Robert Meeropol

Robert Meeropol

Robert Rosenberg, the son of Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg, was born in New York City in 1947. Two years later, Harry Gold was arrested by the FBI and accused of spying for the Soviet Union. He named Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, as being a member of the spy ring. Under questioning, he admitted acting as a spy and named Robert's father as one of his contacts. He denied that his sister had been involved but confessed that his wife, Ruth Greenglass, had been used as a courier.

Julius Rosenberg was arrested but refused to implicate anybody else in spying for the Soviet Union. Joseph McCarthy had just launched his attack on a so-called group of communists based in Washington. J. Edgar Hoover, saw the arrest of Rosenberg as a means of getting good publicity for the FBI. Hoover sent a memorandum to the US attorney general Howard McGrath saying: "There is no question that if Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities it would be possible to proceed against other individuals. Proceeding against his wife might serve as a lever in these matters."

J. Edgar Hoover ordered the arrest of Ethel Rosenberg and Robert and his brother Michael Rosenberg were looked after by her mother, Tessie Greenglass. She found this very difficult and after three months the boys were sent to the Hebrew Children's Home. Later that year, Julius' mother, Sophie Rosenberg, removed them from the children's home and decided to care for the boys herself.

Ten days before the start of the trial of the Rosenbergs the FBI re-interviewed David Greenglass. He was offered a deal if he provided information against Ethel Rosenberg. This included a promise not to charge Ruth Greenglass with being a member of the spy ring. Greenglass now changed his story. In his original statement, he said that he handed over atomic information to Julius Rosenberg on a street corner in New York. In his new interview, Greenglass claimed that the handover had taken place in the living room of the Rosenberg's New York flat. In her FBI interview Ruth argued that "Julius then took the info into the bathroom and read it, and when he came out he told (Ethel) she had to type this info immediately. Ethel then sat down at the typewriter... and proceeded to type info which David had given to Julius".

The trial of the Rosenbergs began on 6th March 1951. The jury believed the evidence of David Greenglass and Ruth Greenglass and both Julius and his wife, Ethel Rosenberg, were found guilty and sentenced to death. A large number of people were shocked by the severity of the sentence as they had not been found guilty of treason. In fact, they had been tried under the terms of the Espionage Act that had been passed in 1917 to deal with the American anti-war movement.

Afterwards it became clear that the government did not believe the Rosenbergs would be executed. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, had warned that history would not be kind to a government responsible for orphaning the couple's two young sons on such poor evidence. Rumours began to circulate that the government would be willing to spare the couple's life if they confessed and gave evidence about other American Communist Party spies.

The case created a great deal of controversy in Europe where it was argued that the Rosenbergs were victims of anti-semitism and McCarthyism. Nobel prize-winner, Jean-Paul Sartre, called the case "a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation".

Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg remained on death row for twenty-six months. They both refused to confess and provide evidence against others and they were eventually executed on 19th June, 1953. As one political commentator pointed out, they died because they refused to confess and name others.

Robert Meeropol later revealed: "My parents' last letter to me and my brother stands out for me. They wrote that they died secure in the knowledge that others would carry on after them. And I think that has multiple meanings. I think it meant, on a personal level to me and my brother, that other people would take care of us after they were no longer able to do so. But I also think it meant on the political level their political beliefs, the principles that they stood up for, their refusal to lie, their refusal to be pawns of the McCarthyite hysteria, in other words their refusal to be used to attack the movements that they believed in - that even though they were no longer able to carry on those struggles, others would be able to carry them on their absence. And I saw that as a call for me to do the same."

Joanna Moorhead later reported: "From the time of their parents' arrests, and even after the execution, they (Rosenberg's two sons) were passed from one home to another - first one grandmother looked after them, then another, then friends. For a brief spell, they were even sent to a shelter. It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people - even family members - were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so."

Abe Meeropol and his wife Anne eventually agreed to adopt Robert and Michael Rosenberg. According to Robert: "Abel didn't get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s... I can't say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted." Both boys later changed their name to Meeropol.

After studying at the University of Michigan Meeropol taught anthropology at Western New England College in Springfield, Massachusetts. He became active in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. He eventually joined the Students for a Democratic Society ( SDS). Along with his brother he worked actively with the National Committee to reopen the Rosenberg Case and the Fund for Open Information and Accountability.

Robert and Michael also co-wrote a book about their childhood, We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1975). They accepted the possibility that Julius Rosenberg had been involved in spying for the Soviet Union during the Second World War. However, they point out that at the time the country was an ally of the United States: "The central lesson of this episode is that our government abused its power in dangerous ways that remain relevant today. Those in power targeted our parents, making them the focus of the public's Cold War-era fear and anger. They manufactured testimony and evidence. They arrested our mother simply as leverage to get our father to cooperate. They used the ultimate weapon - the threat of death - to try to extort a confession. They created the myth that there was a key secret of the atomic bomb, and then devised a strategy to make it appear that our father had sought and passed on that secret. They executed our father when he refused to collaborate in this lie. They executed our mother as well, even though they knew that she was not an active participant in any espionage activities."

Robert was active in politics and between 1980 to 1982 he was managing editor of Socialist Review, a journal published in San Francisco. He also enrolled in the Western New England College School of Law. After graduating in 1985 he was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar.

In 1990 Robert Meeropol established the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC), a non-profit, public foundation that makes grants to aid children in the U.S. whose parents are targeted, progressive activists. In the words of Robert Meeropol: "The Rosenberg Fund for Children is a public foundation that provides for the educational and emotional needs of children in this country whose parents have been targeted in the course of their progressive activities. What that actually means is that we find people today in this country who are suffering the same kind of attacks that my parents suffered and if they have children we provide the kind of assistance that my brother and I were provided with. We connect them with progressive institutions so the kids can be raised in a supportive environment."

Robert Meeropol published An Execution in the Family: One Son's Journey in 2003.

The U.S. government executed two people for stealing the secret of the atomic bomb - a crime it knew they did not commit.

The central lesson of this episode is that our government abused its power in dangerous ways that remain relevant today. They arrested our mother simply as leverage to get our father to cooperate.

They used the ultimate weapon -- the threat of death -- to try to extort a confession. They created the myth that there was a key "secret" of the atomic bomb, and then devised a strategy to make it appear that our father had sought and passed on that "secret." They executed our father when he refused to collaborate in this lie. They executed our mother as well, even though they knew that she was not an active participant in any espionage activities.

Q: Your parents were executed for their political beliefs. Could you tell our readers how this happened?

A: My parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were members of the American Communist Party and they were arrested in the summer of 1950 and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. More particularly, they were charged with conspiring to steal the secret of the atomic bomb and give it to the Soviet Union at the end of World War 2. There was no evidence presented at trial that they were directly involved in the transmission of anything to the Soviet Union. Testimony came from alleged co-conspirators, that is, people facing prison sentences or even the death penalty who agreed as part of a government deal to say my parents were involved with these other people.

Q: You've uncovered evidence that shows your parents were framed - what government agencies were involved in this?

A: Back in the 1970s, we sued under the newly strengthened Freedom of Information Act. We asked for the files of the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, Air Force intelligence, Army intelligence, the State Department, etc. I think we asked for information from 17 different agencies and we got information from all of them. This whole effort sort of went across-the-board of the government bureaucracy. We got a lot of previously secret documents. And what did these previously secret documents show? They demonstrated that my parents did not get a fair trial - that the trial judge was in secret communication with the prosecutors before, during and after the trial; that the trial judge, according to FBI documents, had actually agreed to give a death penalty to at least my father and possibly to both of my parents before the defense even began to present its case; and that the trial judge interfered with the appeals process and kept the FBI informed of developments during the appeals process and was actually pushing for a rapid execution even when he was sitting on further appeals in the case.

The chief prosecution witnesses, David and Ruth Greenglass and Harry Gold, all changed their stories. In their initial statements, for instance, David Greenglass said Ethel Rosenberg wasn't involved in anything. Then during the trial he testified that Ethel Rosenberg was present during their meetings and typed up the minutes to their meetings. We also have files showing that a few weeks before the trial the prosecuting attorneys, in briefing some of the Congressmen who were involved with the Atomic Energy Commission, stated that the case against Ethel Rosenberg was virtually non-existent but they had to develop a case against her in order to get a stiff prison sentence - to convince my father to cooperate. And then a few days later David and Ruth Greenglass gave the new statements that she typed up the minutes - and then that became the evidence that led to her conviction.

Q: Why do you think the government was so determined to execute your parents?

A: My parents were unknown. They were just two poor people, members of the Communist Party living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Then they got arrested and charged with being master atomic spies. When my father refused to name other people, then they arrested my mother to get him to name other people. As the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case grew and as the defense that my parents mounted through their letters grew, articulating the fact that it was all based on phony government frame-ups, they became more and more dangerous. General Lesley Groves, who was the military general in charge of the production of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos in New Mexico - where my parents supposedly engineered the stealing of the secret of the atomic bomb - said he believed that the information that went out in the Rosenberg case was of minor value but he'd never want anybody to say that because he felt in the greater scheme of things that the Rosenbergs deserved to hang.

Q; What happened to you and your brother Michael after your parents were executed?

A: The FBI came to my parents very soon after the arrest and said, essentially, talk or die. They said think about what will happen to your children if you don't talk - and if you talk, Julius, you'll have a prison term and Ethel, you'll be released and you can take care of the kids. Well, they offered the same deal to David and Ruth Greenglass, who also had two kids, and they took the deal. So Greenglass got a prison sentence and Ruth was never indicted and never spent a day in jail even though she swore she helped steal the secret of the atomic bomb. Quite a contrast with my mother.

There were so many people who put themselves on the line to save me when I was a kid that I grew up with the most abiding respect for anybody who would take a chance in order to make this society a better place for all of us. So I grew up sort of as a child of the movement and it was no accident that I got involved first in civil rights and then anti-war stuff and then ultimately SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in college.

Q: You've published letters your parents wrote to you from prison. Is there anything about them you could share with us?

A: My parents' last letter to me and my brother stands out for me. And I saw that as a call for me to do the same. And in some ways I've dedicated my life to carrying on in their absence. The Rosenberg Fund for Children is my effort to justify that trust.

The Rosenberg Fund for Children is a public foundation that provides for the educational and emotional needs of children in this country whose parents have been targeted in the course of their progressive activities. We connect them with progressive institutions so the kids can be raised in a supportive environment.

Some of them are the children of political prisoners, whether they be Puerto Rican nationalists, whether they be ex-Black Panthers, whether they be white revolutionaries, whether they be people who have fought against racial discrimination or sexual harassment on the job and been fired, whether they be activists who have been bombed, maimed, killed in the course of their activism. There are people like this all over the country who have either been attacked by government forces of repression or right-wing non-governmental oppression or what I call corporate harassment by corporations trying to fight against their progressive work. We just had our ninth anniversary. We gave away $100,000 to help slightly over 100 children in 1998. We've really been growing by leaps and bounds. The demands upon us have been increasing and we'll probably give away $150,000 this year.

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...

Doesn't Meeropol ever feel, though, that the choice Ethel and Julius made was fundamentally selfish: that their most important role was as parents? "Absolutely not," he says. "The world was very different then: capitalism and communism were engaged in a globe-spanning battle to determine the world's fate. Lots of people chose sides in this life-and-death battle. Also, my mother didn't actively participate in what went on - maybe that was a conscious effort to ensure that at least one parent would be around to raise the children if my father was caught."

But even when they were arrested - Julius was taken first, then Ethel - there seems little doubt that they could have acted to save themselves. Wouldn't that have been better for their children? Again, Meeropol thinks not. "Neither of my parents had a choice whereby they could come forward and say, 'OK, I admit I've done this, now how can I save my life?' What the government wanted them to do - and remember this was the McCarthy era - was become puppets, to dance to their tune and to provide a list of others who would then be put in exactly the position they were in. They would have had to renounce all that they believed in. To save themselves, they'd have had to betray others and that was too high a price to pay."

But all this went way over the heads of the two small boys who suddenly found themselves without a mother and father, shunted from home to home while the sand ran through the timer counting down the final months and weeks of the Rosenbergs' lives. It's clear from everything he says that the events of that desperate time were almost unfathomable to him; it's clear, too, that he'd have given anything for an ordinary home and an ordinary family. He remembers, for example, seeing his cousins with their parents and thinking, why can't we be like that? But, interestingly, the adult Meeropol believes that, while the little boy he once was suffered for his parents' stubbornness in the face of death, the adult self he became has gained enormously from it. He is immensely proud of them, even grateful: he says he hopes that, in their shoes, he would have made the same decision they did - the decision not to betray their friends.

But more than that, what the Rosenbergs bequeathed to their younger son was something every life needs. They left him a purpose. Campaigning against the death penalty and working for his fund have given his life a structure and a cause: their decision half a century ago is continuing to shape his life.

Pull him back to his stories of the personal encounters he remembers with his parents, and it's clear, too, that he knows he was a much-loved little boy. The time Ethel and Julius had with him might have been short (he was three when they were taken away to prison), but they made it count with their love and concern. What is more - and this, too, is almost unbearably poignant - it's clear that they tried to parent him as best they could from their prison cells. There were letters - lots of them - all unfailingly upbeat and cheerful; there were visits...

The Meeropols, who were not friends of the Rosenbergs but were members of the American Communist Party, came into the boys' lives after a period of constant upheaval. From the time of their parents' arrests, and even after the execution, they were passed from one home to another - first one grandmother looked after them, then another, then friends. For a brief spell, they were even sent to a shelter.

It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people - even family members - were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so. After he and his wife had adopted the boys, says Meeropol, Abel didn't get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s. "I can't say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted," he says.

His debt to Abel and Anne is profound: he feels he is at least as much a product of their upbringing as of that of Julius and Ethel. "They were childless, and like our birth parents they were people who believed in standing up for what they believed in," he says. "They were more artistically inclined than my parents [Abel wrote the anti-racism song Strange Fruit, sung most famously by Billie Holiday]."

It was, against the odds, a happy childhood, punctuated with visits to summer camp, music and fun. Very quickly, Robert began to call his new parents mommy and daddy; today, he says he feels he had not two but four parents in his life. "I'm the sort of person who finds the upside in life," he says. And having four parents was, he believes, a blessing.

Another blessing was Michael. In his book, Meeropol describes Michael as "the one constant presence ... in my life. Our four-year age difference diminished our sibling rivalry. We always slept in the same room." Before the Meeropols, Michael was "the only person I felt 100% safe with". To this day, the brothers are extremely close.

Having lost his parents, says Meeropol, family became paramount for both brothers: "Both of us married young, and both of us are still married to the person we married all those years ago. Creating a family, and maintaining it, has been central to both of us." Meeropol has two daughters, now in their 30s; the younger has a one-year-old called Josie. If there is anything that resonates down the years, he says, it is that he often finds himself thinking: if I was taken away, what would my family have to remember me by? What would my little granddaughter know of her grandfather if suddenly he was removed from her life?

If having the Rosenbergs as parents has given their sons a strong sense of family, it has also given them profound insight into what happens when a family is torn apart. Because one of the most remarkable aspects of the trial in 1952 was that it was Ethel's own brother, David Greenglass, who provided the testimony that sent the couple to their deaths.

Greenglass had been an army machinist at the plant where the atomic bomb was being developed, and was recruited by Julius as a spy; to save himself and his wife, Meeropol believes, he betrayed his sister and her husband. Unsurprisingly, this is a family split that never has been, and never can be, mended. "I have never had any connection with David Greenglass or the Greenglass family," says Meeropol. "I saw him interviewed on television once and the thing I noticed was how he denied responsibility for everything. Nothing was his fault - it was all someone else's fault." He pauses. "In some ways," he says, "I've defined myself, all my life, as someone who is not David Greenglass."

The fallout for his uncle and his family (there are two cousins, and now there are Greenglass grandchildren too) has been, in fact, a testament to what would have happened to the Rosenbergs if they had switched sides. "The Greenglasses had to have new names, they have had to live their lives in secrecy, they have lived in fear.

"What my parents gave me and Michael, though, was a life in which we have never had to hide, a life in which we can stand up and be ourselves and do the things we believe in." He pauses. "In a way," he says, "the best revenge is simply living a good life. And that's what I believe I'm doing."


The Strange Story Of The Man Behind 'Strange Fruit'

One of Billie Holiday's most iconic songs is "Strange Fruit," a haunting protest against the inhumanity of racism. Many people know that the man who wrote the song was inspired by a photograph of a lynching. But they might not realize that he's also tied to another watershed moment in America's history.

The man behind "Strange Fruit" is New York City's Abel Meeropol, and he really has two stories. They both begin at Dewitt Clinton High School, a public high school in the Bronx that has an astonishing number of famous people in its alumni. James Baldwin went there. So did Countee Cullen, Richard Rodgers, Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Richard Avedon and Ralph Lauren.

Meeropol graduated from Dewitt Clinton in 1921 he went on to teach English there for 17 years. He was also a poet and a social activist, says Gerard Pelisson, who wrote a book about the school.

In the late 1930s, Pellison says, Meeropol "was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge."

Meeropol once said the photograph "haunted" him "for days." So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.

When Holiday decided to sing "Strange Fruit," the song reached millions of people. While the lyrics never mention lynching, the metaphor is painfully clear:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

In 1999, Time magazine named "Strange Fruit" the "song of the century." The Library of Congress put it in the National Recording Registry. It's been recorded dozens of times. Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller did an instrumental version, with Miller evoking the poem on his mournful bass clarinet.

Miller says he was surprised to learn the song was written by a white Jewish guy from the Bronx. "Strange Fruit," he says, took extraordinary courage both for Meeropol to write and for Holiday to sing.

"The '60s hadn't happened yet," he says. "Things like that weren't talked about. They certainly weren't sung about."

New York lawmakers didn't like "Strange Fruit." In 1940, Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. They wanted to know whether the American Communist Party had paid him to write the song. They had not — but, like many New York teachers in his day, Meeropol was a Communist.

Journalist David Margolick, who wrote Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, says, "There are a million reasons to disparage communism now. But American Communism, one point it had in its favor was that it was concerned about civil rights very early."

Meeropol left his teaching job at Dewitt Clinton in 1945. He eventually quit the Communist Party.

And that's where the second part of Meeropol's story begins. The link is the pseudonym he used when writing poetry and music: Lewis Allan.

"Abel Meeropol's pen name 'Lewis Allan' were the names of their children who were stillborn, who never lived," says his son, Robert Meeropol. He and his older brother, Michael, were raised by Abel and his wife, Anne Meeropol, after the boys' parents — Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — were executed for espionage in 1953.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs had also been Communists.

The couple's trial and execution made national headlines, and there was also something of a salacious element, given that the Rosenbergs were a married couple. News accounts described it as "the first husband and wife to die in the electric chair."

At the time, the Rosenberg sons, Robert and Michael, were 6 and 10, respectively. News photographs of the boys show them dressed in suits visiting their parents in prison.

"They're these little boys and they're wearing these caps, and they look so young and so vulnerable. It's really a very poignant image," says Margolick.

Robert Meeropol says that in the months following his parents' execution, it was unclear who would take care of him and his brother. It was the height of McCarthyism. Even family members were fearful of being in any way associated with the Rosenbergs or Communism.

Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.

"One of the most remarkable things was how quickly we adapted," Robert says. "First of all, Abel, what I remember about him as a 6-year-old was that he was a real jokester. He liked to tell silly jokes and play word games, and he would put on these comedy shows that would leave me rolling."

There is something else about Abel Meeropol that seems to connect the man who wrote "Strange Fruit" to the man who created a loving family out of a national scandal. "He was incredibly softhearted," Robert says.

For example, there was an old Japanese maple tree in their backyard, which sent out many new seedlings every year.

"I was the official lawnmower," Robert says, "and I was going to mow over them, and he said, 'Oh, no, you can't kill the seedlings!' I said, 'What are you going to do with them, Dad? There are dozens of them.'

"Well, he dug them up and put them in coffee cans and lined them up along the side of the house. And there were hundreds of them. But he couldn't bring himself to just kill them. It was just something he couldn't do."

Abel Meeropol died in 1986. His sons, Robert and Michael, both became college professors. They're also both involved in social issues. Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children. And he says that even after all these years, he still finds himself unable to kill things in his own garden.


Bereaved by History

HERE we are, a half-century on since the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs are truly historical figures now, but for a small fraction of the population their fate still has the power to generate yesterday's heat. Were the Rosenbergs framed? Did they do anything? If they did do anything, was it anything much?

Robert Meeropol, the younger son of the Rosenbergs, has lived his life close to home -- that is, among people who believed his parents were innocents, martyrs to a government bent not on catching Soviet spies but on crushing political dissent. Given the evidence that has come pouring out in recent years, it is little wonder if 'ɺn Execution in the Family,'' Meeropol's touchingly sincere memoir, reflects less the journey of his title than a lifetime of struggle to keep the same foothold on ever more slippery ground.

For much of his youth few people knew Meeropol's identity as a Rosenberg. He and his brother, Michael, took the name of Anne and Abel Meeropol, who loved the boys dearly, and who officially, if in no other way, dropped out of the Communist Party in order to adopt them. Robert remained ignorant of the particulars of the famous case until the publication in 1965 of an influential book -- Invitation to an Inquest,'' by Walter and Miriam Schneir -- that attacked the evidence brought against the Rosenbergs at trial as an immense government conspiracy. Thus fortified, Meeropol went on to read other material then available, and ''my emotional belief in my parents' innocence became an intellectual certainty.''

In 1973, with encouragement and financial contributions from supporters, the brothers organized the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case, using the Freedom of Information Act to sue for the release of F.B.I. files. When the first batch of files was made public in 1975, and the initial material seemed to support the guilty verdict, the Meeropols remained undaunted: ''Michael and I had considered and rejected the possibility that our quest might reveal information that would point to our father's guilt.'' The sons had agreed beforehand that for every bit of damning material ''there had to be an innocent explanation.''

Indeed, there was enough in the released material to gladden their hearts. The trial judge, Irving Kaufman, far from being impartial, had had ex parte communications with the Justice Department and with the prosecution. And in what the Meeropols considered a smoking gun, the files show that the F.B.I. tampered with the two most important witnesses -- Harry Gold and David Greenglass -- in an effort to reconcile discrepancies in their testimony.

Of course Meeropol had a life apart from the case. He graduated from the University of Michigan, where he had been active in the New Left, he married and had two children, he graduated from law school and was involved in more immediate political causes. But the Rosenberg case remained central to his life and, in time, he became troubled. Yes, the judge had been hand in hand with the prosecution yes, doubts had been raised about some of the evidence yes, the execution of his parents had been a terrible miscarriage of justice. But none of this proved their innocence. Even his lawyer, a passionate partisan of the Rosenberg cause, told him, ''I never say they were innocent. . . . I always talk about the trial and the evidence. Let others draw conclusions.''

Could it be, Meeropol wondered, that his parents were guilty of something? In his early 40's he experienced a long period of paralyzing anxiety. He attributes this condition to dislike of his job at a business law firm. But in fact, he tells us, he did not recover until the day he saw an exhibition of artwork that had been inspired by the Rosenberg case. He was struck, then, by a saving thought: Whatever Julius and Ethel Rosenberg might have done, they were heroes. With their very lives at stake, they had refused to give in to government pressure to confess and to implicate others. They had stood by their beliefs. They had resisted.

Not long after he arrived at that formulation, the pieces of Meeropol's life came together. He established the Rosenberg Fund for Children, with a mission to ''meet the needs of children in this country who were suffering,'' as he and his brother had suffered, '�use of the targeting of their progressive activist parents.''

But history moved on. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, former K.G.B. agents began to talk, in particular Alexander Feklisov, who had been Julius Rosenberg's K.G.B. contact, and to whom Rosenberg had supplied classified military and industrial information. What did Meeropol make of that? Why should Feklisov be believed, he wondered K.G.B. agents were hardly ''paragons of honesty.'' Then, in 1995, the Venona transcripts -- the decryptions of Soviet intelligence telegrams from the 1940's and 50's -- were released. The decrypted material told much of the story of an extensive military and industrial spy ring run by Julius Rosenberg, with Ethel's knowledge if not her participation and the material confirmed the testimony of Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, about his recruitment by Julius to pass on to Harry Gold, a courier for the Soviets, whatever he could pick up about the atomic bomb from his work at Los Alamos.

Meeropol now had to deal with damaging information from a variety of sources (including old friends of the Rosenbergs). But such is the power of a fixed idea that Meeropol believed it was still possible that all of this evidence was ''no more than the clever creation of mirror images based on the known record.'' Finally, however, he was forced to reflect that innocence wasn't everything: ''Whatever actions'' his parents ''took sprang from their love of humanity, not from a particular allegiance to the Soviet Union. . . . I believe,'' he writes, ''that my parents acted patriotically even if Venona is accurate.''


One of Billie Holiday's most iconic songs is "Strange Fruit," a haunting protest against the inhumanity of racism. Many people know that the man who wrote the song was inspired by a photograph of a lynching. But they might not realize that he's also tied to another watershed moment in America's history.

The man behind "Strange Fruit" is New York City's Abel Meeropol, and he really has two stories. They both begin at Dewitt Clinton High School, a public high school in the Bronx that has an astonishing number of famous people in its alumni. James Baldwin went there. So did Countee Cullen, Richard Rodgers, Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Richard Avedon and Ralph Lauren.

Meeropol graduated from Dewitt Clinton in 1921 he went on to teach English there for 17 years. He was also a poet and a social activist, says Gerard Pelisson, who wrote a book about the school.

In the late 1930s, Pellison says, Meeropol "was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge."

Meeropol once said the photograph "haunted" him "for days." So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.

When Holiday decided to sing "Strange Fruit," the song reached millions of people. While the lyrics never mention lynching, the metaphor is painfully clear:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

In 1999, Time magazine named "Strange Fruit" the "song of the century." The Library of Congress put it in the National Recording Registry. It's been recorded dozens of times. Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller did an instrumental version, with Miller evoking the poem on his mournful bass clarinet.

Miller says he was surprised to learn the song was written by a white Jewish guy from the Bronx. "Strange Fruit," he says, took extraordinary courage both for Meeropol to write and for Holiday to sing.

"The '60s hadn't happened yet," he says. "Things like that weren't talked about. They certainly weren't sung about."

New York lawmakers didn't like "Strange Fruit." In 1940, Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. They wanted to know whether the American Communist Party had paid him to write the song. They had not — but, like many New York teachers in his day, Meeropol was a Communist.

Journalist David Margolick, who wrote Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, says, "There are a million reasons to disparage communism now. But American Communism, one point it had in its favor was that it was concerned about civil rights very early."

Meeropol left his teaching job at Dewitt Clinton in 1945. He eventually quit the Communist Party.

And that's where the second part of Meeropol's story begins. The link is the pseudonym he used when writing poetry and music: Lewis Allan.

"Abel Meeropol's pen name 'Lewis Allan' were the names of their children who were stillborn, who never lived," says his son, Robert Meeropol. He and his older brother, Michael, were raised by Abel and his wife, Anne Meeropol, after the boys' parents — Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — were executed for espionage in 1953.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs had also been Communists.

The couple's trial and execution made national headlines, and there was also something of a salacious element, given that the Rosenbergs were a married couple. News accounts described it as "the first husband and wife to die in the electric chair."

At the time, the Rosenberg sons, Robert and Michael, were 6 and 10, respectively. News photographs of the boys show them dressed in suits visiting their parents in prison.

"They're these little boys and they're wearing these caps, and they look so young and so vulnerable. It's really a very poignant image," says Margolick.

Robert Meeropol says that in the months following his parents' execution, it was unclear who would take care of him and his brother. It was the height of McCarthyism. Even family members were fearful of being in any way associated with the Rosenbergs or Communism.

Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.

"One of the most remarkable things was how quickly we adapted," Robert says. "First of all, Abel, what I remember about him as a 6-year-old was that he was a real jokester. He liked to tell silly jokes and play word games, and he would put on these comedy shows that would leave me rolling."

There is something else about Abel Meeropol that seems to connect the man who wrote "Strange Fruit" to the man who created a loving family out of a national scandal. "He was incredibly softhearted," Robert says.

For example, there was an old Japanese maple tree in their backyard, which sent out many new seedlings every year.

"I was the official lawnmower," Robert says, "and I was going to mow over them, and he said, 'Oh, no, you can't kill the seedlings!' I said, 'What are you going to do with them, Dad? There are dozens of them.'

"Well, he dug them up and put them in coffee cans and lined them up along the side of the house. And there were hundreds of them. But he couldn't bring himself to just kill them. It was just something he couldn't do."


An interview with Robert Meeropol

Robert Meeropol and his brother Michael are the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed by the US government in June 1953 on trumped-up charges of atomic espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. Robert, the younger of the Rosenberg sons, was six years old when his parents were put to death.

The Rosenberg sons were adopted and raised by Abel and Anne Meeropol. For their entire adult lives they have campaigned to expose the importance of the Rosenberg case. In the 1970s, they successfully sued the FBI and CIA to force the release of 300,000 previously secret documents dealing with their parents.

Robert, after having earned anthropology and law degrees and practicing as a lawyer, founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children (www.rfc.org) in 1990. The Rosenberg Fund for Children, as its web site explains, “provides for the educational and emotional needs” of children whose parents have faced harassment, injury, prison or other attacks because of their political activities. The RFC is commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Rosenbergs’ execution with a program entitled “Carry It Forward: Celebrating the Children of Resistance,” at New York City’s Town Hall on Sunday, June 16 at 7 PM (www.rfc.org/cifevent).

Fred Mazelis of the WSWS spoke this week with Robert Meeropol.

Fred Mazelis: Why do the names of your parents still evoke the Cold War and the anti-communist hysteria of that period? What makes June 19, 1953 an important date in the history of the 20th century?

Robert Meeropol: One of the central tenets of Cold War ideology in the US was that there was an international Communist conspiracy out to destroy our way of life, and therefore civil liberties and human rights had to take a back seat to national security. My parents’ case was proof of this equation, because they were Communists who provided the Soviet Union, according to the government, with the means to destroy us, in the form of the atom bomb.

But it wasn’t as simple as that. Not everyone accepted the official story. There were also millions of people who were horrified at the execution of a young couple with two small children. There were children who thought that this could happen to their parents, and a lot of these children are still alive.

FM: Why do you think the death penalty was handed down and carried out? What is your opinion of your father’s statement: “This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be. There had to be a Rosenberg case, because there had to be an intensification of the hysteria in America to make the Korean War acceptable to the American people. There had to be hysteria and a fear sent through America in order to get increased war budgets.”

RM: In the broadest sense this is true. Certainly there had to be a Rosenberg case. At the same time, there were more narrow reasons behind the death penalty itself. It was used in an attempt to coerce cooperation. The ultimatum was, “talk or die.” My mother was held hostage. The government said to Julius, “You talk, admit your guilt, or she will die too.”

So if you follow that to its logical conclusion, you can see that, in fact, they didn’t want to carry out the death penalty, at least not at first. They fully intended to reward my parents by commuting the death sentence if they cooperated, but when they didn’t cooperate, they had to show them who was boss by killing them. Behind it all was the Cold War hysteria and the political aim of whipping up support for war and repression. My parents refused to capitulate. They sacrificed their lives rather than contribute to the anti-communist hysteria.

FM: Can you tell us about your parents and their generation, including the impact of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, and how they were radicalized as part of a broader movement of masses of working people?

RM: Their political education started much closer to home. They looked out their windows on New York’s Lower East Side and saw poverty and oppression. They saw families being thrown out of their homes because they couldn’t pay their rent, and they saw squads of Communist Party young people move people back in, working at night and whenever they had to in order to help people defend themselves and their families.

They also saw the Soviet Union, which held itself up as the defender of the working class. They saw an international movement of working people trying to create a new society. These two sides played off each other, the convergence of the two really made the difference. The promise of the Soviet Union found an echo here.

FM: What about the role of Irving R. Kaufman, who presided at the trial, and Roy Cohn, who played a major role as part of the prosecution team? Do you see them as part of an effort by the authorities to immunize themselves against charges of anti-Semitism?

RM: The job of Kaufman and Cohn was to demonstrate that there was no anti-Semitism involved in the case, because they were Jews and were presiding over the trial and seeking a death sentence for their fellow Jews. In fact, the role of Kaufman and Cohn reflected anti-Semitism and the case was used to encourage anti-Semitism while denying it.

This was only five years after the end of World War II. American Jews were in many cases seeking to demonstrate their patriotism. The presence of Kaufman and Cohn indirectly showed that it was necessary for the Jewish population to prove its patriotism and its loyalty. The idea of the patriotic as opposed to the treasonous Jew assumes there is something suspect about the Jews in the first place.

FM: Do you have anything to say about the role of Ronald Radosh and others who have continued to campaign to affirm the supposed guilt of the Rosenbergs?

RM: These people are essentially apologists for the US government. To them it is much more dangerous that a few individuals like Julius Rosenberg tried to help the Soviet Union because they thought it would help the cause of peace, than that the most powerful entity on earth executed two people for something they didn’t do. Those are just such topsy-turvy priorities that it is laughable.

FM: Could you explain the work of the Rosenberg Fund for Children?

RM: On a personal level I set out to help children who I see as kindred spirits, children who suffered because of attacks on their parents in response to their parents’ activism.

In the 20-odd years of its existence, the RFC has made grants totaling nearly $5 million to hundreds of children. I did some research on this and the trend in recent years shows the need for this work. In Barack Obama’s first year in office there were some 600 political arrests. In the second year this was up to 900, in the third it hit 1,300, and then, with Occupy Wall Street and other protests, there were over 8,000 political arrests in the final year of Obama’s first term.

Many of those arrested have children. They are not famous, these are not big names, and their children have educational and emotional needs. The kinds of activities supported by our grants include camp, art and music lessons, school tuition, day care, therapy and the costs of travel to visit incarcerated parents.

I am now on the verge of retiring. I am not going to leave this work, but I see the need to pass on responsibility. If it is going to take years and even generations to transform our society then we on the left must work to transmit our values across generations. I see my daughter Jenn’s coming assumption of leadership responsibility at the Rosenberg Fund for Children as a manifestation of that.

FM: What is the legacy of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg? Is it pertinent to the issues raised in relation to Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden? The charge of treason and of revealing “secrets” to alleged enemies is comparable to the campaign against the Rosenbergs. Today these attacks on civil liberties are part of a “global war on terror,” an open-ended conflict used to fuel superpatriotism and comparable to the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s.

RM: The legacy of my parents is their resistance. They were confronted by the US government and told that they must lie or die, that they had to admit to being involved in atomic espionage when that was not the case. My father was involved along with a number of other young men in trying to help the Soviet Union, but he had nothing to do with the atomic bomb and he was not going to lie about it.

Today, in the cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, and not only in these cases, these are young resisters, young people saying we are not going to put up with this government or any government having such awesome power to spy on the population. They will not renounce their beliefs—at least they haven’t so far, and I don’t think they will.

As we confront the corporate elite and the authorities, we need more people like this. The only thing I would add is that unfortunately while we have courageous individuals, what we lack is an organized mass political force to confront the corporate enemy. That’s what is missing, at least so far.


The Strange Story Of The Man Behind 'Strange Fruit'

One of Billie Holiday's most iconic songs is "Strange Fruit," a haunting protest against the inhumanity of racism. Many people know that the man who wrote the song was inspired by a photograph of a lynching. But they might not realize that he's also tied to another watershed moment in America's history.

The man behind "Strange Fruit" is New York City's Abel Meeropol, and he really has two stories. They both begin at Dewitt Clinton High School, a public high school in the Bronx that has an astonishing number of famous people in its alumni. James Baldwin went there. So did Countee Cullen, Richard Rodgers, Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Richard Avedon and Ralph Lauren.

Meeropol graduated from Dewitt Clinton in 1921 he went on to teach English there for 17 years. He was also a poet and a social activist, says Gerard Pelisson, who wrote a book about the school.

In the late 1930s, Pellison says, Meeropol "was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge."

Meeropol once said the photograph "haunted" him "for days." So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.

When Holiday decided to sing "Strange Fruit," the song reached millions of people. While the lyrics never mention lynching, the metaphor is painfully clear:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

In 1999, Time magazine named "Strange Fruit" the "song of the century." The Library of Congress put it in the National Recording Registry. It's been recorded dozens of times. Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller did an instrumental version, with Miller evoking the poem on his mournful bass clarinet.

Miller says he was surprised to learn the song was written by a white Jewish guy from the Bronx. "Strange Fruit," he says, took extraordinary courage both for Meeropol to write and for Holiday to sing.

"The '60s hadn't happened yet," he says. "Things like that weren't talked about. They certainly weren't sung about."

New York lawmakers didn't like "Strange Fruit." In 1940, Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. They wanted to know whether the American Communist Party had paid him to write the song. They had not — but, like many New York teachers in his day, Meeropol was a Communist.

Journalist David Margolick, who wrote Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, says, "There are a million reasons to disparage communism now. But American Communism, one point it had in its favor was that it was concerned about civil rights very early."

Meeropol left his teaching job at Dewitt Clinton in 1945. He eventually quit the Communist Party.

And that's where the second part of Meeropol's story begins. The link is the pseudonym he used when writing poetry and music: Lewis Allan.

"Abel Meeropol's pen name 'Lewis Allan' were the names of their children who were stillborn, who never lived," says his son, Robert Meeropol. He and his older brother, Michael, were raised by Abel and his wife, Anne Meeropol, after the boys' parents — Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — were executed for espionage in 1953.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs had also been Communists.

The couple's trial and execution made national headlines, and there was also something of a salacious element, given that the Rosenbergs were a married couple. News accounts described it as "the first husband and wife to die in the electric chair."

At the time, the Rosenberg sons, Robert and Michael, were 6 and 10, respectively. News photographs of the boys show them dressed in suits visiting their parents in prison.

"They're these little boys and they're wearing these caps, and they look so young and so vulnerable. It's really a very poignant image," says Margolick.

Robert Meeropol says that in the months following his parents' execution, it was unclear who would take care of him and his brother. It was the height of McCarthyism. Even family members were fearful of being in any way associated with the Rosenbergs or Communism.

Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.

"One of the most remarkable things was how quickly we adapted," Robert says. "First of all, Abel, what I remember about him as a 6-year-old was that he was a real jokester. He liked to tell silly jokes and play word games, and he would put on these comedy shows that would leave me rolling."

There is something else about Abel Meeropol that seems to connect the man who wrote "Strange Fruit" to the man who created a loving family out of a national scandal. "He was incredibly softhearted," Robert says.

For example, there was an old Japanese maple tree in their backyard, which sent out many new seedlings every year.

"I was the official lawnmower," Robert says, "and I was going to mow over them, and he said, 'Oh, no, you can't kill the seedlings!' I said, 'What are you going to do with them, Dad? There are dozens of them.'

"Well, he dug them up and put them in coffee cans and lined them up along the side of the house. And there were hundreds of them. But he couldn't bring himself to just kill them. It was just something he couldn't do."

Abel Meeropol died in 1986. His sons, Robert and Michael, both became college professors. They're also both involved in social issues. Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children. And he says that even after all these years, he still finds himself unable to kill things in his own garden.


Robert Meeropol - History

It was 1953. Accused of passing on the secret of the atomic bomb to the USSR, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg where executed in the United States. Their son, Robert Meeropol, has been working for many years to re-establish the truth. While in France he agreed to answer our questions concerning the Rosenberg case and his work against the death penalty.

Who are you Mr Meeropol?

My name is Robert Meeropol but I was born Robert Rosenberg. My parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed when I was 6 years old, supposedly for stealing the secret of the atomic bomb and giving the information to the Soviet Union. I was adopted after my parents were executed which is when my name was changed.

When I was older, I threw myself into a campaign to have my parents’ file reopened. I was about 20. I ended up going to law school and becoming a lawyer. Then I founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children which responds to the educational and emotional needs of the children of activists who are under threat in the United States.

What have you discovered by reopening your parents’ file?

Over the last few years, we have found new elements which explain a lot of things, particularly about my mother, Ethel Rosenberg. She was accused of being an atomic spy for the USSR but the reality was much more complicated than that. We are certain today that my father was part of a group of young people providing information to the USSR during the Second World War to help them fight the Nazis. My father was therefore a spy but it was not the atomic bomb it was what’s called industrial military espionage: electronics, aviation techniques, etc. The kind of thing which is important when you are at war. He was therefore guilty of something. And if he had been sentenced to 5 or 10 years in prison, I probably wouldn’t have had anything to complain about. I could have contested the decision because he was my father but that’s another story. On the other hand, the same proof shows that Ethel Rosenberg was not a spy. The only reason she was arrested was because the authorities wanted to force my father to cooperate. They used my mother as a lever to manipulate him. And that is another strong argument against the death penalty: it is often used not as a punishment but as coercion. The only reason why my parents were sentenced to death, and this is a widely admitted fact, was to force them to cooperate and give names. Simply put: “talk or die”. And they refused. So they were killed.

But the proof which shows the innocence of my mother is particularly convincing. That led us, my brother and I, to appeal to the Obama administration to have my mother exonerated before the end of its mandate. Just like the Governor of Massachusetts claimed in the 1970s that the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti were unjustified and that any stigma should be removed from their family. We have also put a petition online (LINK). We will put up there all the information proving the innocence of our mother.

How did you come to take action against the death penalty?

To begin with, I wasn’t against the death penalty. Everyone thinks that because of the execution of my parents I have always been an abolitionist. But, at the time I thought that my parents had been victims of judicial murder and I was in favour of executing those responsible for that murder. Until the day I went to law school. Then I realised that giving the State the power to kill its citizens is a very dangerous thing. One of the big problems with executing people is that once you’ve made a mistake, you can’t go back. But saying “we should not kill people because they may be innocence” is not really an argument against the death penalty. It leaves open the possibility of executing the people we know are guilty. It was only later in my life, and particularly with the work I did for the World Congress Against the Death Penalty, that I came to see executions as a human rights violation. That’s how I came to see it: as a barbaric act.

You support Mumia Abu-Jamal. Have you met him?

I worked with Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (LINK) at the end of the 1990s. I got in touch with them to defend the cause of Mumia Abu-Jamal. I was particularly moved by his case because he was the first political prisoner in the United States to fear an execution since my parents.

I realised that 10 years earlier Mumia had interviewed me when he was still just a young radio journalist from Philadelphia. He had asked me: “Do you think that a case like your parents could happen again?” We agreed that it could it was still possible. And not only has it happened but it has happened to him. So I started to work to prevent his execution and that took me to the 1 st World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Strasbourg.

How do you formulate your work against the death penalty?

What I am particularly interested in is the issue of the children of executed people. A side event was dedicated to this at the Oslo World Congress but I think that it would merit being a central issue. For two reasons: firstly, it is about the issue of justice. With each execution, we create a new class of victims: the family of those who are executed. The children are clearly innocent in this story and yet they are punished, in a way, as severely as their parents. Second reason: it is an intelligent strategic axis because children create empathy. This is the angle I am concentrating on within the framework of my work against the death penalty. Here’s an example to demonstrate how much the issue of children is neglected: we know that there are more than 3000 people on death row in the United States. How many of them have children? We don’t know! How many children does that represent? 100? 1,000? 3,000? Almost nothing has been written on the impact of the death penalty on children.


The Strange Story Of The Man Behind 'Strange Fruit' 07:46

One of Billie Holiday's most iconic songs is "Strange Fruit," a haunting protest against the inhumanity of racism. Many people know that the man who wrote the song was inspired by a photograph of a lynching. But they might not realize that he's also tied to another watershed moment in America's history.

The man behind "Strange Fruit" is New York City's Abel Meeropol, and he really has two stories. They both begin at Dewitt Clinton High School, a public high school in the Bronx that has an astonishing number of famous people in its alumni. James Baldwin went there. So did Countee Cullen, Richard Rodgers, Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Richard Avedon and Ralph Lauren.

Meeropol graduated from Dewitt Clinton in 1921 he went on to teach English there for 17 years. He was also a poet and a social activist, says Gerard Pelisson, who wrote a book about the school.

In the late 1930s, Pellison says, Meeropol "was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge."

Meeropol once said the photograph "haunted" him "for days." So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.

When Holiday decided to sing "Strange Fruit," the song reached millions of people. While the lyrics never mention lynching, the metaphor is painfully clear:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

In 1999, Time magazine named "Strange Fruit" the "song of the century." The Library of Congress put it in the National Recording Registry. It's been recorded dozens of times. Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller did an instrumental version, with Miller evoking the poem on his mournful bass clarinet.

Miller says he was surprised to learn the song was written by a white Jewish guy from the Bronx. "Strange Fruit," he says, took extraordinary courage both for Meeropol to write and for Holiday to sing.

"The '60s hadn't happened yet," he says. "Things like that weren't talked about. They certainly weren't sung about."

New York lawmakers didn't like "Strange Fruit." In 1940, Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. They wanted to know whether the American Communist Party had paid him to write the song. They had not — but, like many New York teachers in his day, Meeropol was a Communist.

Journalist David Margolick, who wrote Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, says, "There are a million reasons to disparage communism now. But American Communism, one point it had in its favor was that it was concerned about civil rights very early."

Meeropol left his teaching job at Dewitt Clinton in 1945. He eventually quit the Communist Party.

And that's where the second part of Meeropol's story begins. The link is the pseudonym he used when writing poetry and music: Lewis Allan.

"Abel Meeropol's pen name 'Lewis Allan' were the names of their children who were stillborn, who never lived," says his son, Robert Meeropol. He and his older brother, Michael, were raised by Abel and his wife, Anne Meeropol, after the boys' parents — Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — were executed for espionage in 1953.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs had also been Communists.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are taken to prison after being found guilty of nuclear espionage. They were subsequently executed. (Keystone/Getty Images)

The couple's trial and execution made national headlines, and there was also something of a salacious element, given that the Rosenbergs were a married couple. News accounts described it as "the first husband and wife to die in the electric chair."

At the time, the Rosenberg sons, Robert and Michael, were 6 and 10, respectively. News photographs of the boys show them dressed in suits visiting their parents in prison.

"They're these little boys and they're wearing these caps, and they look so young and so vulnerable. It's really a very poignant image," says Margolick.

Robert Meeropol says that in the months following his parents' execution, it was unclear who would take care of him and his brother. It was the height of McCarthyism. Even family members were fearful of being in any way associated with the Rosenbergs or Communism.

Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.

"One of the most remarkable things was how quickly we adapted," Robert says. "First of all, Abel, what I remember about him as a 6-year-old was that he was a real jokester. He liked to tell silly jokes and play word games, and he would put on these comedy shows that would leave me rolling."

There is something else about Abel Meeropol that seems to connect the man who wrote "Strange Fruit" to the man who created a loving family out of a national scandal. "He was incredibly softhearted," Robert says.

Anne Meeropol plays a song on guitar for her sons, Robert and Michael. (Courtesy of Robert and Michael Meeropol)

For example, there was an old Japanese maple tree in their backyard, which sent out many new seedlings every year.

"I was the official lawnmower," Robert says, "and I was going to mow over them, and he said, 'Oh, no, you can't kill the seedlings!' I said, 'What are you going to do with them, Dad? There are dozens of them.'

"Well, he dug them up and put them in coffee cans and lined them up along the side of the house. And there were hundreds of them. But he couldn't bring himself to just kill them. It was just something he couldn't do."

Abel Meeropol died in 1986. His sons, Robert and Michael, both became college professors. They're also both involved in social issues. Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children. And he says that even after all these years, he still finds himself unable to kill things in his own garden.


‘Strange Fruit’: The Timely Return of One of America’s Most Powerful Protest Songs

Last year, North Carolina rapper Rapsody was searching for an introductory track for her new album, Eve, a concept LP about the history and power of black women. Her producer suggested a song she didn’t know well: Nina Simone’s 1965 version of “Strange Fruit.” A concise but graphic evocation of a Southern lynching, “Strange Fruit” was one of America’s earliest and most shocking protest songs, drawing attention to the thousands of acts of racist terrorism against black people in this country’s history. “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees/Pastoral scene of the gallant South/The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,” went one of its verses.

“As soon as I heard it, I knew that was the intro,” says Rapsody, who used the sample as the basis for her song “Nina.” “I’ve always been drawn to hearing about that part of our history, and I’ve been drawn to artists who speak to the reality of the times we live in. And even 80 years later, that song still speaks to the times. You don’t need more than 91 words. What else needs to be said?”

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This year, with the return of Black Lives Matter protests to national headlines, a song written just over 80 years ago has taken on startling new relevance. In the first six months of this year, Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit” — the first and most famous version of the song — was streamed more than 2 million times, according to Alpha Data, the data-analytics provider that powers the Rolling Stone Charts. On his SiriusXM show last month, Bruce Springsteen included “Strange Fruit” on his playlist of protest songs, and in an interview called it “just an epic piece of music that was so far ahead of its time. It still strikes a deep, deep, deep nerve in the conversation of today.”

Veteran R&B singer Bettye LaVette moved up the release of her new cover of “Strange Fruit” after the police killing of George Floyd. “I watch the news all day long, and the language started to change from ‘unarmed black man’ to ‘lynching,'” she told RS last month. “So I called the [record] company and told them that it seemed like we keep telling this story over and over and over.”

Director Lee Daniels will retell the song’s story in an upcoming movie, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, just picked up for distribution by Paramount Pictures. Playing Holiday is Andra Day, known both for her inspirational R&B career. Three years ago, Day covered “Strange Fruit” in a rendition created to bring attention to the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative, which works to end mass incarceration. (Holiday will also be the subject of a new documentary, director James Erskine’s Billie, arriving in November.)

“‘Strange Fruit’ is still relevant, because black people are still being lynched,” says Day. “It’s not just a Southern breeze. That’s the polite version of it. We’re seeing that everywhere.”

The story of “Strange Fruit” is full of drama and surprises. As recounted in the work of author David Margolick (Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Biography of a Song), Joel Katz’s 2002 documentary Strange Fruit, and a study by scholar Nancy Kovaleff Baker, the song was first written by a white Jewish schoolteacher in the Bronx. Abel Meeropol, who taught English at DeWitt Clinton High School starting in 1927, was a dedicated Communist and progressive thinker who was also a part-time writer and poet.

Sometime in the Thirties, Meeropol came upon a photo of a lynching, most likely in a magazine. At the time, lynchings were shockingly commonplace: According to an updated study done last year by historians Charles Seguin and David Rigby, 4,467 people — 3,265 of them black — were lynched in America between 1883 and 1941. Photos of those horrific sites were turned into postcards (the line “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” in Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” refers to the practice). The image Meeropol saw stayed with him and first appeared in a poem, “Bitter Fruit,” that he wrote for a 1937 union publication.

Meeropol, a self-taught composer and pianist with no musical training, soon set the poem to a spectral, meditative melody. The renamed “Strange Fruit” was performed on several occasions, including by singer Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden, before it made its way to Holiday, who was then performing at New York’s Café Society club. Holiday didn’t just sing it she inhabited it, earning her recording a place in history.

Holiday wasn’t immediately sure her audiences would want to hear the song. “I was scared people would hate it,” she wrote in her memoir, Lady Sings the Blues. “The first time I sang it I thought it was a mistake and I had been right being scared. There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.” “Strange Fruit” became the centerpiece of Holiday’s set, often performed at the end of the show for maximum effect. As one critic wrote at the time, “The song is by far the most effective cry Miss Holiday’s race has uttered against the injustice of a Christian country.”

Fearing controversy, Holiday’s label, Columbia, opted out of recording the song, so Holiday turned to a smaller label, Commodore, and cut it in 1939. Between its sparse, unconventional arrangement and vivid lyrics, her recording of “Strange Fruit” became a sensation and a hit for Holiday when it was released by Commodore that year.

As music, “Strange Fruit” was hard to categorize. “Is it a blues song?” asks Meeropol’s son Robert. “It has a bluesy introduction, but it’s not rhythm and blues. It’s not blues. It’s not anything. It’s also unlike anything Abel ever wrote musically. I defy anyone to categorize the music.”

One undeniable fact, as Holiday wrote, was that the song took “all the strength out of me” when she sang it. Cassandra Wilson, who has recorded two versions of the song, the first in 1996, agrees: “The problem is not that it’s difficult to sing,” she says. “It’s emotionally draining. When we performed it live, we always did it as the last song. You can’t do anything else after that.”

Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” generated a range of reactions, positive to negative, appreciative to enraged. It also impacted Meeropol, who had published the song under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, based on the names of his and his wife Anne’s stillborn children. Shortly after Holiday’s version shook the music world, Meeropol testified before the New York state legislature’s Rapp-Coudert Committee, which was investigating supposed Communist influence in the state’s public schools and colleges. Robert Meeropol, who recalls that his father was asked whether the Communist Party had instructed him to write the song, says his father found the hearings “very amusing.”

Meeropol was surprised when, in her book, Holiday implied she had helped set his poem to music. This was untrue, according to the Meeropol family, but Abel Meeropol kept his complaints quiet: “He didn’t want to give the racists any ammunition against Billie Holiday,” says Robert, “so he never publicly attacked her for falsely claiming his work.” At the urging of her book publisher, Holiday issued a statement that “Strange Fruit” was indeed “an original composition by Lewis Allan,” who was “the sole author.”

By 1953, Meeropol had relocated to Los Angeles to become a full-time songwriter his other best-known composition was the anti-prejudice song “The House I Live In,” immortalized by Frank Sinatra. That year, Meeropol’s name returned to headlines when he and his wife adopted Robert and Michael — the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple executed by the U.S. government that year for supposedly passing American atom-bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. (Both Rosenbergs maintained their innocence.) Gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who’d taken a McCarthyite turn in that era, was among the many who stoked the fires of red-baiting rumor: “The Abe Meeropol who hid the Rosenberg children at his home and has a commy membership name (Lewis Allen) [sic] wrote the song ‘Strange Fruit,’” he groused in print.

Robert Meeropol, who was almost seven when he was adopted by the Meeropols, says he’s unclear whether his natural-born parents were familiar with “Strange Fruit.” In his memory, the Rosenbergs had no Holiday albums in their collection and didn’t go out to clubs much. But he says they referenced the song in one of their prison correspondences before their death. “It’s clear to me that they knew about it,” he says. “And given their politics, it would be surprising [if they hadn’t].”

Holiday kept singing the song through the years, but especially after her death in 1959, “Strange Fruit” took on a lower profile. Simone recorded her version in 1965, and Diana Ross sang it in her starring role as Holiday in the 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues. By the Seventies, though, Abel Meeropol was worried about the future of the song that made him most proud. As his son Robert recalls, “I remember him saying, ‘I wish I could help you boys out more. If it was played more, you’d get more royalties.’”

In 1980, a new version appeared when UB40 recast “Strange Fruit” to a reggae groove, and Meeropol’s friend Pete Seeger played him a tape of the song on a visit to the nursing home where Meeropol was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Still thinking his song was on the verge of being forgotten, Meeropol died at 83 in 1986 an old friend performed “Strange Fruit” at a memorial meeting at his house.

A few other covers emerged, like Siouxsie and the Banshees’ string-drenched 1987 cover in the early Nineties, Tori Amos released a stripped-down version, and Jeff Buckley regularly included the song in his sets at the club Sin-é New York. Then, in 1996, Wilson included the song on her album New Moon Daughter, which focused on songs with Southern themes.

Wilson says she was inspired to include “Strange Fruit” for two reasons: Her mother had once told her about the time she had witnessed a lynching, and Wilson also connected the theme of slavery to music business practices. (Three years before, Prince had famously written the word “Slave” on his face to protest his treatment by Warner Brothers Records.) “Slavery is not just something in our past,” she says. “The music business has a lot of the same elements of it. So it could have been that I was forecasting something.”

New Moon Daughter went on to win a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal performance, and Robert Meeropol feels that Wilson’s version helped reignite interest in the song. It has now been covered by more than 60 artists, including, recently, Annie Lennox, India.Arie, and Fantasia. The song’s emergence in hip-hop has been particularly striking. Over the last two decades, tracks like Cassidy’s “Celebration” and Pete Rock’s “Strange Fruit” have sampled it, along with Rapsody’s “Nina.”

Rapsody feels that hip-hop artists are drawn to both the lyrics and the soulful singers, like Holiday and Simone, who sang “Strange Fruit.” Others have suggested that the political fury beneath the song’s chilled melody may be another reason it resonates today. “If the hip-hop generation is taking it to heart, they recognize it’s not mournful,” says Michael Meeropol. “Abel wasn’t mourning the deaths he was calling out Southerners who were doing the murders.” Wilson agrees: “It’s a very angry song. ‘The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.’ That’s pretty damn descriptive. How many lyrics do you hear like that?”

Seven years ago, Kanye West shone the brightest light on “Strange Fruit” when he incorporated a sample of Simone’s rendition in “Blood on the Leaves,” one of the most gripping moments on Yeezus. According to Elon Rutberg, the writer, director, and songwriter who was one of West’s collaborators on the song, “Blood on the Leaves” began as part of a discussion equating basketball players with modern slavery. “We thought that was very powerful,” he recalls. “It was the idea that people have everything but they don’t have the freedom they’re longing for.”

The result was a song narrated by an athlete tormented by professional and personal-life issues. “It’s this outrageous ask for the listener to connect with a wealthy person’s persona and private trauma, but it’s still connected to this larger struggle,” Rutberg adds. “‘Strange Fruit’ is about finding a way to articulate the feelings you have when you stare terror in the face, and we did not want to disrespect Nina or the original song.”

The Meeropols admits they were initially puzzled by West’s song: “Robby and I were like, ‘What’s going on here?’” recalls Michael. Adds his brother, “That started a discussion, and people were talking about Nina Simone and were starting to cover the song. Abel would not have minded that in the slightest.”

West’s “Blood on the Leaves” was streamed nearly four times as often as Holiday’s original in the first half of this year, according to Alpha Data. The Meeropols continue to earn royalties off the song: Thanks to several changes in copyright law, the lyrics and melody to “Strange Fruit” won’t go into public domain until 2033, 98 years after its initial 1939 copyright. The song has generated about $300,000 in royalties in just over the last 22 years. A portion of Robert Meeropol’s earnings has gone toward the establishment of the Abel Meeropol Social Justice Writing Awards in 2017, the first recipient was black poet Patricia Smith, a multiple-time National Poetry Slam winner.

The fact that “Strange Fruit” is newly relevant is “a sad, sad commentary,” says Michael Meeropol. “We were supposed to have killed Jim Crow in 1964 and ’65. There’s a trope that says, ‘Until the last anti-Semite is dead, I’m Jewish.’ Now, until the last racist is dead, ‘Strange Fruit’ will be relevant. And the last racist is now president of the United States.”

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Robert Meeropol

Robert Meeropol (born Robert Rosenberg in 1947) is the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Meeropol was born in New York City. His father Julius was an electrical engineer and a member of the Communist Party. His mother Ethel (nພ Greenglass), a union organizer, was also active in the Communist Party. In 1953, when Robert was six years old, his parents were convicted and executed for conspiracy to commit espionage, and specifically for passing secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

Contents [show] Early life and education[edit] After the Rosenbergs were arrested, Robert and his older brother Michael lived with their maternal grandmother, Tessie Greenglass. After three months, she was unable to continue such care and placed them in the Hebrew Children's Home. After several months, Sophie Rosenberg, their paternal grandmother, removed them from the children's home to care for the boys herself. During their stay with her, the boys were allowed to visit their parents in Sing Sing prison. After one year with Sophie, the boys were sent to Toms River, New Jersey to live with the Bach family, friends of the Rosenbergs. They were eventually adopted by the writer and songwriter Abel Meeropol and his wife Anne and took their last name.

Meeropol earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in anthropology at the University of Michigan.

Robert Meeropol (2009) holding copy of Government Exhibit 8 from the Rosenberg trial, the cross-sectional drawing of an atomic bomb, which was said to be the "secret of the atomic bomb" the Rosenbergs had passed to the Soviet Union. In the 1960s and 1970s, Meeropol became active in the anti-war effort. After completing his master's degree, Meeropol taught anthropology at Western New England College in Springfield, Massachusetts from 1971 to 1973.

With his brother, Meeropol sued the FBI and CIA under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), winning the release of 300,000 previously secret documents pertaining to their parents' case. Believing the documents proved their parents' innocence, the Meeropol brothers co-wrote a book about their childhood, We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1975). From 1974 to 1978, he worked actively with the National Committee to reopen the Rosenberg Case and the Fund for Open Information and Accountability.

From 1980 to 1982 he was managing editor of Socialist Review in the San Francisco Bay Area. During this time, his parents' executioner, Joseph Francel, died. In 1982 Meeropol moved back to Massachusetts. He returned to college, studying at the Western New England College School of Law, from which he graduated in 1985. He was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar and began practice as an attorney.

In 1990, Meeropol started the Rosenberg Fund for Children, a public foundation which provides support for children in the U.S. whose parents are targeted, progressive activists. The RFC also supports youth in the U.S. who have been targeted for their own progressive activism. He will step down from the position of Executive Director of RFC on September 1, 2013, to be succeeded by his daughter Jennifer.

He later wrote An Execution in the Family: One Son's Journey (2003), a memoir that reflected on his life and his parents' fate.

Marriage and family[edit] Robert is married to Ellen Meeropol. They have two daughters: Jennifer and Rachel. Rachel has become a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City.

Current position on parents' executions[edit] In 2008, Michael Meeropol and Robert Meeropol said that, given recent revelations by their parent's co-defendant Morton Sobell and Venona project documents released in 1995, they now believed that their father was involved in espionage with the Soviet Union. But, they said, "To this day, there is no credible evidence that he participated in obtaining or passing on. the secret of the atomic bomb, the crime for which he was executed." They also believed documents showed that witnesses had fabricated evidence against their mother, and that she was innocent of the government charges.[1]

Books[edit] We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1975) ISBN 0-395-20552-2. An Execution in the Family: One Son's Journey (2003) ISBN 0-312-30636-9.


Watch the video: Robert Meeropol @ Thomas Paine Event Qu0026 A