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The Rosenberg Orphans and the power of radical history

Originally published: Current Affairs on January 11, 2021 by Annie Levin (more by Current Affairs)  | (Posted Jan 13, 2021)

The left would go crazy over Jewish American dissidents Abel and Anne Meeropol if they were alive today. Their tale is a radical epic so poignant that one wonders where the 10-part miniseries is. It covers a range of contemporary themes: children separated from parents, the political persecution of dissidents, and social justice warriors doing battle against a racist, xenophobic, increasingly fascistic America.

It’s a story so fantastical, and containing so many celebrated names, that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t stuck better into the mainstream. Then again, a tale involving judicial executions on fake charges of espionage and the heroism of Jewish and Black radicals probably wouldn’t get the prestige TV greenlight. The only way the Meeropols’ story would get approved by network executives is if it were pitched by someone like Aaron Sorkin—who would no doubt fill his script with speechifying neoliberals.

While Hollywood isn’t going to tell the real story of the Meeropols anytime soon, if I were to make that TV series, I would open it on a party scene in the front parlor of a Brooklyn brownstone. The room is decorated for Christmas. The house belongs to Black socialist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. It’s December 1953.

At the party, perhaps standing off to the side of the partygoers, is the poet-songwriter Abel Meeropol (also known by his pen name, Lewis Allan), the author of famous anti-lynching song, Strange Fruit.” He stands beside his wife, Anne Meeropol, a public school teacher and union organizer. They are waiting patiently for the orphaned sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to arrive. Abel and Anne are going to be their new parents.

“We were told that we were going to go live with them,” Robert Meeropol, the youngest son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, recently told me of meeting his adoptive parents for the first time.

At that point we had been shuttled around so much… we said OK.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were the first U.S. civilians to be executed for espionage during peacetime. Their sons, Robert and Michael, were three and seven when their parents were arrested in 1950 after being accused of sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviets. During their parents’ imprisonment, the boys lived with their grandparents, spent a brief period in an orphanage, and finally were sent out of New York City to the home of family friends in Toms River, New Jersey. It was here that a news bulletin interrupting their Yankees game informed them of the hour of their parents’ impending execution. By 1953, photographs of Robert and Michael Rosenberg, in suits and Brooklyn Dodgers caps, had been plastered across newspapers for three years. They were the famous sons of communist spies.

How Robert and Michael were going to live—and who they were going to live with—remained an open question after their parents were executed. Emanuel Hirsch Bloch, the Rosenbergs’ lawyer and a renowned left-wing defense attorney who had defended numerous people accused of communist sympathies, acted temporarily as their guardian. Bloch was informed of the Meeropols’ request to adopt the boys through Shirley Graham Du Bois, wife of W.E.B. Du Bois. She was one of the trustees of the fund that was raised for Robert and Michael’s upbringing.

In our phone interview in September 2020, Robert Meeropol spoke to me for over an hour, with tremendous fluidity and frankness, about the circumstances surrounding his parents’ execution and how he and his brother were adopted by the Meeropols.

Manny [Emanuel Hirsch] Bloch knew about Abel’s reputation as the author of “Strange Fruit” and knew that Abel and Anne were both supportive of my birth parents, Robert Meeropol told me. So, he met them, he liked them, and he said, “OK, you can adopt them!”

The Rosenbergs were executed June 19, 1953. Michael and Robert Rosenberg went to live with the Meeropols in January of 1954. However, before the adoption had been formalized, Bloch suffered a heart attack and died.

“At that point, right-wing groups tried to have us taken from Abel and Anne, and a court custody battle developed,” Robert Meeropol told me. “We were actually seized by New York City police and sent to an orphanage. But the Meeropols won the legal battle and we were reunited with them in the fall of 1954. We dropped from public sight and within a couple of years our names were changed to Meeropol.”

It is this part of the story, the part about the left showing deep care for their own, that I might seize on for my imaginary prestige TV show. My story would begin with the Christmas party at the Du Bois’ and end with Robert and Michael being reunited with the Meeropols, after they had won their legal battle. My story would focus not on the government’s case against the Rosenbergs, nor Bloch’s defense. I would sidestep David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother who implicated her and Julius in the spy ring, and on whose testimony much of the evidence in the case relied. I actually wouldn’t approach the trial or the appeals much at all. This material has been combed over in countless books and articles. It’s even been fictionalized by E.L. Doctorow in The Book of Daniel (a beautiful example of navel-gazing Sorkinesque white guy writing if there ever was one). I’d stroll around that material, which I believe has been over examined and lost much of its humanity.

I would instead focus my story on the left-wing community in New York City who rallied around the Rosenberg family. I would zero in on the interconnected network of unions, socialist organizations, and civil rights groups that events like the execution of the Rosenbergs left in tatters.

Abel and Anne Meeropol deciding to adopt the sons of the Rosenbergs, and their being in a position to actually do so, was one of those convergences so poetic it doesn’t seem real. It’s as if a DSA member on Twitter were writing left-wing fan fiction. The sons of accused spies, taken under the wings of famous civil rights icons, wind up in the care of radical artists and activists. It’s easier to think of the story as a Coen Brothers film (I’m seeing John Turturro and Frances McDormand cast as the Meeropols) than as history.

Perhaps you’ve already guessed the secret behind this odd convergence of people. Perhaps you already know what the Du Bois’, the Meeropols, and the Rosenbergs all had in common. Maybe you already know that these people flew in the same circles because they were at some point either members of the Communist Party or, at the very least, friendly to the socialist cause in America.

Like many artistic New York City lefties, the Meeropols joined the Communist Party in the 1930s. The Party at the time was a hotbed of creative activity. It encouraged cultural work and supported artists through organizations like John Reed Clubs for writers and the Pierre Degeyter Club for musicians.

Abel was a public school English teacher (he taught a young James Baldwin at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in the early 1940s) who gave half his salary to the Communist Party. He wrote songs for left-wing reviews that were supported by or in the orbit of the Party. He barely escaped blacklisting by changing jobs, moving around the country, and lying and obfuscating when interrogated by government agents. Robert Meeropol suspects that Abel and Anne only quit the Party in order to adopt him and his brother. They remained friendly with Party members throughout his childhood.

In the 1930s, the Communist Party USA swelled to about 80,000 members at the height of its popularity. It was in this era that an up-and-coming jazz singer named Billie Holiday was introduced to Abel Meeropol at Café Society, the first integrated nightclub in New York City. There she first sang his song “Strange Fruit” to hushed and astonished audiences.

Abel had written “Strange Fruit” when the left was rallying in support of an anti-lynching bill in the Senate. It first appeared as a poem, “Bitter Fruit,” in the New York Teacher, a publication for the New York City Teachers Union. The song consists of 12 lines comparing a southern idyll (“Pastoral scene of the gallant South”) with a brutal lynching (“The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth”). Abel had a spare, imagistic style and could use simple language to devastating emotional effect. His type of artistry was ideal for writing politically powerful songs.

“Abel was no turn-the-other-cheek liberal,” said Robert Meeropol. “A lot of what he wrote was biting satire and had a nasty edge to it. ‘Strange Fruit’ has often been described as a dirge-like ballad. I think that misses the truth. The point of ‘Strange Fruit’ was that it was an attack song. It was an attack on the perpetrators of lynching.”

It was also in this period that Abel Meeropol wrote the poem, “Beloved Comrade.” The poem, at eight lines, is even shorter and sparer than “Strange Fruit.” Addressing a dead friend (“To you, beloved comrade, we make this solemn vow / The fight will go on”), it comforts them in the knowledge that the struggle that they had fought and died for would continue until the final victory (“Sleep well, beloved comrade, our work will just begin / The fight will go on till we win”).

When put to music by composer Fred Katz, “Beloved Comrade” became an anthem sung at socialist funerals. Probably written for Spanish Civil War soldiers from the International Brigades, it was sung by Josh White for Franklin Roosevelt and by Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert in memory of Sacco and Vanzetti (two Italian anarchists framed for murder and executed in 1927). Recently, Sing in Solidarity, a choir composed of members of Democratic Socialists of America (of which I am a member), sang it for the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Abel Meeropol was a communist, “Beloved Comrade” belongs to no faction and has been sung in solidarity by many left-wing movements. Robert Meeropol believes that this is exactly how Abel intended the song to be used.

Leftist solidarity was a theme that ran throughout Abel’s songwriting career and political life. It was also what enabled him and Anne to adopt the sons of the Rosenbergs. As lefty public school teachers, the Meeropols were both heavily involved in the New York City Teachers Union. This was a radical union and many of its members were also members of the Communist Party. It was through the union that they came to know teacher and Party member, Alice Citron. After being blacklisted in the 1940s and fired from her teaching job, Citron went on to work as Shirley Graham Du Bois’ personal secretary. Through this daisy chain of personal ties, the Meeropols were ultimately able to adopt Robert and Michael.

Under constant threat of persecution, the New York City left was necessarily close knit. But there was only so much protection a network of friends could provide each other. In 1945, the Meeropols, fearful of being blacklisted like Alice Citron and so many of their fellow Teachers Union members, left their teaching jobs and took off for Los Angeles. Here, Abel wrote television scripts. He also attended a socialist reading group that the Communist Party ran for Hollywood screenwriters. Robert Meeropol recalls:

They were at this study group reading Lenin or something and Abel raised his hand to the party functionary who was doing the teaching and he said, “I don’t know why I have to read all this stuff. I know who the workers are, I know who the owners are, I know who our allies are, I know who our enemies are, that’s good enough for me!

For his impertinence, Abel got written up by the Party functionary.

According to Robert Meeropol, Abel had a visceral “anger over injustice and a willingness to act upon that.” Alongside these deep feelings also appears to have been a uniquely attuned moral clarity. It was no doubt this same fearless, clearheaded nature that made him write an anti-lynching song at the height of Jim Crow and to adopt the sons of the Rosenbergs at the height of the Cold War. Eventually, it would also lead him to return to the community he’d left behind, blacklists be damned.

The Meeropols were living back in New York City in 1954 when they adopted the Rosenberg boys. Robert and Michael were raised in a loving, quirky, left-wing home. “There was no regular job,” Robert Meeropol recalls. “There was this, that, and the other thing. It was very artistic. There was always a stream of writers and artists and performers coming and visiting. I guess it was a pretty exciting and rich environment for a young kid growing up.” His parents were forever running off to rehearsals and performances of left-wing concerts. Robert Meeropol remembers Malvina Reynolds singing “Little Boxes” on their living room sofa.

The Meeropol boys today are in their 70s. If you didn’t know their back story, they would appear much like the other “red diaper babies” of their generation—that coterie of diehards who protested Vietnam, kept the faith through the dire neoliberal period, and even sent their kids to socialist summer camp. People who grew up on the American left, and especially the Jewish American left, might feel a flicker of recognition at the mention of their birth names. For the rest of us, the saga of the songwriter and the sons of the murdered “spies” seems like a secret history, a potshard buried beneath the sand that speaks of a whole fallen civilization.

I first learned the Meeropols’ story in 2018 when, as a member of Sing in Solidarity, I was taught to sing “Beloved Comrade” for a memorial to Heather Heyer—the young woman murdered in the Charlottesville terror attack in 2017. I was new to the left, having joined DSA after volunteering for Bernie Sanders in 2016. Hearing this story made me feel bound to my new community, and made me think how powerful a collective memory like this can be. It made me feel as if I had just brushed aside half a century’s worth of dust and discovered a part of my own past. I felt rejuvenated and included. It was a little reward for having the faith in humanity that had brought me to the left in the first place.

It also made me think about how small and secretive the left was for so many decades, and in some ways continues to be. My feeling of belonging came part and parcel with a feeling of exclusivity. I had to be initiated and committed to the movement in order to hear these stories. For that movement to grow, however, it needs to be able to tell its stories to the uninitiated. It needs to be able to frame those stories for widespread consumption. The Bernie Sanders campaigns understood that. DSA understands that.

The left, however, is currently small (relatively speaking) and neoliberal cultural hegemony isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In our current moment of widespread helplessness, when narrativizing our past would be a therapeutic and politically expedient practice, left-wing history is instead being rewritten by liberals like Aaron Sorkin. As the tumultuous present unearths the radical past, Hollywood keeps putting out films that capitalize on public interest while propping up existing power structures. Films like Lincoln (2012), On The Basis of Sex (2018), and, most recently, Sorkin’s 2020 drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 lean into top-down proceduralism and emphasize the enduring, unshakeable nature of American institutions. It is vital that the left continue to punch back at these rewritings of radical history. But we also need to do our own storytelling, to make creative narrative works that mythologize our own past.

We can see the current left movement’s need for such works in the wildly successful career of a writer like Sorkin. His show, The West Wing, is admittedly very bad art. However, its delusionally “pragmatic” messaging had a real effect on liberal political discourse and practice. To acknowledge this fact is to acknowledge the need for ambitious left-wing storytelling that can act as a counternarrative. Before Sorkin produces his take on the Rosenbergs, and we have to endure a walk and talk between Roy Cohn and Joseph McCarthy, I think it’s time to start sharing our own history.

To be sure, rebuilding those links in the chain of memory and teasing out the secrets of the American left won’t be an easy task. Crowdsourcing funds for left-wing art won’t be an easy task either. It is also not an impossible one, as the existence of independent left media (like this magazine) proves. The new movement needs its own works of art, and the means to make those works are within reach. It is long past time that we claimed our past, and publicly narrated our stories—stories like Abel and Anne Meeropol’s—and won back the (currently Sorkinized) political ground in the popular imagination.

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