Son of infamous Rosenbergs tries to honor their memory

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Eight years ago, Springfield attorney Robert Meeropol established in his late parents' name a charitable fund to benefit children. Given the fact that Meeropol is the son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the Rosenberg Fund for Children has attracted more than its share of attention.

Full-time executive director of the RFC, the 51-year-old Meeropol has tackled the task of securing $1 million for the fund and for the children of political activists who are its beneficiaries. He's worked with a passion and tenacity some might say are reminiscent of his parents in their refusal to recant in the face of espionage charges and death sentences four-plus decades ago.

Indeed, 1998 marks another anniversary for Meeropol and his brother Michael, 55, who also lives in western Massachusetts. Forty-five years ago, on June 19, 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were electrocuted in an upstate New York prison, having been found guilty of conspiring to turn over to the Soviet Union the secret of the atomic bomb.

The execution did not end the uproar over the case. While then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover accused the pair of "the crime of the century," their defenders insist to this day the two were not guilty. As an example, a group calling itself the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case met in New York in June to commemorate the "martyrdom" of the Rosenbergs.

On the 45th anniversary of the execution this year, Robert and Michael Meeropol, citing FBI and other agency documents that have come to light since their parents were executed, issued a statement calling on the government to "acknowledge that our parents' execution was not justified and admit that our parents were executed for a crime the government knew they did not commit."

Robert was 3, his brother 7 when their parents were arrested and frightened relatives deposited the two boys in a New York City shelter. The lawyer defending Ethel and Julius Rosenberg introduced the children to a couple he knew, Abel and Anne Meeropol. The boys were taken in by the Meeropols in 1954 and eventually became their legally adopted sons.

Though raised in what he characterizes as a "secular" Jewish environment, Robert Meeropol observed the holidays with his adoptive family and had a bar mitzvah.

After attending the University of Michigan and getting married, Meeropol returned to the Northeast where he and his wife could "continue the revolution…change the world."

In the early 1970s, the couple moved to Springfield, where Michael Meeropol had accepted a teaching position at Western New England College. Halfway through his doctorate in anthropology, Robert joined his brother on the faculty.

But in the same way their parents' case profoundly influenced their young lives, so, too, would another legal case change the course of their adult lives.

In September 1972, Doubleday published "The Implosion Conspiracy," New York attorney Louis Nizer's account of the Rosenberg case. Its contents so troubled the Meeropol brothers that they filed a lawsuit against him in a Springfield court. Identified in court documents as the Rosenbergs' sons, they were forced, as Robert recalled, to go "public."

The reopening of the case would signal an end to Meeropol's career as an anthropologist because, he explained, he discovered he was adept at business-related activities such as raising money to support their effort to exonerate their parents. He went to law school, concentrating on business and tax law.

But a law practice in a Springfield firm left Meeropol feeling like "a fish out of water," as he puts it. In 1990, at age 43, with college expenses for his two daughters looming, he withdrew from the firm and "got back in touch with what I wanted to do."

Meeropol started the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he describes as a source of support "for the educational and emotional needs of children whose parents have been harassed, injured, jailed, fired or killed in the course of their progressive activities."

Meeropol regards the fund as "a kind of progressive social insurance," covering the cost of school, summer camp, programs in the arts or sports, travel and other activities that he sees enriching a youngster's life beyond the basic needs of food and shelter.

To date, the RFC has awarded a total of $350,000. The goal is to raise $1 million in its first 10 years and to distribute $100,000 in grants to 100 children every year. Meeropol reported this month that about $900,000 had been donated and that "by early '99, we will achieve our goal."

To underscore his point about helping the community, he shared the message of his parents' last letter to their young sons 45 years ago:

"They said they died secure in the knowledge that others would carry on after them. I take that to mean that others would carry on the struggles that they couldn't…and that others will carry on after me."