Heir to an Execution

Ivy Meeropol’s compelling debut documentary about her grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, is a fascinating, insider’s view on America’s most controversial execution. She invites us inside an archetypal American Jewish immigrant family, in which she tenderly situates herself, her father Michael, and her grandparents on the family tree. Simultaneously, she offers a complex exploration of the clouded facts and devastating personal impact of the Rosenbergs’ execution in 1953 for conspiring to spy for the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs’ trial and execution was and is a compass-reading of American Cold War hysteria, internalized anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and misogyny. But Ivy’s unique perspective as a granddaughter affords her both the distance and the audacity to ask difficult questions: "Who were they really? Were they innocent? If they were guilty, then what were they guilty of?" She interviews Rosenberg contemporaries, including Morty Sobell, imprisoned for 19 years for refusing to testify against the Rosenbergs, and Miriam Moscowitz, who was in prison with Ethel. The most intimate and raw moments are with the director’s father and uncle, who recount their abandonment by the extended family even as their boyhood nightmare was played out in a national spotlight. Meeropol conveys her growing emotional connection to her late grandmother through tiny revelations: Ethel, in addition to being brave, had very small feet and wanted to be an opera singer. In a family that was profoundly ruptured by an execution, the orphaning of children, and the conspiracy of silence by relatives, Meeropol’s film is a fierce and compassionate reclamation of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as people.
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