"...Indeed the defendants Julius and Ethel Rosenberg placed their devotion to their cause above their own personal safety and were conscious that they were sacrificing their own children, should their misdeeds be detected--all of which did not deter them from pursuing their course. Love for their cause dominated their lives--it was even greater than their love for their children.
"What I am about to say is not easy for me. I have deliberated for hours, days and nights. I have carefully weighed the evidence. Every nerve, every fiber of my body has been taxed. I am just as human as are the people you have given me the power to impose sentence. I am convinced beyond any doubt of your guilt. I have searched the records- I have searched my conscience- to find some reason for mercy- for it is only human to be merciful and it is natural to try to spare lives. I am convinced, however, that I would violate the solemn and sacred trust that the people of this land have place in my hands were I to show leniency to the defendant Rosenberg."
Judge Irving R. Kaufman - Sentencing the Rosenbergs - April 5th, 1951
"Kitson made me read this." He handed me a dog-eared copy of what is now a classic in American Literature, but was then a book we could find on the drugstore rack next to the pulp fiction.
Joe had the look about him of someone who'd just been blown clear through a jet aircraft engine. He always seemed to be trying to figure out where he was and which direction was forward. In the three years I'd known him, he'd never once combed his hair. He'd bought a King Crimson tour shirt years ago when he crashed a stadium concert at the age of eleven. He wore it to school under his button down shirt and tie.
He got straight "A"s. Scored a perfect 1600 on the SATs. Played piano like a teenaged Rachmanonoff. Smoked dope when the rest of us were sure it would lead to a bad heroin addiction and called smokers, "derelicts".
His dad ran a book company and supplied Joe with everything they printed.
The grandmother who'd lived with them since he was born had just died. He'd gone to the funeral. Bawled his eyes out. Decided he hated God. Maybe life.
"What's it about?" I asked.
"A guy burns his girlfriend's ass with the car cigarette lighter."
"It's about burned girl asses?"
"Look. Just read it," he said. Joe lost patience with me a lot. He walked away a lot. I had to catch up to him a lot. There was something insane and burning about him I had to be near. My problem. Not his.
I remember going home from school that day and starting the book, which is told from the perspective of an American son of Jewish immigrants whose parents have been electrocuted by the state for passing atomic secrets to Russia.
It's the life of the kid. And he's seriously messed up.
The book took me nearly a week to finish. I could only stand it in ten page gasps. It was like drinking nitric acid. I didn't know why. Nails on a blackboard. Passing your hand through the candle flame. Letting the match burn down to your finger nails, till you're hit in the nose with the dog-food scented wafts of airborne carbonized protein.
In the end, we are -- that.
The book leaked into me like the ocean through a breech in a submarine hull. Cold, salt, unwelcome death. I remember laying on my pumpkin orange bedspread staring at the ceiling imagining how seriously fucked up those kids must be, the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Knowing the whole world knows your parents nearly detonated the cold war. The scapegoats for all the fear the western world can summon, and we're very good at being afraid of things.
"What'd you think?" he asked me when I saw him next.
"He calls them the Issacsons, but we all know they're the Rosenbergs. I wonder why he just doesn't call them that," I said, or something equally foolish. In those days, when I was a kid, I was a kid, not a proto-adult like Joe was.
"Because it's not fucking about that," Joe replied, or something like it. Joe peppered his speech with conjugations and declensions of the word "fuck". In those days you didn't hear the word everywhere like you do now. Joe was our fountain of vulgarity in a world that still thought there was a racy episode of "The Andy Griffith Show".
He said, "We're discussing it in reading group next week. Kitson's house. Why the hell don't you come? We read books banned by the Catholic church."
I joined the AP English reading seminar after that. Our English Lit teacher held it in his living room. Students plopped into Volkswagen-sized bean bags and tried out adolescent philosophy on an adult. We got no credit for it. It was just something for kids to do who couldn't dribble a basketball or get dates to the homecoming dance.
Kitson reclined on a bunch of pillows like he must have imagined Socrates did. He smoked a pipe and styled his dark black hair in a Hitlerian comb over. His glasses were as thick as anyone's in the room. Except for Joe, who had perfect vision, the rest of us in the room could only see through the physics of massive light refraction.
"What's it about?" he asked us, who had formed a circle on the floor around a bowl of potato chips and a couple cans of soda. He turned off the lights in the room and lit a few candles.
"It's about the Rosenbergs," I said, figuring I was new and should speak first. "He calls them Issacson, but it's really about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg."
Jackie snickered behind me. Everyone else smiled. That I was wrong was in no doubt. How wrong I was had escaped me. These were the smart kids, I would be made to remember.
"Erm...anyone else?" Kitson said, barely acknowledging my spew.
"It's about betrayal," Jackie said. She poked me in the back with a toe.
"How should Daniel feel?" Kitson asked us at one point, but I was disengaged by then. Proven an intellectual inferior, I had nothing else to contribute. Jackie ran her toe across the back of my calves, then curled in behind me until we were almost spooning on Kitson's floor.
I went back to only one other session, and proven thoroughly incapable of interpreting literature, stopped entirely.
Joe moved to Philadelphia, and I only saw him twice again in my life.
Jackie and I dated until I met another woman. She didn't seem to mind I minded she was smarter than me. When we broke up I said to her something we both promised we'd never say to each other.
She ran back into her house crying. Ran. Sobbing. Sobbing as if I'd asked her to lower her jeans and white panties, to trust me while I heated the cigarette lighter.
Michael Rosenberg's name is Michael Meeropol. The Meeropol's adopted the boys after the state executed their parents. Michael married and adopted children of his own. His daughter, Ivy Meeropol, made a documentary film about the Rosenberg trial, and the aftermath, fifty years later.
She is part of the aftermath. Her film says what we all now know. But it's so much more impactful coming from a blone-haired, blue eyed human being who has to argue to find the location of her grandparent's grave, and then crying, places a stone on each memorial.
To the end the Rosenberg's pled their innocence. The prosecution's case seemed to be based on testimony coerced from a brother-in-law, who worked at Los Alamos. It seemed a tenuous connection exploited by the forces of J. Edgar Hoover during the height of McCarthyism.
Jewish communists with a relative in the atomic biz. Must be passing secrets. Must.
Their execution seemed a lynching to many. Justice, to others, who felt examples had to be made. Remember, in those days kids were taught to duck and cover under their desks even though everyone knew that if a thermonuclear device were detonated near you, the 1/2 inch of laminated plywood over your head might buy you a couple of additional microseconds before vaporization, during which something important might happen in your life.
All these years later, the cold war is sort of over. The iron curtain rusted. Russian communism fell hard and we're still waiting for something more rational to rise up and provide prosperity to Eastern Europe.
Files are open over there. They're open over here.
What Ivy Meeropol had to document is that when her grandparents were convicted the government was in possession of hard evidence linking Julius to a Soviet spy ring in the United States. It was secret, at the time. Now it's not.
The Russians admit, Julius Rosenberg was a spy. He passed information to them under the code name "Liberal". Some atomic secrets were indeed passed. But hardly enough to construct a fission bomb. In fact, much more damage was done by spies like Claus Fuchs or Ted Hall. But Julius was in hand.
They tried to get him to talk, but he wouldn't. Torture wasn't allowed in those days, and so if someone wouldn't talk, you had to find other ways to convince them to cooperate. So they arrested Ethel. Threatened her with the death penalty. They figured Julius would talk rather than see his innocent wife face death. And up until they pulled the switch, Julius could have turned state's evidence and ratted out the whole ring. He'd have saved both their lives. But he didn't. He didn't think they'd do it.
Ethel, who knew nothing, couldn't help herself. She was a hostage, executed by the U.S. in a fit of maniacal extremism that can become due process.
They had to hit her three times. She was a small woman. Julius was already dead and there was no way for him to talk and save her. She didn't fit well in the electric chair. Her limbs didn't make good contact with the electrodes. The first 50+ second jolt didn't kill her.
They'd already loosened the straps and taken her out when the doctor heard her heart beating. So they strapped her unconscious body back into the chair and turned on the electricity. A puff of burning protein billowed out from under the helmet and rose, filling a skylight alcove above.
And when that didn't kill her, and her skull was charred brown and black and eyeballs blown from their sockets, when her tongue was as cooked as grilled hamburger and the flesh hanging from her face, when her innocent heart was still beating, they hit her again. One last time.
We, the people of the United States of America, killed an innocent woman in plain view to coerce her small-time-spy husband to reveal his cohorts.
We did not succeed.
The Book of Daniel is about betrayal. It's about how people can take matters into their own hands and attempt to betray an entire nation for unrealistic and misguided ideals. It's about how a government can betray its people when it fears for its own existence. It's about how each of us through cowardice or inaction, or malice, or ignorance, betrays each other at one or more times in our lives.
It's about how we react to that betrayal.
In the end, the Meeropol's are proud of their most famous relatives. To the end, the Rosenbergs said nothing. Julius turned in no one. When told she would be freed if she simply testified against her husband, Ethel said, "I'd rather die."
And then they both did.
In the end, Julius Rosenberg's espionage had very little to do with the Russians successfully developing an atomic weapon. They had Sakharov, anyway, and would have done it sooner or later. Yet, Julius's crime is still a crime. The punishment, on the other hand, was somewhat outrageous, in light of past and future spying activities. And Ethel's execution, as we now see in the plain light of history, is itself a miscarriage of justice committed amid an era of widespread panic caused by Joseph McCarthy.
In the end, I betrayed Jackie, who loved me even though I couldn't love her, by saying some simple words. She had mouse brown hair, a small round nose and a supermodel's gray eyes that were always magnified like owl orbs behind her glasses. Her dog was a Norwegian Elkhound the color of cigarette ash. Once when we were petting her dog I got her to take her glasses off and told her she was beautiful blind.
Because she was.
She figured if she tried hard enough, I'd come around but in those days I didn't like myself enough to do it. So when the woman I would eventually marry came into my life, I had to tell Jackie it was that way instead of this way.
I remember getting impatient with her a lot. Walking away a lot. I remember her following a lot. I was angry at the world for making me miserable and brooding. It made me mad at me, mad at her. I couldn't love someone who wanted me that much. There wasn't any alternative. I didn't know.
I will never forget the moment I looked into her eyes, glassy as crystal, the tears pooling in the corners, strands of her hair falling across her face.
The Book of Daniel was on the seat in the car between us when she ran out. Ran. Sobbing.
My betrayal complete, rest of my life happened after that moment. My own children wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for that act. Everything would be something else.
Michael Meeropol says in his daughter's documentary that if his father or mother had confessed, it would be a different world. He thinks, maybe one not as good.
Every time I think of that book, or see something about the Rosenbergs it reminds me that even though I agree with nothing they did, that I could never espouse their communist ideals or move to damage the country of my birth, the home I love however misguided it may become--that they were still better people than me.
That I did not understand what I know now. And I will never love anything, or anybody, as much as they did.
The Book of Daniel is written by E.L. Doctorow