Fermin Rocker (b.1907) Politics, War and Protest

“The making of the working class is a fact of political and cultural, as much as of economic, history.” (Thompson, E.P.C. 1963)

Fermin’s parents Millie and Rudolf were both anarchist activists. They believed in a stateless and non-hierarchical society in which there would be more freedom and equality. They wished that ‘political coercion and economic exploitation would no longer be tolerated’ (Rocker.1998:14) His parents did not hide their beliefs from Fermin, taking him to protests from the age of three. Although at this age Fermin did not understand the speeches or protests, later he would recognise his father’s talent in public speaking and debate:

Fermin with his parents fellow anarchists and friends.

“It was sometimes most amusing to see him demolish an opponent who, having come to a debate armed with an arsenal of books and pamphlets, found himself corrected at every turn by a man who seemed to know everything and have every pertinent fact at his fingertips” (Rocker. 1998:76”

Fermin’s father told him that the days preceding the First World War were ones of great hope and a feeling that a better world was on its way. From a young age this is also what Fermin believed and living in London which saw much poverty and hardship he saw his parent’s beliefs were justified and morally right. The idea that a social revolution would happen quite soon wasn’t an idea so farfetched considering the East End’s squalor. Another aspect of Fermin’s beliefs was anti-militarism. Fermin called all policemen and those in the military the ‘Lump’ and felt extremely hostile to them:

“If I happened to have the urge, I would vent my spleen against the species by urinating down from the top landing of our building whenever I saw a policeman… No one ever took the trouble to discourage Bubi from this unsavory habit.” (Rocker.1998:80)

At the beginnings of the outbreak of the First World War, Fermin would see a much darker times for his family’s German heritage and anarchist beliefs. The majority of the East End anarchists were against the outbreak of war which was not an easy matter in the era. There began to be much anti-German hostility in Britain, homes ransacked, riots breaking out and many people hounded like traitors. Due to Fermin’s father’s roots, he was deemed an ‘enemy alien’ despite his anti-militarism and opposition to Prusso-German reaction and expansionism. This status meant Fermin’s father Rudolf would start to lose his freedom with a five-mile limit imposed on any travel around London. This would soon escalate and many of Fermin’s Jewish neighbours who had the misfortune of being born in Germany or Austria were taken into custody. The happy period of Fermin’s childhood at this point was over, and his father was now placed under arrest,

His mother with her friends, including Milly Sabenlinski who would care for Fermin after her arrest.

“In wild despair I threw my arms around my father, clinging to him with all my might and obstinately refusing to let go. When I was finally torn away, I cast myself on the floor, howling and sobbing… the sense of loss that seized me at that moment was indescribable. I felt instinctively that this was the end of an era for me and that life would never be the same again” (Rocker.1998:124)

As conscription was introduced, anti-war propaganda in the East End increased. Fermin’s mother Milly openly took a large role in the campaign on behalf of those refusing to fight. His father had feared that her involvement would put her under risk of arrest. Some prominent figures from the East End anarchist group had been already been arrested for campaigning against conscription. It was one day when Fermin was in school that his brother Little Rudolf and his mother were arrested. Fermin therefore would be looked after by a close family friend and neighbour. A long period would pass before Fermin was reunited with his parents and he would not see them again at home. An agreement had been reached by Britain and Germany for an exchange of prisoners of war, eventually Rudolph would be stripped of his German citizenship and sent back to Holland where they had been stationed in the exchange. After petitioning for the British Home Office to let Fermin and his mother join Rudolph in Holland, there was eventually success.

“It was hard to believe that all this was actually happening, that my mother was free, and that in a matter of days the three of us would be reunited again.” (Rocker.1998: 181)

On their arrival to Holland Fermin and his mother felt a vast sense of relief. Not only were their surroundings almost dream-like in comparison to a war-torn London but they were finally at peace and together. Though there was much confusion as to Rudolph’s whereabouts they were eventually directed to Amsterdam. Rudolph had found a home in a working -class district ‘Ceram Street’

“He retreated in to the hall…This was immediately followed by the patter of rapid footsteps and the emergence of a stocky, bearded, and bespectacled figure. I rushed in to my father’s arms” (Rocker.1998: 184)

Fermin’s memoir ends with him and his father being reunited. It is mesmerising that Fermin had been through so much trauma at such a young age and was able to begin a new and happy life again with his family in Holland. I hope you have enjoyed my author blog on the working-class artist Fermin Rocker, I have used extracts from his memoir The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood.

An example of Fermin’s artwork ‘Waiting for the tube’. His art can be found on his website which is ran by his family .


Thompson, E.P., 1980. The Making of the English Working Class.

Fermin Rocker. 1998. The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood.  Freedom Press: London

Aronsfeld, C.C., 1956. Jewish Enemy Aliens in England during the First World War. Jewish Social Studies, 18(4), pp.275–283

Image 1: Retrieved from
Fermin Rocker. 1998. The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood.  Freedom Press: London

Image 2: Retrieved from
Fermin Rocker. 1998. The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood.  Freedom Press: London

Image 3: Retrieved from
http://www.ferminrocker.org/website/waiting_for_the_tube.html [Accessed 19/05/2020]

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