Michael Rosenberg was listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio when his entire world crumbled. The seven-year-old was engrossed in his favorite program in the summer of 1950 when men burst into his New York apartment and took away his father. Soon, his mother was under arrest, too.
His parents were none other than Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and they were accused of being Russian spies who passed on secret information about nuclear technology as the Cold War kicked into high gear. The arrests started a chain of events that would lead to their execution. But it also changed the life of Michael and his brother Robert forever.
Their story didn’t end with their parents’ deaths. Rather, the executions put them on a path of pain. As the children of America’s most notorious Red Scare-era figures, they were associated with their parents’ supposed crimes. And as they grew, they went on a dramatic search for answers—a search that opened up even more questions about their parents’ past.
Neither child had any conception that their parents might be Soviet spies. Their childhood in New York City was typical of its time, and both Michael and Robert remember parents who were energetic, affectionate and happy. That all changed in 1950 when Julius and Ethel were indicted for 11 acts of espionage. Both pleaded not guilty, but were convicted and sentenced to be executed.
Meanwhile, Robert and Michael were left without parents. Three and seven years old at the time, they were first sent to live with their grandmother. But as the case became a national phenomenon, she tried to send them to other relatives—all of whom refused to take them in.
When nobody offered to take them in, the boys were taken to the Hebrew Children’s Home in the Bronx—effectively an orphanage.
“I’m sure that it won’t be long before you’ll get used to your new home,” Julius wrote Michael in November 1950 after they moved to the Hebrew Children’s Home. “Darling don’t worry about a thing.”
But despite the encouraging tone of their parents’ letters, things were not all right. They would never be reunited with their parents, who were convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. The boys visited their parents in Sing Sing prison, where they looked over the electric chair and asked their parents if they were really innocent. Of course they were, they reassured them. Meanwhile, despite an international attempt to stay the execution, all of their appeals for mercy were denied.
When the Rosenbergs were executed, their sons were playing catch at the home of a family friend. They were six and ten years old. The boys were now Cold War orphans, and they were almost as infamous as their parents.
But to a group of sympathetic Americans, the Rosenbergs were seen in a different light. These supporters felt that the Rosenberg trial was an attempt to suppress progressive thinkers in an era increasingly dominated by a Communist scare. One of them was Abel Meeropol, a public school English teacher and former Communist Party member who was also the author of the lyrics to “Strange Fruit.” Meeropol and his wife, who did not have children, met the Rosenberg boys at a party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois and took them in a week later. Eventually, they adopted them.
But though Michael and Robert—now Meeropol—went on to live successful lives as college professors, they couldn’t shake their parents’ reassurances that they were innocent. After living in what amounted to hiding for years, they embraced their true identities and began to reinvestigate their parents’ case. Together, they sued the CIA and FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. After a lengthy legal battle, they got the files and scoured through them for evidence of their parents’ innocence.
But as they reconstructed the evidence on their parents, they came to the agonizing conclusion that their father wasn't innocent after all. A growing amount of evidence points to Julius Rosenberg as a busy—and successful—recruiter of Soviet spies. The network he helped create stole information on all kinds of military technology. But his sons believe that though Julius did steal nuclear secrets, the information wasn’t of much value.
They’re even firmer on their mother’s innocence. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, was instrumental in her conviction, telling a grand jury that she typed up Julius’ notes. But later in life, Greenglass recanted and said he had made up the charges to protect his family. The Meeropol brothers believe that their father was executed on the basis of a trumped-up charge and that their mother was entirely innocent.
Now, they want their mother to be exonerated. But though they’ve petitioned the government to exonerate her, she’s never been pardoned. Nor has the government ever admitted that Julius Rosenberg didn’t pass on the kinds of secrets for which he was convicted. And so the saga of the Rosenberg orphans continues—as unsatisfying and unresolved as ever.