Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Orphaned by the state

When MVFHR Board Vice-Chair Robert Meeropol was doing a series of speaking engagements in Germany earlier this month, he also did an interview with the British newspaper the Guardian, and on Saturday (March 21) they published this piece, titled "Orphaned by the state":

It's early evening on Friday 19 June 1953, and in a garden in New Jersey two little boys, brothers aged six and 10, are playing baseball. The light starts to fade, but the boys play on. Strangely, because this isn't normally how it is, no adults come to call them in. The children continue. Eventually it gets so dark that they can't see the ball any more. But still they go on playing.

Deep in their hearts, these little boys know that something appalling, something devastating, something almost too terrible to contemplate, is happening. Deep in their hearts, they know that as soon as they step back into the house, their lives will be changed horribly, and for ever.

Eventually, reluctantly, the boys head inside. Robert, the younger of the two, is a bit hazy about what happens next. He remembers Michael, his brother, becoming distraught, and he remembers the adults trying to console him. He remembers realising, with the black-and-white clarity of a child's take on the world, that his six-year-old brain simply isn't equipped to deal with the awfulness of the evening's events. He remembers going to bed, and trying to shut everything out. He remembers feeling that if he just feigns ignorance the grown-ups will leave him alone and then he can start to deal with the nightmare as best he can.

What has just happened is that Robert and Michael's parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, have been executed. At one minute before sundown, while the children were in the garden, their parents - one aged 35, the other 37 - were strapped into an electric chair in Sing Sing prison, near New York. Julius first, then Ethel. In the time that elapsed between the boys going out to play and coming inside again, their country has made them orphans.

Even more than half a century on, it's hard to hear this story without being affected by its magnitude. As Robert Meeropol describes what happened on that evening 56 years ago, I have tears in my eyes. When Meeropol describes how, earlier that same day, his brother began moaning, "That's it then! Goodbye, goodbye"; when the news flashed on to the television that the executions were going ahead that night; and when he describes seeing the press reports counting down his parents' final days, I can hardly bear to listen.

Meeropol (whose name was later changed to that of the couple who adopted him) is used to journalists getting emotional on him. "It's different for you," he says understandingly, "I've lived with this all my life; I'm used to it." But how does anyone get used to the fact that their parents have been put to death by their country; how does anyone pick up the pieces of a childhood left that broken? What is most extraordinary about Meeropol, in fact, is how entirely ordinary he seems today. We meet in Berlin, where he is currently on a book and campaigning tour. Now 62, bespectacled and balding, he is every inch the liberal east-coast lawyer and grandfather he has become. Yet, as he's the first to point out, his life is permeated by the story of the parents he knew for such a short space of time: their legacy has taken up much of his life, certainly much of his last 30 years, and fighting against the death penalty, and being an advocate for children who suffer as he did because of their parents' politics, is now his full-time occupation.

Read the rest of the article.

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