THE CALL CAME weeks ago. It was the friend of a friend's father and the conversation began as it had to with an introduction and then an explanation of the links - "I am a friend of . . ." - and then, finally, the purpose of the call - the Rosenbergs. Julius and Ethel. On Monday, it will be 25 years since they were executed, the man said. There was a pause and he started to explain and I said I remembered - not well, but I remember. Actually, I was much more interested in baseball at the time.
This was 1953. There was a radio on the shelf in the kitchen, a dark-colored Philco that had come from my aunt's house after she died, and it was tuned to the Yiddish station. It was my grandmother's radio, the volume turned high to compensate for her deafness, and always after breakfast she would take a chair from the kitchen table and walk it on its hind legs over to the shelf. She would put her head down on the shelf, turn on the radio and out would come the saga of the Rosenbergs - the indictment and the trial and the sentence and the appeals and the attempts at clemency and then, finally, the executions at Sing Sing. A terrible sound of grief came from that radio and I skipped off to play.
I hated them, those Rosenbergs. They had the look of family about them, not our family, but a family you went to visit in the city. Even now when I look at the pictures, Ethel in the kitchen, I can mentally run my hands across the page and touch the old sink with a smelly dishrag squatting nearby and the enamel stove with the potato maker on top and somewhere a Jewish calendar so you would know the holidays. There is something so familiar in the pictures - Julius in his baggy, double breasted suit; Ethel in her frowzy coat. There is the look of family in their faces - not immediate family, but family.
My grandmother was indignant. My grandmother's radio barked outrage. Me, I was ashamed. Me, I cared about sports and school and I knew, of course, about Communists in Russia and how they were the enemy. I knew that. I was bothered or ashamed or something that someone named Rosenberg could be a traitor and somehow I lumped that in with my grandmother - alien, different, a white-haired woman of incredible strength who one day sat in the driveway cleaning fish with a sharp knife, the bones and skin lying on the concrete for me to hose away. Kids came and looked. It was all one piece, somehow, - my grandmother, the Rosenbergs, them, her, the radio. All of it. It was not us.
We all felt it I think - my friends and I. We talked about it a bit and I know our parents talked about it and I suppose the same conversation goes on in the homes of blacks when a black does something horrible or in the homes of Italians when yet another Mafia capo is arrested, but of them all this was something special, something truly terrible. The judge himself had said that the Rosenbergs had given the bomb to the Russians. He said they were responsible for the Korean War. He said they had to die.
It was all right with us. We didn't care. The only thing we cared about was the Dodgers. Baseball was our passton and we rooted, with the exception of Mel and Robbie Bell, for the Dodgers. They were in second place that June, I've looked that up. They were three games back of Milwaukee and they had just lost two in a row to St. Louis. I looked that up, too. On the day the Rosenbergs died, the Dodgers lost 12 to 4 and I know I cared much more about that then I did about the Rosenbergs. I mean, that was pretty much the difference between us and them. We cared about baseball and things. Understand, they were not like us.
So this man who was a friend of my friend's father called and he tells me that the anniversary is coming up on the 19th and that there will be a rally in Union Square like there was the day the Rosenbergs died and that the children, Robert and Michael, will be there. He tells me this and I am interested because now I am older and now I know some things about the case and it would be interesting to deal with the issues. I mean, there are questions about the evidence and questions about how the Rosenbergs were treated and there are certainly questions about holding them responsible for the Korean War, for delivering the Big Secret when there was no Big Secret. Officially, the electric chair killed them. Actually, it was politics.
So I start to read and I look at the pictures. There is one picture of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and they are kissing. In the picture, his sleeves are rolled up and his arms, very hairy, are draped over her neck and his hands are cuffed. Their kiss looks passionate. They had incredible strength, these people, a conviction you could not believe. They were different. So different from us. There were more pictures. There were early 1950s pictures of the boys who will speak tomorrow and who are now, of course, men. They are shown then at the White House gate and in the back of a car and there is something about them that stops me cold.
They are wearing Dodger caps.