How does a child understand? -- Speech by Robert Meeropol
My name is Robert Meeropol. I am here today as a citizen of our Commonwealth and in my capacities as Executive Director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, and as the Vice-Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Murder Victim's Families for Human Rights (MVFHR). In MVFHR we oppose the death penalty and believe state-sponsored executions, the premeditated killings of human beings by the state, are murders. We in MVFHR also believe such judicial killings violate Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and thus constitute human rights abuses.
I am also here today because I feel a special connection to Nicola Sacco & Bartolomeo Vanzetti's case. I have a personal relationship with the death penalty. I'm Robert Meeropol now, but I was born Robert Rosenberg. My birth parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed in Sing-Sing prison on June 19th, 1953 when I was six. I feel a special connection to the Sacco and Vanzetti case because my parents' case and that of Sacco and Vanzetti are often thought of together.
As a child who survived his parents' execution I have an unusual perspective to share with you. One of the last letters Bartolomeo Vanzetti wrote was to Nicola Sacco's young son, Dante. He wrote:
"My Dear Dante,
I still hope and we will fight until the last moment, to revindicate our right to live and to be free, but all the forces of the State and of the money and reaction are deadly against us because we are libertarian and anarchists. I write little of this because you are now and yet too young to understand these things and other things of which I would like to reason with you. But if you do well, you will grow and understand your father's and my case and your father?s and my principles, for which we will soon be put to death."
Vanzetti finishes the letter with several paragraphs that give Dante a more personal view of his father.
I've thought about Dante quite a bit — what he must have gone through during the seven agonizing years between his father's arrest and execution.
I was three when my parents were arrested and six when they were executed. How does a child who has just turned six understand such events? How does something like that affect a six-year-old?
I don't remember my parents' arrests. In fact, my earliest distinct memories of my parents are of visiting them on death row. But I have clear memories of the last week of my parents' lives. On Monday June 15, 1953, when the Supreme Court adjourned for the summer, my parents were scheduled to die that Thursday. On Tuesday a special petition was presented to Justice Douglas as he left for vacation. On Wednesday Douglas stayed the execution and went on vacation. On Thursday the Supreme Court was recalled into special session. On Friday morning Douglas' stay was overturned by a 6-3 vote. My parents were executed that evening, Friday June 19, one minute before sundown so as not to "desecrate" the Jewish Sabbath.
Although I couldn't read the newspapers, I saw this on TV and heard about it on radio. My six year-old's interpretation of these events was that the Supreme Court Justices asked my parents' lawyer to give them ten reasons why my parents should not be killed and he did. So the Supreme Court stayed the execution. But then they recalled the court and asked the lawyer for an eleventh reason, and he was unable to provide it. So my parents were killed.
What kind of impact did this have on me? Clearly, I didn't completely understand what was going on, but I had a sense that "they" were out there, "they" were very powerful, and "they" were attacking "us." Of course, like Dante I didn't know exactly who "they" and "we" were and what these groups represented. So I had a generalized sense of anxiety, an incomprehensible sword of Damocles hanging over me.
I imagine Dante must have grown up with similar feelings and memories.
People have just begun to study how the execution of an immediate family member impacts children. There has been an apparent disregard for children who have had a family member executed. There are over 3,000 people on death row in America today, but we don't even know how many children have an immediate family member there. Worse, we don't know the effect that having a parent executed will have upon their impressionable lives, and the cost society may pay for that impact. No state legislature, no court, no governmental unit whatsoever has bothered to study this even though these children are all innocent victims of the state's efforts to kill their loved ones.
On this 80th anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti's execution it is past time to realize that every execution creates more victims — the children and family members of those who are executed. It is past time to recognize the damage to Sacco and Vanzetti's families. And it is past time to realize that such "collateral damage" is yet another powerful reason to keep the death penalty out of Massachusetts, to abolish it nationwide and throughout the world.
August 23, 2007
At event organized by MCADP in the North End, Boston, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the execution of Sacco & Vanzetti.