Jan Chats with Ivy Meeropol about ‘Heir to an Execution’

Jan Chats with Ivy Meeropol about ‘Heir to an Execution’

(First Posted in 2004)

Director Ivy Meeropol is the granddaughter
of Ethel & Julius Rosenberg.
Photograph by Thomas Ambrose
(Ivy’s Husband)

In a previous era of international conflict, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of giving atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and then, in 1953, executed as spies. HEIR TO AN EXECUTION is a new documentary by their granddaughter Ivy Meeropol. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2004, and then was shown in several other festivals as well as on HBO cable TV. Now HEIR TO AN EXECUTION is available on DVD.

JAN LISA HUTTNER (JLH) talked to the director about the lessons her film holds for the past, and for the present.

JLH: Americans have been flooded with documentaries about contemporary politics all summer… films like FAHRENHEIT 9/11. HEIR TO AN EXECUTION is about something that happened in the 1950s. Why should we care about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg right now?

Ivy Meeropol: What happens when our country submits to fear and hysteria? What are we willing to do as a people? If we look at what happened in America during the McCarthy Era of the 1950s, we can learn a lot about how not to proceed.

In HEIR TO AN EXECUTION, I show footage of Joe McCarthy. Someone asks him: “How do you, sir, define ‘McCarthyism’?” And he says, “Calling a man a Communist who is later proven to be one.” If people really listen to that statement, they will hear exactly what is going on today. Since 9/11, we’ve arrested people, hoping to build a case against them after they’re already arrested. That’s not the way this country is supposed to work.

The McCarthy era was all about quashing dissent in the name of national security, and that’s what we’re doing today. There were massive, peaceful marches in the period leading up to the start of the Iraq War, but the protesters were told that they were “unpatriotic.” You don’t support the troops if you have any questions for the government? This country is supposed to be about encouraging dissent; that’s the beauty of democracy.

My grandparents wanted a better world. When you look at it really hard, yes, maybe Julius Rosenberg was involved in some kind of espionage. But they were not about overthrowing the U.S. Government. They had so much hope. They cared. People forget that in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when my grandparents became politically active, we didn’t have eight hour workdays, unemployment insurance, and child labor laws. Without people like my grandparents, we wouldn’t have so many of the things we take for granted today. “The capitalist exploitation of the masses,” that’s not just Communist rhetoric.

JLH: After your grandparents were executed, your father and uncle were raised by a couple named Anne and Abel Meeropol. At one point in the film, you show yourself looking at a family tree of the extended Greenglass and Rosenberg families, but you don’t show us the details. Was this a legal restriction? After all, the names of all your relatives are now part of the historical record.

Ivy Meeropol: I decided not to out them. That was my decision. I didn’t think it would add anything.

I wrote my uncle David Greenglass a letter. He didn’t respond. I met with a Greenglass cousin who also went to him and tried to get him to participate. Not only did he refuse, he also told her that he didn’t want her to be involved, so then she backed out too. [ED’S NOTE: David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, testified against the Rosenbergs, and later admitted that the government had forced him to give untruthful testimony.]

What purpose would it serve to go knock on his door and stick a camera in his face, when obviously all he would do is slam the door? For one thing, I thought it would change the focus of the film. I didn’t want the film to be SEARCHING FOR DAVID GREENGLASS.

I decided, in general, to preserve the mystery. I wasn’t trying to make the kind of documentary film that answers all the questions. This isn’t an investigative journalism piece. As a family, the Meeropols live with huge ambiguities and I wanted the film to reflect that. I am not going to give anyone an answer that even I don’t have. I wanted to explore all the questions that I have and the way I feel about them. I didn’t set out to make a film that would “crack the case.”

JLH: Were you ever tempted to make the story less personal, maybe fictionalize it to give yourself some distance?

Ivy Meeropol: Originally I thought that part of my focus would be on the various artists who had invoked my grandparents in their work. I wrote to E.L. Doctorow (author of the novel THE BOOK OF DANIEL) and he wrote me a really nice email, very encouraging. I interviewed Tony Kushner (who wrote the play ANGELS IN AMERICA). My Kushner interview will be on the DVD when it’s released.

Doctorow encouraged me to tell my own story. Tell my story, and don’t worry about what people like him have done with the Rosenberg case, because what’s important to tell is my own story.

JLH: How did you feel last year, watching Meryl Streep accept award after award for playing your grandmother in HBO’s version of ANGELS IN AMERICA?

Ivy Meeropol: I’m a big fan of hers. I thought she did a great job. But for Tony Kushner, it’s a story about forgiveness, and I think that’s harder for our family to do.

JLH: In Doctorow’s THE BOOK OF DANIEL (release in a film version as DANIEL in 1983), the Isaacsons’ son Daniel (the author’s heavily fictionalized version of your father) finally confronts the old man (Doctorow’s stand in for your uncle David), but there’s no answer. In Doctorow’s version, the desire for vengeance will never be satisfied. [ED’S NOTE: THE BOOK OF DANIEL was release in a film adaptation staring Timothy Hutton as DANIEL in 1983.]

Ivy Meeropol: No, and I think Doctorow got that right on. I believe that David Greenglass and his family have not lived very happy lives and that’s their punishment. They made their own beds. It’s not my job to keep anything on them. That’s not forgiveness on my part, but it is acceptance.

JLH: So what has your own odyssey taught you that might be applicable to current circumstances?

Ivy Meeropol: I think that we do ourselves a disservice as a society when we focus [our anger] on individuals like David Greenglass. It’s more important to turn the need for revenge into something positive. Reform the system. Make sure that people in power don’t think of themselves as above the law. That was how people like Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn acted in the 1950s. That’s how the Bush Administration is acting now. People in power need to be held accountable. But someone like David Greenglass, he was a victim of the larger process.

JAN LISA HUTTNER is the Managing Editor of FILMS FOR TWO: The Online Guide for Busy Couples. In addition to her work for a variety of print and online publications, she is also a regular contributor to the WOMEN’S NEWSPAPERS and the WORLD JEWISH DIGEST.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (3/12/04) – Special for Really Good Films. Reposted with Permission.

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Jan Lisa Huttner is a Brooklyn-based arts critic & feminist activist. She is the creative force behind the SWAN Movement—Support Women Artists Now—which has just begun its third phase as International SWANs® (aka iSWANs). In the Jewish world, Jan is best known as the author of two books on Fiddler on the Roof—Tevye’s Daughters and Diamond Fiddler—both of which flow from a strongly feminist POV. She also served as both story consultant and “talking head” on the award-winning documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.
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