To coincide with the 50th anniversary last month of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, their younger son, Robert Meeropol, released his new memoir, “An Execution in the Family” (St. Martin’s Press, 2003). Coincidentally, the same season saw the Lincoln Center debut of “A Bad Friend,” a play by cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer and directed by Jerry Zaks, about a Jewish Communist family in Brooklyn in the wake of the executions. Both works deal with the impact of Communist activism on family life during the McCarthy period. But Meeropol’s tale of his family’s tragedy is surprisingly sunny, while Feiffer’s fictional characters are rent apart.
After his parents were executed for conspiring to send nuclear weapons secrets to the Soviet Union, Robert and his brother Michael were quickly adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol, a childless couple. Anne and Abel were totally sympathetic to the Soviet cause, and they lovingly raised their new sons in the milieu of progressive schools and camps that their biological parents would have approved of. Abel was a songwriter who authored two hits: the haunting anti-lynch tune “Strange Fruit” and the virtual Communist anthem “The House I Live In.”
A 1960s-era radical, Robert regarded the Soviet Union as “repressive,” but also conservative, in a way typical of members of Students for a Democratic Society. He describes his role in the University of Michigan chapter of SDS as that of a “mush-head,” attempting to mush factions together, to deter the doctrinal splits that plagued the New Left. He ascribes this to an aversion to confrontation arising from the fear of revealing his identity as a Rosenberg. He and Michael “came out” in 1974 only as a consequence of deciding to sue Louis Nizer for his alleged violation of their copyright in publishing their parents’ prison correspondence. This reticence may have contributed to his embrace of the “no-enemies-on-the-left” dictum that rendered most New Left members apologists for Castro, Mao, Ho and the other dictators they lionized.
But Meeropol does not, and perhaps cannot, confront the truth that his parents sacrificed their lives for Joseph Stalin, the Soviet empire and an American Communist Party that slavishly supported this malevolence for most of a century.
For this, perhaps the psychological distance afforded by drama is needed. In “A Bad Friend,” Feiffer’s protagonist, the Communist firebrand, Naomi, views Stalin and the Soviet Union as bulwarks in the struggle against antisemitism. She clings emotionally to Party fictions and refuses to accept the truth, even in the face of the infamous Doctors’ Plot and the later exoneration of the so-called plotters following Stalin’s death.
Her ferocious loyalty to this bad friend — Stalin —— is but one of several instances of misplaced trust that impel this story. Others involve her heavy-handed efforts to control her accommodating husband, their precocious teenage daughter, Rose, and Uncle Morty, Naomi’s ambitious Hollywood-screenwriter brother. Throw in a snooping FBI agent pretending to befriend Rose and a mysterious old gentleman whom Rose genuinely befriends, and one can easily envision the play’s title in the plural.
In portraying the little family as loving but destructively swept up in the political struggle, the playwright-cartoonist successfully draws his dramatic characters. Through the voice of Naomi, Feiffer illustrates the seductiveness of the belief that Marxist doctrine — as interpreted by the Communist priesthood — is the key to understanding history. In this view, Communists are on the “correct” side of history, in the “vanguard” of the struggle for the highest ideals of humanity for peace and justice.
By way of contrast, Meeropol displays no sense of the true believer, but he is tribalistic in his own way. His tribe is a vague fraternity of left-liberals and radicals who see themselves in constant opposition to the establishment. Their specific ideas seem less important than the sense of solidarity that he feels. In line with this, in his work as the founder and director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children —– which supports psychotherapy, education and other needs of children of left-wing “political prisoners” — Meeropol does not consider the guilt or innocence of their parents.
Meeropol now declares himself “agnostic” on the question of whether his father was a Soviet spy, indicating that he may well have sent nonatomic weapons data to the Soviet Union during World War II. He argues credibly, however, that the case against his parents as atomic spies was manufactured, that his mother was completely innocent, and that the crime of “conspiracy to commit espionage” should not be a capital offense. He now campaigns against capital punishment as inherently wrong and unjust.
However flawed his politics, Meeropol’s story is upbeat, even uplifting. But Feiffer is more on target intellectually in darkly portraying the evils of both McCarthyism and Stalinism. Perhaps Meeropol is limited in his vision because he, unlike Feiffer’s rebellious, fictional Rose, never knew his parents as an adolescent and as an adult. And, after all, who could blame him for opposing a system that callously executed his parents?
Ralph Seliger is executive editor of Israel Horizons, the publication of Meretz USA.