The final week of my parents’ lives

June 24, 2009

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were members of the Communist Party who were convicted of espionage for allegedly stealing atomic secrets. On June 19, 1953, they were executed--the most prominent victims of the McCarthyite campaign to crush political and social dissent.

Robert Meeropol, one of the Rosenbergs' two sons, has dedicated himself to helping provide for the children of activists who have been persecuted for their political beliefs, founding the Rosenberg Fund for Children. This year, in the days leading up to the anniversary of his parents' death on June 19, Robert wrote this diary, remembering what happened each day 56 years ago.

Monday, June 15

Have you ever wondered why anniversaries that are multiples of five or 10 are more significant milestones than those that are multiples of other numbers? I wonder if we had six fingers, instead of five, whether a 24th wedding anniversary might be a bigger deal than the 20th, and if we had seven fingers a 49th might be much more important than a 50th.

This week will mark 56 years since my parents' executions on June 19, 1953. I expect that unlike the 50th anniversary in 2003, the day will pass with very little public notice. But this week will resonate more powerfully for me because for the first time in 11 years, the days of the week track the weekdays of 1953.

In other words, my parents' executions took place at sundown on Friday the 19th, and the 19th will also fall on a Friday this year.

To mark this echo, I'll recall in daily posts to this blog the events of the final five days of my parents' lives and my feelings at the time.

Fifty-six years ago today, on Monday, June 15, 1953, the Supreme Court denied my parents' request for a stay of execution by a 5-4 vote. This was the eighth time my parents had asked the Supreme Court to review their case, and the Court had refused them all.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after leaving the New York City courthouse where they were found guilty of espionage
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after leaving the New York City courthouse where they were found guilty of espionage (Roger Higgins)

With this denial, the Supreme Court adjourned for the summer. The Federal Bureau of Prisons scheduled the executions for that Thursday, June 18, on my parents' 14th wedding anniversary.

My brother Michael and I were living with acquaintances of my parents, Ben and Sonia Bach, in Toms River, N.J. I had just turned 6, and my brother was 10. The previous Friday had been the last day of school, so our summer vacation had just started. I have no specific recollection of the Supreme Court's denial that Monday, but I do remember attending a big demonstration to save my parents in Washington, D.C., the day before. Here's what I wrote in my memoir about that event:

We went to New York or Philadelphia and got on a bus with many others going to Washington. I peered out the window as we drove south on Route 1, apparently racing a passenger train I believed was filled with people going to the same place; it was exciting to observe and imagine everyone rushing to a common destination. But once we got off the bus and became part of the commotion, it wasn't fun anymore.

Then I was a small person amid crowds of milling adult legs. I observed the process of getting to the demonstration so closely because I wanted so much to understand what was happening. I could see how we got there with my own eyes, but no one told me why we were doing this or what was happening once we got there, and incomprehension left me anxious.

Tuesday, June 16

Early Tuesday morning, June 16, Ben Bach drove us to meet our parents' attorney, Manny Bloch, in Manhattan. From there, Manny took us to Sing Sing prison, 30 miles to the north, for what would become our last visit with our parents.

This was the only prison visit where we saw both our parents together at the same time. My brother wrote in We Are Your Sons, "[T]hey sat at opposite ends of the table. Robby and I wandered around the room, hugging them and listening" while they talked strategy with Manny.

I did not understand that with the executions scheduled for Thursday, it was probable that we would never see them again, but Michael did, and at the end of the visit, he started to wail, "One more day to live. One more day to live." They hurriedly said goodbye before we all broke down.

While we were all visiting at Sing Sing, unbeknownst to us, two attorneys who had not been involved in the case previously presented a petition to Justice Douglas as he left for vacation. The new lawyers claimed my parents had been tried under the wrong law, and that under the correct law, the death sentence was illegal. Douglas decided to postpone his vacation one day to consider the request.

Wednesday, June 17

On Wednesday morning, June 17, Justice Douglas announced he was staying the executions and left for vacation. He did not rule on the merits of the new lawyers' claim, but rather said that the petition must be considered by the District Court and then the Court of Appeals. This would add months, if not years, to my parents' lives.

Michael recalled in We Are Your Sons that we were playing our usual game of Monopoly when Michael heard a commotion in the kitchen: "[Sonia Bach] burst in on us and starting hugging us. 'The Douglas stay! The Douglas stay!'...As the news sunk in, we became wildly happy, Robby included."

This was, without a doubt, the best news we'd had since my parents' arrest. Although I couldn't read newspaper articles, I saw reports on TV and heard them on the radio. My interpretation was that at the hearing on Monday, the Supreme Court's justices had asked Manny to give them 10 reasons why my parents should not be killed, and he had done this, so they stayed the executions.

But we didn't know that, according to FBI files forced into the open 20 years later by our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, late on the previous evening, the Attorney General of the Unites States had met secretly with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. They agreed that if Douglas issued a stay the following morning, the entire Court would be called into special session to vacate Douglas' action. They conspired to do this knowing neither the legal reasoning behind the request for the stay nor the contents of Douglas' ruling, which had not yet been written.

So our good news only survived about eight hours. By late afternoon, the Attorney General had asked that the Supreme Court be called into special session, and by evening the Chief Justice had scheduled a hearing on Douglas' stay for the following morning.

Thursday, June 18

Thursday, June 18, was my parents' 14th wedding anniversary, but I have no recollection of knowing that fact as a 6-year-old. In fact, I have no memory of this day whatsoever other than my belief that the Supreme Court was reconvened to ask Manny Bloch to provide an 11th reason why my parents should not be killed. I think I confused everything I heard about "eleventh hour appeals" with giving an "eleventh reason."

For Michael and me, this was a day of waiting. Manny Bloch and the two new lawyers, Fyke Farmer and Daniel Marshall, argued before the Supreme Court in the morning that Douglas' stay should be upheld. The justices retired to their chambers after the argument and had not announced a decision by the end of the day.

Our parents were in limbo. For all they knew, the Supreme Court could overturn the stay at any moment, and their executions would go forward as planned at 11 p.m. that very day. They drew up their wills and wrote what would be their last letter to Manny Bloch. In what for my brother and me turned out to be a momentous decision, they insisted that Manny become our legal guardian if they were executed. But the Supreme Court remained silent that day, and so they lived to see the sun rise on Friday, June 19, 1953.

Friday, June 19

Friday, June 19, 1953, was a warm, sunny, slightly humid day.

In the morning, the Supreme Court denied the stay by a 6 to 3 vote, and the executions were set for 11 p.m. that evening. Manny Bloch and several other lawyers spent the day filing a variety of appeals to judges and the president, but it was all to no avail. When they pointed out that it would be improper to carry out executions during the Jewish Sabbath, which started at sundown on Friday, the government obliged by moving the executions forward to 8 p.m. so they could be carried out just before sunset.

Michael and I tried to play outside, but the Bachs' front lawn was now swarming with reporters. To get away from the press, we were whisked to a friend's house in the next town. I don't remember leaving the Bachs', but I do recall playing ball with my friend Mark that evening, while my brother played with Mark's older brother Steve. Earlier, we'd been watching a baseball game on TV when the news flashed across the screen that plans for the executions were going forward. I do not recall Michael's reaction, but he remembers moaning, "That's it, goodbye, goodbye."

Michael's reaction, which was followed by the adults' deciding to send us outside, gave me the sense that something terrible was happening. We came back in only when it got too dark to see the ball. I remember that Michael was distraught, but I doubt I fully comprehended that my parents had just been executed. However, I do remember thinking that Manny Bloch had failed to provide the "11th reason," and that's why my parents' were killed.

Throughout that evening, upwards of 10,000 people had gathered on 17th Street off Union Square in New York City. The rally was originally planned to celebrate Justice Douglas' stay, but it turned into a death watch. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps more, demonstrated against the executions throughout the world that Friday. They promised never to forget, and even now, many communicate with me and describe what they did that day.

The 56th anniversary may not be a marker of great note, and a long chunk of my life has passed since then. But this year, the week that has led up to today has brought the matching days from 1953, and the memories they evoke, very close.

This diary originally appeared on the Rosenberg Fund for Children Web site.

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