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Losing at Monopoly
I WAS SIX YEARS, ONE MONTH, AND ONE DAY OLD ON MONDAY, JUNE 15, 1953—four days before my parents' execution. That hot June my ten-year-old brother, Michael, and I were living with friends of my parents, Ben and Sonia Bach, in Toms River, New Jersey. I was a thin, dark-haired, olive-skinned child of average height. My face tapered from a high forehead to a somewhat pointed chin. I'm told my most striking feature was brown eyes that were so deep set they often appeared ringed like a raccoon's. I was finishing my kindergarten year at Toms River Elementary School. That summer I played a lot of ball with my brother and several older neighborhood kids in the Bachs' front yard. I was fairly well coordinated: quick with my hands but not particularly nimble on my feet. Better at athletics than most but always not as good as some. It helped having a big brother who looked out for me.
I played a lot of Monopoly while I lived in New Jersey. By the time I was five I loved to play endless games with my brother and any other competitors I could find. Even though my opponents were almost always older, I held my own. I quickly learned that, with the exception of the Utilities, it was smartest to buy every property you landed on to maximize your chances of getting a "monopoly." This rapidly used up your meager initial allotment of fifteen hundred dollars. There was even a slim chance you'd quickly go bankrupt and be out of the game if you followed this strategy. It was much more likely that you'd prevent others from getting a monopoly, secure one of your own, and eventually win. Of course, if the dice weren't with you there was nothing you could do. Since my brother played similarly, winning our games had more to do with luck than skill. But my peers had favorite properties and would decline to purchase ones they disdained. They often appeared to be winning because they had more money than I did early in the game. But with more properties I usually acquired the first monopoly and ultimately drove my opponents out of the game. This was quite a life lesson for the child of Communists.
My attitude toward Monopoly reflected my survival strategy. I usually had a plan. Adults found me quiet and withdrawn, although I was very quick to climb into the lap of any adult woman I felt the slightest bit comfortable with. I sought shelter whenever I could. Fuss and commotion usually meant that bad things were happening, and I kept quiet to insulate myself from the tumult and to avoid creating more uproar. I was quietly observing, and my observations inevitably led to strategy. I endured my parents' absence, bided my time, and planned cautiously while cradling hope of winning even when the odds appeared long.
Although at six I was too young to comprehend the world beyond the Bachs' house, my neighborhood, and school, I knew that there was something dangerous "out there," lurking near enough to strike again, that was somehow involved in taking my parents away. A dark cloud of generalized anxiety hovered at the edge of my consciousness—a sense that something about my family was terribly wrong and that my circumstances might get even worse. Most of the time, when I ignored or forgot about the upheavals of my life, I felt reasonably safe with the Bachs, and not too bad. But "we" (whoever that was) were under attack from whatever was out there, and I wanted to keep a low profile, beneath the notice of any enemies.
I felt particularly vulnerable whenever I left the Bachs' home or protection. I was anxious taking the school bus to kindergarten. I remember another small, dark bus rider who, unlike me, had a nervous tic and stuttered. Some of the other kids teased him. Once his mother, a Holocaust survivor with a strong Yiddish accent, got on the bus and screamed at the driver that the teasing made her son more nervous. I observed that her yelling did not help. My mortification for this other boy confirmed my resolve to suppress any habits or outbursts that might attract notice. While I felt I could easily become that tormented boy, I made no effort to befriend him lest I draw attention to myself.
I often put myself in others' shoes. This sense of understanding what others felt led me to sympathize with those who were picked on. However, I was not courageous; I didn't stand up for the victims. While I never physically bullied anyone, there were times when I joined the group in ridiculing social outcasts. I was reluctant to inflict petty cruelty because it left me feeling so remorseful. But I delighted in inventing clever and derogatory nicknames that stuck to my intended target like stepped-on, freshly discarded chewing gum. I still do.
I noticed that being nice and making others laugh without being loud and obnoxious provided 0social acceptance and safety. I found that if you were friendly to others they were more likely to be friendly to you, but I was wary of the few who might be hostile anyway. This careful approach to new situations made it hard to make new friends. I usually managed to become part of a group but avoided being the ringleader. Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, denigrated those who were "liked, but not well liked." I was content to be liked, because being well liked might attract too much interest.
Michael was much more outgoing, talkative, and assertive. With our parents gone, I became his charge, a responsibility he took very seriously. I was content to follow his lead and stay in the background whenever possible. He was used to getting his way, and prone to fits of temper when he was thwarted. Although I do not recall this, I am told that before my parents' arrests he constantly engaged my mother in a battle of wills. After our parents' arrests, adults were even more willing to cater to his whims. His behavior was a focus for adult attention, and I was content to let him have it.
Michael was the one constant presence in an unfathomable kaleidoscope of cameo appearances in my life. Our four-year age difference diminished our sibling rivalry. Instead, we were allies—the two of us against the world. We always slept in the same room. Although the Bachs were also our protectors, Michael was the only person I felt 100 percent safe with. He was a great comfort to me. We woke up early in the morning and held long whispered conversations during which he'd pour out his precocious ten-year-old's wisdom while we played Monopoly. He explained to me why the Dodgers were going to win the pennant in 1953. He told me that although it would be much better if we could live with our parents, at least this was not the shelter we'd spent six months in. He also gave me history lessons, proudly reciting all the presidents from Washington to Eisenhower.
I remember being content, but not happy, as long as I was left to do what other kids did—go to school and play afterward. But there was something out there that would not leave me alone, and that kindergarten year was punctuated with visits to my parents in Sing Sing prison. Then I could not keep beneath "their" notice (whoever "they" were). I remember entering the prison courtyard through a big iron gate and bounding after my brother, who had trouble containing his energy after a long car ride. But I'd quickly return to hide behind my parents' attorney, Manny Bloch, when I saw photographers snapping pictures as we entered and exited.
I have surprisingly sharp memories of much of what I did and even of some of the world-shaking events that swirled about me during the week of June 15. On Monday, when the Supreme Court adjourned for the summer, my parents, who had been convicted more than two years earlier, were scheduled to die on Thursday, June 18 their fourteenth wedding anniversary. On Tuesday a special petition was presented to Justice William Douglas as he left for vacation. 0n Wednesday, Douglas stayed the execution and went on vacation. 0n Thursday the Supreme Court was called into special session. On Friday morning Douglas's stay was overturned by a 6-3 vote. My parent were executed that evening, Friday, June 19, one minute before sundown, so as not to violate the Jewish Sabbath. But that is not how I remember the week of Monday, June 15.
Although I couldn't read the newspapers, I saw reports of these last-minute maneuvers on TV and heard about them on radio. I remember thinking that prior to the fifteenth, the judges (whatever they were) asked Manny to give them ten reasons why my parent should not be killed—and he did. So my parents were not killed. But that Thursday they asked Manny for an eleventh reason. When he could not provide it, my parents were killed.
I think I confused repeated radio references to "eleventh-hour appeals" with giving an eleventh reason. Michael tells me that we were whisked away to a friend's house in the next town on Friday to avoid the photographers and reporters who had finally discovered us at the Bachs'. I don't remember leaving the Bachs', but I do recall playing ball with my friend Mark that evening, while my brother played with Mark's older brother, Steve. We'd been watching a ball game on TV around suppertime when news flashed across the screen that plans for the executions were going forward. I could not read the words and do not recall Michael's reaction, but he remembers moaning, "That's it, good-bye, good-bye."
Michael's reaction and the urgency behind the adults' decision to send us outside gave me the sense that something especially bad was happening. We came back inside only when it got too dark to see the ball. I remember that Michael was distraught because he'd missed some vital news about the case, and that the adults tried to console him. I doubt I fully comprehended that my parents had just been killed, but I feigned complete ignorance to avoid the commotion, and went to bed. Adults persuaded Michael not to tell me about it that evening or the next day. Although it might not have been on the evening of Friday, June 19, sometime soon I knew that my parents had been killed. Michael says he told me a week later that "Mommy and Daddy are never coming home; they're dead," but I still did not act as if I understood.
I'm not sure I knew what death was. My friend Mark had a tree he had planted in the spring that he told me was almost dead. In fact it showed no signs of life, just a few bare branches stark against the endless light sky of early summer evenings. He packed chicken manure around it as medicine, but it seemed beyond cure. In my mind, that bare dead sapling was mixed up with my parents' death, a bleak and bitter sense of loss in the summer sun.
I pretended not to understand what was going on so adults would not fuss over me. While in some ways I did not understand, by the end of the summer I knew the essential facts: "They" had killed my parents, and I would never see my parents again. That summer of 1953 began with what I now see as the climax of my personal horror story. But the onset of this nightmare was hidden in the mist of my earliest memories. I am told that the nightmare started three years earlier with FBI agents knocking on our Lower East Side apartment door on July 17, 1950. We had finished dinner, and I was already asleep. Several agents entered and later left with my father. I have no memories of this event, but I have heard my brother describe it many times. Michael was listening to an episode of The Lone Ranger on the radio, but an FBI agent turned it off. Michael was not cowed and turned it back on. Michael's first battle with the FBI continued until he heard my mother shout, "I want a lawyer!" He recalled becoming worried, and that then our father was gone.
I have very few memories of my parents, and I will never know such basic attributes as how they interacted in social settings or even the sound of their voices. What is known about my parents is that until 1950, they were a left-wing working-class Jewish couple with two children living on New York City's Lower East Side. They were people with their share of familial problems, personal limitations, and future aspirations.
Julius Rosenberg was born in New York City in 1918. He graduated Seward Park High School on Manhattan's Lower East Side and also received religious training at Downtown Talmud Torah and Hebrew High School. At sixteen he still took religion seriously, but by the time he was eighteen he had become a Marxist. In February 1939 he graduated from the City College of New York (CCNY) with a degree in electrical engineering and married Ethel Greenglass shortly afterward. He held a job with the Army Signal Corps until 1945, when he was fired after an investigation revealed that he had falsely sworn that he was not a member of the Communist Party in order to obtain the job. Next he worked for Emerson Radio until he was laid off. Ultimately he started a machine shop, hiring his brother-in-law, David Greenglass. In 1950, at the time of my father's arrest, the business was failing.
Ethel Greenglass was born on the Lower East Side in 1916 and also attended Seward Park. A star student, graduating before her sixteenth birthday, she was picked to sing the national anthem at high school assemblies because of her extraordinary voice. A close high school friend recently told me that she and Ethel were both so poor that they stuffed old newspapers into the holes in their shoes to keep their feet from freezing during the long walk to school on winter mornings. Acting and singing were her passions. She was a member of the Clark Street Players, an amateur theater group, and worked as a secretary after graduation. She had become an active union organizer by 1935 and left the Clark Street Players to join the more politically oriented Lavanburg Players.
Julius, two years younger, met Ethel when she sang at a union-organizing meeting in 1936. They became a couple almost immediately but did not marry until after Julius graduated college in 1939. Michael was born on March 10, 1943, and I was born on May 14, 1947.
After my father's arrest, Michael, my mother, and I continued to live in our eleventh-floor three-room apartment, in a high-rise development called Knickerbocker Village. The only thing I remember about that apartment was that it was small. (An apartment that appears small to a three-year-old must have been tiny.) We lived with our mother for only a few more weeks. One morning in August she left us with a neighbor because she had been subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury that was investigating what the newspapers were calling the "Atomic Bomb Conspiracy." At the conclusion of her testimony that day, she too was arrested. Except for a dozen or so brief prison visits, neither my brother nor I ever saw either of our parents again.
Copyright © 2003 by Robert Meeropol