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  • Writer's pictureJoseph K.

The Death of Rocker's Father

This excerpt is tellingly short: Rocker was very young when his father died, so he didn’t have a lot of memories of him. Still, much of Rocker’s later worldview seems to have been formed by growing up in a supportive extended family and in a city where, in his view, people looked out for one another. A basic sense of solidarity among working class people seems to have been baked into his understanding of the world more or less from the outset.


A photo of a plaza with cobblestone pavement and old-looking buildings with southern German architecture. The sun is low on the horizon with clearly distinct rays beaming across the square, creating long shadows on the pavement.
A plaza in Mainz, Germany, where Rudolf Rocker grew up

I was my parents’ second child, born on March 25, 1873. My father was a music engraver who worked for Schott and Sons in Mainz for many years. I was barely five when he died, and I have only a few shadowy memories of him. He was a tall, handsome man with light blonde hair, a beard, and big blue eyes. When he came home from work around noon on a hot summer day, the coal for the winter was already in the courtyard and he helped carry the heavy sacks into the basement. Shortly afterwards, he came down with a serious lung inflammation that turned into galloping consumption.[1] Eleven months later, he was dead, just 34 years old.

My mother was busy in the kitchen while I was playing in the room where my sick father lay. Suddenly I heard him moaning frantically. He leaped out of bed and grabbed a large water jug to drink, but the jug slipped from his hands and shattered. He fell back on the bed with a dull wheeze. My mother rushed in when she heard me scream. The doctor came right away, but there was nothing for him to do except declare my father dead. I still remember how my distraught mother held her head and sobbed intensely while my grandmother and Uncle Rudolf tried in vain to console her.

Then came the day of the burial. I watched as two men in black carried the heavy coffin down the stairs. The hearse was outside the gate with relatives and friends gathered behind it to escort my dead father to the cemetery. As they were preparing to put the coffin in the cart, I leaped forward to touch it, but my grandmother quickly pulled me away and led me back inside.

That is just about everything I remember about my father.

We remained in our old apartment on Münstergasse after that. My brother Philipp was five years older than me and Little Fritz was born just two months before our father died. Our old grandmother — our mother’s mother — lived with us. So did her brother, Uncle Rudolf, who was still single at the time.

That was the start of a difficult time for my poor mother. It wasn’t easy to feed three children, but she was a brave woman who knew how to manage money. She and my grandmother ran the house and sewed household linen. My mother often worked until late at night, especially before major holidays, but she was never deterred and never passed up an opportunity to bring us a little joy. Our relatives helped out a lot. There was a peaceful spirit in our family and never any internal discord. We were poor, but I never experienced real hardship as a child. We had enough to eat and our mother tailored our clothes herself. They weren’t elegant, but they did the job. Most of my friends weren’t dressed any better. The fact is that when I was a child, I never met anyone who was really starving. The city was too small for that and people were bound too closely to one another.

[1] “Galloping consumption” is an archaic term for a type of acute tuberculosis. -TN

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