Fermin Rocker (22 December 1907 – 18 October 2004)
Fermin Rocker, born on the 22nd December 1907 in the East End of London, was the son of Rudolf and Milly Rocker. His parents, first generation Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Germany, were both working-class anarchists and activists. Researching working-class memoirs and accounts, I was intrigued by Rocker’s upbringing which, although cultured, was often unstable due to the repercussions of war and his parents’ nationalities as well as an ever-changing financial status.
Rocker’s 1998 memoir The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood is a 192-page reflection on his early years from birth, until prior to the family’s immigration to Germany after World War One. As described in the preface, its publication was not a simple one. Rocker and his wife Ruth, had worked for a number of years trying to get his manuscript printed, which eventually was published by anarchist co-operative publisher Freedom Press just after Ruth’s death. It is evident, that Rocker wishes to share his unusual childhood and memories of idyllic years before the war destabilised this. There is little reference to his life after leaving the U.K as a child, which is significant in relation to understanding his objectives as an author as he arguably sees these very early years as the most important to his long life.
“I cannot say with certainty how much my early years were affected by the optimism of the period… they were the happiest of my childhood. This is perhaps the reason I chose them as my subject and why I ended the book where I did.”
During his early school years, he attended numerous anarchist meetings with his Father, gaining insight into a world far beyond his years. This, however is an interesting idea to focus on in reflection to his memoirs, as he remains ambiguous to his relationship with the concept of anarchy and whether or not he affiliates himself with the anarchist movements such as that his Father was involved in. It was also during this period that his older, half-brother Rudolf would teach him to draw, mapping out his future career as an artist and illustrator. Regardless of whether he ever fully identified as an anarchist and the fact he went on to be an artist, Fermin highly praises his Father’s influence and how his position in the household was non-conventional for the time however beneficial for their Father and son relationship to blossom:
“He was the major figure of my early years and I looked upon him as a God… Unlike most Fathers, he worked mainly at home and as a result we saw far more of each other than is usually the case. A man of immense vitality, there was no mistaking his presence in the house.” (Rocker. The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood.)
Following World War One, both his parents were arrested and interned as enemy aliens in London due to their heritage as Ukrainian and German Jews, they were eventually released and spent a short time in the Netherlands in 1918. They then finally settled as a family in Berlin. Fermin trained as a lithographer and began experimenting with art much more once in Germany. It was after following his Father on a lecture tour in the United States, which saw him settle in New York and his parents joined him in 1929 preceding Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Fermin began to take on numerous career roles including: a cartoon animator, a commercial artist, and a book illustrator. All of which, saw him achieve much success with his work being exhibited in the likes of the Chicago Art Institute and The Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Fermin married his wife Ruth, a dentist, in 1952 after meeting in California. They both visited London again in 1959 and eventually the couple settled there in 1972 as New York became too expensive to live in. Fermin and Ruth would live in London for the rest of their married life, Fermin continuing his work as an illustrator and working for the Oxford University Press, whilst also working as a painter in his spare time. Fermin speaks very fondly of returning to Stepney in the beginning of his memoir before he begins to recount his nostalgic memories, describing his visit as a sort of necessary pilgrimage:
“Included in my itinerary was a pilgrimage to the East End… Curious as I was to see the old neighbourhood, I did have some misgivings about revisiting it in view of vast changes that had occurred there and were still taking place…”
Rocker, in his memoir very much attempts to recreate the ‘old’ Stepney he knew prior to the repercussions of war and modernisation.
Fermin Rocker. ‘The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood. (1998) London: Freedom Press.