Ivy Meeropol '90
Heir to an Execution
What motivated Ivy Meeropol ’90 to look the past squarely in the face and make an HBO documentary about her world-famous grandparents, the American “Atom Spies” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg?
It was simple, says the 36-year-old film director and former congressional aide. “I woke up one morning a few years ago and realized that I’d been hiding from the biggest story of my life. And I told myself: ‘Come on, Ivy, you’ve got to face up to it. You have to do the thing you’re most afraid of.’”
Meeropol’s anxiety was understandable: Her father, Michael, and his brother, Robert, had been orphaned by the execution of the Rosenbergs, who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, and family members wanted no part of a film that might reopen old wounds.
For Ivy, crafting the 90-minute documentary seemed “totally overwhelming” at first. Somehow, she would have to weave the public story of her notorious grandparents into her own private story and that of her father, now a 60-year-old economics professor.
“I knew it would be a difficult balancing act,” Meeropol says, “and I knew that confronting the ambiguities involved in their case would be extremely challenging. Fortunately, I got a lot of help from the producers at HBO, along with my father and several other family members. They helped me keep my emotional balance during the writing and filming.”
Released in 2004 and nominated for the top documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival, the film—Heir to an Execution: A Granddaughter’s Story—offers viewers insights into the ways that catastrophic events can affect the lives of ordinary people.
For the world at large, the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg still looms as a stark icon of the anti-Communist 1950’s. Executed on June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs had been convicted of giving the Soviets secret information stolen from an atomic bomb site—although many of their supporters challenged the credibility of the government’s key witness, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass. While passionate demonstrators for and against the executions carried signs back and forth in front of the White House (“The Rosenbergs Must Fry—And Die!”), the electrocutions went forward.
In her film, Meeropol combines stark historical footage with personal interviews in which she asks family members to describe the impact of the case on their later lives, even using herself as a key character in the drama. At one point, she kneels before her grandparents’ tombstone and scatters pebbles across the ground, performing an ancient Jewish ritual of mourning.
In another scene, Ivy takes her father to the apartment where he and his brother had lived as young children prior the arrest of their parents. “That scene was really difficult,” she says, “because I could see up close just how much my father and my uncle had been affected. Many of the Rosenberg family members were terrified of becoming involved publicly in the case, and the two boys were placed in an orphanage for a while, as a result.” (They were later adopted by two “very caring and very devoted parents”: Abel and Ann Meeropol, unrelated to the Rosenbergs.)
Ivy Meeropol, who began writing screenplays after spending five years as a Washington congressional aide, was surprised by the “relatively mild” reception her documentary received from conservative critics. “I think they realized I wasn’t making a film about ‘my poor, innocent grandparents,’” she says, “and their venom was diminished as a result.” Guilt and innocence are not at issue; Ivy chose to depict the ambiguity of her feelings. “What I wanted most was simply to lift my grandparents out of mythology and show their humanity,” she says.
Emotional scars remain for the many heirs to the Rosenberg execution. “The bizarre history affected all of us deeply,” Meeropol says today. “I can remember attending summer camp one year, and somehow one of the other kids found out who I was, and he came over and threw this big pile of mashed potatoes down on my plate, and he said: ‘That’s the bomb your grandparents stole!’
“That was the kind of incident I wanted to confront.”