Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Who's Who In Knickerbocker Village History: The Rosenbergs

Perhaps the most famous residents in Knickerbocker Village History. This clip from "Heir To An Execution," has the Rosenberg sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol and Michael's daughter, Ivy (who was responsible for this film) visiting their old apartment. Robert is my age and more than likely would have been in my class at PS 177.
Here's an excellently written review of this excellent 2004 film. It's from Amazon by Dr. Cathy Goodwin:
Overwhelming, sensitive, and understated, February 7, 2005
Fifty years after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as spies, their granddaughter Ivy Meeropol made this film to understand her grandparents more intimately and humanly.
As a narrator, Meeropol offers charm and charisma. In fact, the whole family seems incredibly normal and, well, nice. Her father and uncle, the Rosenberg sons, survived what many would view as childhood trauma: reading about their parents in the media, visiting their parents in prison, temporary stays in group homes. They were lucky to live in a pre-pop-psych era and even luckier to be adopted by the loving Meeropols.
The Rosenberg sons always believed in the innocence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Through release of formerly classified documents, it's obvious that Julius did some sort of spying. But realistically he probably was a small fish, in over his head, caught up in the government's search for a scapegoat.
Sure, Khruschev mentions the Rosenbergs in his biography, and Julius (but not Ethel) had a couple of code names, but another KGB agent came forward late in his life to say, "They really didn't amount to much." And another accused party member, Miriam Moskowitz, questions the Venona documents when she's interviewed: mostly scraps, she says, except for the Rosenbergs' very complete file.
Ivy's cousin Rachel, a newly-minted lawyer, summarizes the tragedy succinctly. Even if guilty, Ethel and Julius deserved a fair trial, and they didn't get one. The prosecutor engaged in illegal ex parte (out of court) communication with the judge. Ethel's brother David Greenglass has admitted he gave false testimony. The Rosenbergs were accused of accepting a console table with spy equipment; the table turned out to be what they claimed -- an ordinary table they bought at Macy's.
Would the Rosenbergs really have saved their lives if they had turned in their friends? Would they have spent years in prison -- perhaps worse than the death sentence? Was their sacrifice pointless?
The real question should be: Why did they have to make these choices? I recommend watching this DVD along with Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary about a Jewish family accused of child abuse in the 1980's. Once again, district attorneys offered reduced sentences in exchange for accusations. And over and over again, people accused of drug dealing can get reduced sentences only by turning in others. Ironically, those low on the chain often know nobody, or know only undercover agents, so they get longer sentences.
Originally, Ethel was arrested to motivate Julius to confess. Even today prosecutors still attack wives in hopes of "softening" a husband, as in the case of one Enron executive. When the husbands don't crumble, wives who were marginally (or not at all) involved are punished.
So I believe this film raises questions about the logistics of contemporary justice. When faced with long prison terms, many people will say anything to save themselves and their families. They'll invent stories, which will become "evidence" against others, often without independent corroboration. Prosecutors seem to have no qualms about punishing innocent people to nudge the guilty.
And jury verdicts often depend not on logic or reason but on whether they like the defendants. They didn't like Julius and Ethel. They were viewed as hard and detached. But most likely they thought the proceedings were ludicrous -- the table from Macy's was bugged? -- and never expected to be convicted.
Is this what "innocent till proven guilty" means? Do we want to convict criminals based on coerced testimony? Do we want verdicts based on folkloric beliefs about a defendant's demeanor? Those are the real questions for viewers of this documentary.

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