If there is a difference between a memoir and an autobiography, it is, perhaps, measured by the elegance of the prose. By that standard, Robert Meeropol’s An Execution in the Family is definitely autobiography.
Meeropol is the youngest son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed on June 19, 1953 after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. Meeropol was just six years old at the time, and therefore can be forgiven for the lack of detail about the impact of the execution on his young psyche. Unfortunately, he tells the story of his childhood as if it were a class assignment for high school English — with little description of the scenes, no development of the characters who people his life, and scant emotion.
It isn’t until his mid-40s that Meeropol finally comes to grips with the full impact of his parent’s execution, and it is only at that point that the telling of his story begins to sound like something more than dictation. Although it takes almost 185 pages to get there, it is worth the wait. Meeropol is courageous in his self-analysis — and precise in his conclusions. He comes to believe that it is impossible to know exactly what his parents may or may not have done, and although he is convinced (and convincing in his analysis) that they were executed for a crime which they did not commit, he stops short of saying that they were innocent. This distinction may seem small, but it shapes the rest of his adult life. Once Meeropol stops trying to prove his parents’ innocence, he is able to move on and build upon their legacy. He creates the Rosenberg Children’s Fund which supports the children of political prisoners in the United States. Through this foundation, he is both able to find peace with his parents’ legacy and help support the “leftie” causes to which his parents were tied.
Despite the lack of lyrical storytelling, An Execution in the Family is a compelling tale and provides a voice for those not often remembered: the children of the executed.