Heir to an Execution

Director: Ivy Meeropol

Institute History

  • 2004 Sundance Film Festival


For many people, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are iconographic symbols. Their trial and execution embody the hysteria fueled by the Cold War and McCarthy's red scare. But who were the Rosenbergs as people? Fifty years after their electrocution, their granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol, conducts a gripping search to uncover the humanity of her grandparents—a project inseparable from the persistent, elusive question: What was worth standing up for so much that they were willing to leave their children behind?

This emotional journey takes us to staunch Rosenberg comrades like Morty Sobell, imprisoned for 19 years for refusing to share crucial information in the case, and 103-year-old Harry Steingart, who poignantly recounts how the Rosenbergs' sacrifice saved his life. Intimate interviews with the filmmaker's father, Michael Meeropol, bring a precious immediacy to his parents' story and reveal the complex psychology of the rest of the family, which betrayed and rejected Julius and Ethel in their time of greatest need. This painful revelation eerily underscores the depth of political paranoia at the time and the impossibility of discovering the ultimate truth about the Rosenbergs' guilt or innocence.

Often heart wrenching, this highly personal film never turns maudlin or self-indulgent. Rather, by bringing her grandparents back home, Meeropol provocatively resurrects a story with profound resonance for our times.

— Caroline Libresco

Screening Details

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