Part 1: Life at 33 Dunstan House
The Artist Fermin Rocker’s 1998 memoir is non-linear and involves many fragmented memories and events from his childhood. As he describes in his preface, he wanted to focus on memories of a happy period before war affected his family and home life. This style of writing is explored in Emily Cuming and Helen Rogers’ article ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant Reading of Working-Class Autobiography’ in which they explore working-class autobiography in terms of its style and ‘emotional framework’: ‘A number of authors, for example, ruminate on their choice to render the past through the display of a number of disconnected memories and flashes of recall. In these instances, they relate vivid episodes, images and memories from childhood in passages marked by sharp visual and sensory detail…’ (Cuming, E. Rogers, H. 2018. 136) It is certainly true that Fermin adopts this style as he occasionally paints pictures of daily rituals in between explaining his family dynamics and their background. My next two posts will explore Fermin’s intimate memories and flashbacks of family life.
As I have begun to explore in my introduction and my first themed post, Fermin had a happy yet unusual homelife. His mother Milly and his Father Rudolf were socialists and anarchists of German and Russian descent which is an aspect which certainly would have set the Rockers apart from other East End families. The unusual beliefs of his parents are something Fermin was made aware of from a young age and encouraged to take a form of ‘pride’ in.
‘The anarchist was regarded, at best, as an impractical dreamer… my parents seemed to take pride in it, regarding it as the inevitable reaction to any bold and challenging idea. They had profound conviction that ultimately their cause would triumph…’ (Rocker. 1998. 14.)
Due to his parent’s dedication to their cause and Rudolf having an active role as a writer, lecturer and organiser, their house was more than just a family home but a meeting place for anarchists from all around the world. Fermin humorously describes in his memoir that his home was a ‘Mecca’ for those who knew no one else in London as Rudolf infamously gave shelter to refugees and anarchist exiles. Fermin would often hear his Father communicate in dialects and languages he had never heard of. Although a Gentile, Rudolf had learned to read and write in Yiddish and gained an editorship of ‘Arbaiter Fraind’ which was a Yiddish anarchist weekly publication. Rudolf had first met Russian and Polish Jews when he had lived in Paris as they had also sought asylum due to their radical ideas pushing them out of their home countries.
His father’s interests went far beyond that of the movement, he was a very cultured gentleman and encouraged Fermin to explore everything the world had to offer, be that culture or politics. The front room was filled with artwork such as an impression of the Mona Lisa and nudes by a German graphic artist Fidus. Furthermore, the front room had an extensive and ever-growing library which Fermin reflects on in his memoir:
‘Two walls in our front room were almost entirely covered with bookshelves, and my uncle Ernst, an expert cabinet maker, had to keep adding new ones to accommodate the growing supply’ (Rocker. 1998. 14.)
Although a working-class family living within a poor area and housing block, the Rocker family were very financially stable when Fermin was a young child. Unusual for the other flats in Dunstan House, the Rockers had their own kitchen with a gas stove, lighting which was controlled by a metre and their very own lavatory. This being said, the family of four – Milly, Rudolf, Fermin and older brother little Rudolf – lived in one bedroom with the front room transforming from a bedroom for Rudolf in the evening, and a study for his Father in the daytime. Traditional gender roles in the household were subverted. Fermin fondly recalls his father waking before the rest of the family in order to warm the cold flat and prepare breakfast:
“My father nearly always the first to rise, was the one who kindled the fire in the kitchen stove on cold mornings and prepared breakfast while the room was warming up. Not until the chill had been lifted did my mother and I get up to join him in the kitchen.” (Rocker.1998.12.)
This is a similar aspect I have found in other peoples research. Annie Taylor in her Home and Family blog discussed how working-class men also took on a domestic role in the household in the early 20th century and were also affectionate to their children. It is interesting that by later years gender roles would be completely different and somewhat regressive in the household
Keep an eye out for part two of ‘Home and Family’ in which I will continue to explore Fermin’s doting relationship with his Father as well as his relationship with his adult half brother ‘Little Rudolf’. You can keep up to date with all the latest Fermin posts by following my twitter @EmmaSellarsLJMU.
Cuming, Emily and Helen Rogers, ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant Reading of Working-Class Autobiography’, Journal of Family and Community History (2019)
Fermin Rocker. The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood. (1998) Freedom Press: London
Knepper, P., 2008. The other invisible hand: Jews and anarchists in London before the First World War. Jewish History, 22(3), pp.295–315.
Image 1 : Rudolf Rocker’s classic survey of anarcho-syndicalism was written during the Spanish Civil War to explain to the wider reading public the ideology which inspired the social revolution in Spain. Retrieved from Good Reads.
Image 2: A photograph attached at the end of Fermin’s 1998 memoir