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  • Writer's pictureJoseph K.

The Death of Rocker's Mother

The following is the latest installment from my ongoing translation of Rudolf Rocker’s memoirs. This section is Rocker’s heartbreaking account of the death of his mother, when Rocker was only about 12 or 13 years old (ca. 1886). Last week, I posted a brief excerpt about the death of his father, when Rocker was five, so at this point, he’s an orphan from a poor family. Next week, I’ll most likely start posting passages from his tumultuous period in an orphanage in Mainz, Germany.

As ever, if you find these useful or interesting, please consider supporting the fundraiser I’ve set up for this project. It’s derived from a 2,000-page manuscript, and it’s a huge pile of work. I think it’s interesting and useful, which helps, but it still takes a whole lot of time, so your support would really be helpful.

Last thing: I’d like to mention again that these excerpts are drafts. They will still need to be revised further before publication in book form by PM Press whenever this is all done. If you notice anything egregiously off or suspicious, I’d be very grateful if you let me know.


A yellowish engraving that clearly shows a cathedral in the center background, some houses in the foreground toward the right, and two people on the left pointing toward the right side of the image
A steel engraving of a panorama of the city of Mainz, Germany, produced ca. 1848. The “Rochusspital,” where Rocker’s mother died, is all the way on the right.

My poor mother had undergone an awful change. Her face was pallid and her big, dark eyes always shone with fever. She often called me and my younger brother to her bedside, and I always felt that she wanted to say something, but she only looked at us silently. Her expression was so sad that it dug deep into my young soul. Sometimes she cried quietly into her pillow, but I noticed it anyway, and my heart hurt so badly that I sobbed out loud. She put her hand on my head and said in a low voice, “Don’t cry, my boy. Everything will be fine when I get better.”

I think she believed that she would die soon. She occasionally had awful seizures. The pain drove sweat down her pale forehead in streams. Then there were periods when she seemed to be getting better, but was still in constant pain. Later on, the agonizing seizures came more and more frequently. She didn’t have a chance anymore. The advanced stomach cancer that killed her increasingly ate up her meager strength.

Then the day came when the doctor ordered her to be brought to the hospital. Hardly a word was spoken at home anymore, as though the shadow of death had already appeared. When I came home after school, I found it appallingly empty and felt immeasurably lonely. I loved my mother very much. She was always so affectionate with us. Her gentle presence affected everyone who came into contact with her. The idea that she could die was unbearable to me.

We visited her every Wednesday and Sunday in the old Rochus Hospital, but her condition kept getting worse. She went through a terrifying change during her short stay there. Her face was completely sunken and turned yellowy. Her nose looked more and more pointed. Only her eyes kept the same vivid luster and the same deep sadness. Her expression grew more joyful whenever she saw us and a gentle quiver went through her poor body. She would put her thin, almost translucent hands on our heads, stroking them quietly. Her voice was so weak that I often couldn’t understand her. I felt a gnawing pain and had to force myself to control my tears every time visiting hours ended.

One afternoon, while I was sitting in school, there was a hard knock on the door. The teacher opened it, went out into the hall, and exchanged a few words with someone. When he came back into the room, he gave me a serious look and said, “Pack your things, Rudolf, and go home immediately. Don’t stop along the way. They’re expecting you.”

My heart told me it was about my mother, and I ran as fast as I could. When I got home, I found my grandmother and my brother Fritz were already prepared to leave. The old woman’s half-blind eyes were very red and her voice shook as she told me to “wash up quickly. We have to go to the hospital right away.”

When we arrived, a nurse greeted us and whispered a few words to my grandmother that I couldn’t understand. She accompanied us to my mother’s bed, which now had a screen around it. The nurse pulled back the curtain and stayed outside while we walked into the small room. Our mother lay in the bed, wheezing gently. Her eyes were half closed, and it seemed as though she didn’t notice we had arrived. She only slowly opened her glassy eyes when my grandmother put a hand on her forehead. A bit of life gradually came back into her face. She tried to lift her arms, but didn’t have the strength. I took hold of one hand, while Fritz took the other. She wanted to speak, but the words didn’t come. I could see her desperate effort, but her lips stayed mute. After a long and fruitless struggle, she finally wheezed, hardly audibly, “Someone called you? It’s so dark here I can’t see you.”

Her lids lowered again and she breathed heavily. Then her eyes reopened and she whispered almost imperceptibly “Where is … Philipp?” A few seconds later, a convulsive twitch ran through her entire body. Her eyes nearly left their sockets, but her expression was blank and emotionless.

A strange feeling came over me. It was like sinking slowly into a deep chasm. I heard my grandmother’s loud sobbing and my brother’s crying as though I was dreaming. The curtain opened, and the nurse appeared. She closed my mother’s eyes, and said a short prayer. Then she escorted us out without a word. We met my stepfather on the steps. He worked in the Neustadt neighborhood and arrived too late. My brother Philipp, the subject of my mother’s final words, was on the high seas and only found out about his mother’s death a few months later.

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