Ethel arrived for court that day in a wool elf hat, beaming. Her chin had grown double; her skin was flawless and glowing. She wore a bit of lipstick. Julius didn’t smile or frown — he looked like a man who had just woken up from a long, dreamless sleep. Ethel draped her gloved hand over her belly as if to shield herself from unseen bullets.
Ethel & Julius grew up poor in New York, and came of age during the Great Depression. They grew up going to rallies for the WPA, listening to radio broadcasts by FDR. I grew up watching the rich debauch themselves in South Florida, and came of age during the Disco Years, the anything-goes Seventies. John Travolta, spinning like a dervish in his white polyester three-piece suit.
Ethel and Julius and I were all politically inflamed at an early age — I wrote to Nixon at age 11 to protest lax emission control standards, and got a personal letter back, signed by Rosemary Woods, Queen of the Accidental Erasure. Julius was contacted by the KGB and asked to spy for the U.S.S.R. He found it flattering — was he really that important? — an offer he couldn’t refuse. There were no KGB agents contacting me, but if they had… how would I have answered?
Unfortunately, in addition to the political, I also got inflamed past all reason by my mother’s drinking — I used to fling her gallon jug bottles of wine into the canal in the backyard. My reaction was a type of revolution: I wanted to throw off the chains of her alcoholism and be free at last. I wanted to throw off the chains of her drunken love just as much, if not more, than Julius wanted working men and women to throw off the chains of their capitalist oppressors.
I had an ongoing fantasy: a mother who could be confided in, a mother who wouldn’t judge, become angry, or load me up with confessions of her own, far greater problems than mine would ever be. Once, I dreamed Ethel was my mother and it was a relief; I knew she’d fight for me; have my best interests at heart. She looked to be a normal mother, cooking meatloaf and mashed potatoes in her tiny apartment kitchen, smoothing her boys’ foreheads after bad dreams, murmuring soothing words in the darkness.
My father and his left-wing ardor neatly complemented the Rosenbergs. He once ran for Santa Monica, California city council on the Communist Party ticket. It was only a few years after Kent State, the simultaneous apex & abyss of the “age of Aquarius.” My father and I never discussed the Rosenbergs; we were in agreement on most things.
Ethel, Julius and I all studied Marxist doctrine, and I toyed with the idea of joining the American Communist Party. I read the Party’s official platform (from the 60s), and decided, after considering Ethel & Julius’ fate, that joining wasn’t such a great idea. To think was private, to act, public. Plus? I wanted to be a lawyer someday.
The Rosenbergs had a larger purpose — to transform society from what they viewed as unfair to something more egalitarian. This is what most political rebels have wanted. But who defines fair? Those in power? The USSR hardly turned out to be an entity worth dying for. Are Julius & Ethel content in their graves? Maybe I should have been sent to the electric chair.
All of us spin out of control in some fashion; Ethel & Julius got caught committing actual crimes. The main evidence against them was the testimony of Ethel’s brother, a man who turned State’s Evidence to protect his OWN WIFE. He didn’t actually believe Ethel & Julius would ever be executed. The government only wanted the Rosenbergs to name names. They, however, remained silent.
After their deaths, Julius & Ethel were laid out in religious garb. They didn’t look dead, just asleep. The embalmer did an excellent job. Three hundred people came to look at them. The dead Rosenbergs left behind two young sons — I left behind my mother, slowly dying. She was a child who wouldn’t grow up. I couldn’t be her mother — her own mother couldn’t even be her mother anymore. She had worn everyone out! Julius, Ethel, don’t ask for God’s forgiveness — I can’t bring myself to. God should be asking us for ours. Our enemies have already forgotten us.