BETWEEN THE LINES: Rosenberg Fund Aids Children of Persecuted Activists
Robert Meeropol was six years old when the U.S. government executed his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, in 1953. The Rosenbergs, convicted of conspiring to steal the secret of the atomic bomb for the Soviet Union, left behind two sons: Robert and his older brother Michael. The brothers, who suffered shame and confusion as they grew up during the McCarthy era, have since become activists and successfully sued the FBI during the 1970's to force the release of previously secret documents about their parent's case.In 1990, Robert Meeropol founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which provides for the educational and emotional needs of children whose parents have been persecuted for their progressive political activities. The Rosenberg Fund has built an endowment of over $1 million and has awarded grants totaling $500,000.Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Robert Meeropol, executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, who discusses his personal journey from being the child of parents executed for alleged political crimes to founding an organization that assists the children of activists persecuted for their political beliefs.Robert Meeropol: The trial took place in 1951. There was a lot of publicity. My brother was in the public schools in New York City and suffered a fair amount of harassment. So, we were shipped out to New Jersey to live in relative anonymity. We lived rather quietly there for awhile until the executions took place June of 1953 when the local school board found out who we were. There was a tremendous amount of publicity at that point, reporters swarming on the lawn and the like. When the local people found out who we were, they petitioned the state board of education, which issued a ruling which said that since we weren't residents of the state of New Jersey or our parents weren't residents of the state of New Jersey we couldn't attend public school in New Jersey. So we were thrown out of the New Jersey public school system when I was six years old. And it goes on. Things like that kept happening to us until we were finally adopted by Abel and Ann Meeropol and we dropped from public sight.Our names were changed and we grew up with an anonymous existence. My parents' lawyer, after they were killed, traveled around the country raising funds for us to go to special camps and schools and to get therapy, so we had a small trust fund that saw us through these special needs that we had during our childhood. So we grew up living anonymously until we were in our mid-twenties and went public with we who were and went through the process of reopening our parents' case. That's when we started our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.So as you hear me describe these circumstances, you hear the problem of what happens to kids in these situations and the solution: putting them in contact with the kind of supportive community that helps kids bounce back and survive. That's really what the Rosenberg Fund for Children is all about. We find children today who are suffering (in the) same kind of situation that I suffered as a child in this country and then we try to hook them up with a supportive community so that they will get the same kind of benefit we received.Between The Lines: Tell us about some of the cases you are now involved with at the Rosenberg Fund for Children helping children who may face a similar situation as you and your brother did.RM: The Rosenberg fund is a public foundation. What that means is we raise money from a fair cross-section of the public. As an organization of our type, without any big angels or large corporate funding or foundations, we are pretty small. We don't have a tremendous capacity to make many grants. However, in 1999, we gave away $145,000 to benefit about 100 children. And it may surprise people to realize that there are children who fall within our guidelines, what we call the children of targeted activists. At least in this country, and I must admit, it's a relatively few. What I mean by that is you could probably find more potential beneficiaries of the Rosenberg Fund in a few square miles of say, Bosnia, than you could in the entire United States. But that doesn't make it any less horrible if it happens to you. In fact, it could be argued that it's even worse to be one of a relative few. And also, I don't want to overemphasize that because those of us who live in relative comfort if we have the right skin color and a good educational background and professional income we might think that nothing like this ever happens. But if you're a person of color and you're poor and you live in the city or if you're engaged in various union organizing or other activities, you'd be surprised at the kinds of things that can happen, that don't get reported in mainstream media that we never know about.I'll give you a few examples. In southern California, there was a member of the Los Angeles police department, an African American woman who spoke out against racism in that department in the wake of the Rodney King beating. She became the target of a massive harassment campaign from her fellow police officers. She ultimately had to retire on disability leave. We've been helping her children. There was a Native American activist in Oklahoma who organized a campaign against the nuclear power plant adjacent to the reservation. They ended up shutting the plant down, but a lot of people lost their jobs and she was attacked because of this. She had to relocate to another state. We've been helping her kid.So you find people like this. Each story is more heart-breaking than the next. And people are surprised to discover situations like that exist. And then of course, there are also the children of political prisoners in this country who we help as well.