Sunday, February 1, 2009

Film review: Heir to an Execution

This afternoon, I watched the documentary Heir to an Execution: A Granddaughter's Story, in which first-time filmmaker Ivy Meeropol explores the impact of the 1953 execution of her grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, upon her family. The film blends archival images and footage with Meeropol's interviews of family members and her grandparents' friends and associates, and it makes no apologies for its sympathetic treatment of the Rosenbergs or for the Rosenberg-Meeropol family's left-of-center politics. However, it is not a whitewash.

Meeropol and her father, Michael, accept the possiblity (now confirmed) that her grandfather engaged in some form of espionage and that her grandmother knew about and supported her husband's activities. They are nonetheless convinced that Julius Rosenberg was not passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets and that the federal government sought the death penalty against Julius and Ethel because it wanted them to implicate other Communists; they refused, despite their deep love for their sons, to betray their friends or one another by doing so.

Michael and Ivy Meeropol both believe that the Rosenbergs' steadfastness constituted an important family legacy. Although viewers might reach rather different conclusions about the Rosenbergs' degree of guilt or the wisdom of their decision not to cooperate with the government, it is plain that Michael Meeropol and his younger brother, Robert Meeropol, were devastated by the loss of their parents. Fortunately, they managed, with the help of loving adoptive parents, to build meaningful lives. Michael is an economics professor, and Robert is an attorney and head of a charitable foundation. Both of them have been happily married for decades and enjoy close relationships with their children, all of whom seem to be well-adjusted and successful people.

It is nonetheless evident that both Michael and Robert were permanently scarred. One of the most low-key yet vivid demonstrations of the persistence of their past suffering occurs when Michael Meeropol takes his daughter to the bank vault that houses family letters to and from his imprisoned parents. Michael hastily starts pulling file folders out of a large safe deposit box, and photographs and documents start flying out of the folders and onto the floor as a horrified Ivy looks on.
Ivy Meeropol: Oh, my God! Dad! I can't believe you did -- you've gotta take care of these. You're really rough with those --

Michael Meeropol: Ahh, I know. Comes from having lived with it for so many years.
Michael shows Ivy the hand-drawn cards that he and his brother sent to their parents, and then pulls out the letter that his mother wrote shortly before her execution. It's obvious that he's given a lot of adult thought to his parents' writings -- he's well aware that his parents saw their letters not only as missives to their children but also as historical documents asserting their innocence -- but it's also apparent that they evoke difficult memories.

Michael Meeropol's seemingly indifferent handling of these documents underscores the deep ambivalence that people sometimes have toward their personal or family papers. It's good to be reminded that the archival professsion's unalloyed enthusiasm for the documentary record isn't always shared. Those of us who don't often work with prospective donors sometimes forget that records creators and custodians' relationship to their records may be fraught with intense and conflicting emotions.

Archivists should also note that Heir to an Execution also depicts Ivy Meeropol's examination of Rosenberg trial records held by the U.S. National Archives and Records Aministration's New York City regional office. However, one need not be an archivist to be engaged by this thought-provoking, intimate, and deeply personal film.

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