I love documentaries. Love them. I can get completely entrenched in an subject I previously knew nothing about and be carried along by the filmmaker's narrative. So many documentaries deal with family history and take the viewer into ideas and situations not normally seen. So I've decided to share with you some of the documentaries that touched me in some way and given me a greater understanding and appreciation of people's stories and lives.
I came across Ivy Meeropol's documentary, An Heir to an Execution: A Granddaughter's Story, several years ago on HBO. Meeropol is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple executed on June 19, 1953, for conspiracy to commit espionage. The story goes that Julius Rosenberg passed on secrets of the atomic bomb during the Cold War to the Soviets. Apparently, Ethel helped him by typing notes, but her involvement continues to be debatable. Books have been written about the case, studies have been done. But although Meeropol discusses the court case and execution, she mostly takes the position of a granddaughter and searches for the grandparents she never got to know. One astonishing thing is how much weight and stigma the Rosenberg case carries even today: many relatives refused to even appear on camera to discuss Julius and Ethel.
I loved the interviews with her father, Michael, who remembers his visiting his parents in Sing Sing Prison until right before they died. The letters he received from his mother at that time are touching and poignant; his mother not coming across as a convicted traitor, but a loving mother missing her young sons.
The one moment of the documentary that stands out to me the most comes at the beginning. Ivy arrives at the cemetery where Julius and Ethel are buried to view the gravesite and pay her respects to her grandparents. She visits the cemetery office to inquire about the exact location of the graves. And the employees won't tell her. Ivy's bewilderment and confusion at this reached right into my heart as a family historian; the notion of a public cemetery keeping relatives from visiting their loved ones appalls me.
HBO runs this documentary from time to time, but you can also purchase it here. The trailer for the film doesn't show well (if you'd like to take a look, it's here) but I found an interview with Ivy Meeropol and her father that does even better. Enjoy. I hope you get the chance to watch Heir to an Execution.