. It might be a fantasy. Most of my memories come from visiting them in prison. Except for the last time, we always saw them separately. My brother and I played word games with our father and sat on our mother’s lap. They wanted us to think things were normal, that the family was reunited.
What I remember most is feeling there was an “us” and “them”, and they were much more powerful than we were. I had a lot of anxiety. We were constantly moving around, and I wanted calm and quiet. I craved anonymity. I wanted things to go back to normal, and in some ways that’s what happened when we got adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol. We immediately took to them. Abel was a songwriter who wrote the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holiday. Anne was very warm and loving, and I needed to be nurtured in that way. I had a happy childhood. My family became the Meeropol family.
Perhaps because of my childhood, I had a strong desire to transform the experiences I’d had into something positive. So in 1990, I started the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which provides for the educational and emotional needs of children of jailed US activists. We help kids experiencing the kinds of things my brother and I went through. Since 9/11, there have been echoes of the McCarthy era. The thinking once again is: to survive, we have to curtail human rights. There’s never any justification for that. But the war on terror is being used as an excuse to legitimise unconstitutional activities, and the courts have acquiesced. Subconsciously, I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.