Rudolf Rocker was born in Germany in 1873. As a teenager he was expelled from the Social Democratic Party, and turned to anarchism. He fled repression and military conscription by moving to Paris, and then to London. In both cities he was welcomed into the Yiddish-speaking Jewish anarchist movement. In London he also met his lifelong partner and accomplice the seamstress Milly Witkop. Unlike Witkop, Rocker was not Jewish, and was also an atheist, which makes it all the more surprising that he later came to be known as the “anarchist rabbi”, and in a sense this journey began in Liverpool.
In 1898 the couple moved to Liverpool. A Jewish worker who had listened to Rocker speak in London stopped him in a street near the train station and took him to a local anarchist printer, Moritz Jeger. Rocker then moved into Jegers’ home. The Jewish anarchists in Liverpool were inactive. Unknown to Rocker, this was because 6 months earlier they had produced a newsheet called “Der Rebel”, and Jeger had fallen out with another editor, which dominated the group and led to low attendance. Nonetheless, a meeting of 12 of the old members decided to revive the group; Rocker described them as “plain, straightforward, active and thinking working class men and women.”
It’s worth noting, there was a separate english-speaking anarchist group in Liverpool (which some of the Jews had gotten involved with), which “was really active.” They had three speakers who spoke every Sunday in the city centre, where their papers and pamphlets sold well.
The new Yiddish group met in a rented hall in Brownlow Hill, and Rocker gave talks most Sunday evenings. In the absence of any other Yiddish anarchist papers in England, Jeger proposed they start their own, with Rocker as their editor. Rocker was alarmed, he couldn’t read or write Yiddish beyond the alphabet, and had no long-term plans to stay in Liverpool, but he agreed to act as an editor for three months.
The paper was four pages long and was called “Dos Fraye Vort” (“The Free Word”). Rocker found Jeger, who agreed to translate his writings, unbearable. Apparently, alongside being a poor translator and “adding a lot of inflated phraseology”, he also added “stupid reports … which made us look silly.” For example, when he covered sailors being eaten by sharks, he concluded that this was a result of capitalism. Finding this dependence on Jeger problematic, Rocker taught himself Yiddish. He thought that The Free Word was a poor paper, being too short to address theoretical questions, but it did receive a warm reception with congratulations and subscriptions coming from similar Jewish anarchist groups in Glasgow, Leeds, London and Manchester. Initially the members of the group self-funded the paper, but after a few issues it paid for itself (nobody was paid wages, all the work being done voluntarily). The paper only ran for 8 issues, from July 29th to September 17th, and it had a circulation of just a few hundred per issue. Almost by chance Rocker had started his career as a yiddish editor, which continued in London, where Jewish anarchists were impressed enough by his paper to invite him to revive an eight page newspaper called “Der Arbeiter Fraint”, or “The Worker’s Friend.”
Der Arbeiter Fraint had originally started in 1885 and espoused atheism and anarchist communism. Before Rocker, it had dismissed unions as reformist, and focused on organising against rabbinical authorities. However, under his direction, it focused on workplace struggles, which proved “attractive to Jewish refugees, as the ruling elite within this ethnic community championed social peace by claiming that Jewish interests were the same, whether worker or owner, whereas unionism recognised the vital differences in circumstances between employee and employer.” This popular and long running paper helped Jewish-anarchism flourish. They were highly influential within Yiddish-speaking trade unions and had their own working class club which became a centre for entertainment, popular lectures and had a library. This radical community was not united by race or even religion. Instead it was held together by a shared language and culture. At the time there were many separate Yiddish speaking workplaces and historically the mainstream trade union movement had been hostile to Jewish workers. While the Jewish anarchist movement saw a decline after WWI, a New York Yiddish anarchist paper, “The Free Voice of Labour”, managed to continue publication until 1977.
Rocker opposed WWI on internationalist grounds, and along with Witkop he ran a soup kitchen. In late 1914 he was interned as an “enemy alien,” and their paper was suppressed in 1915, but Witkop continued her anti-war activity until she was also arrested in 1916. In 1918 Rocker was sent to the Netherlands in an exchange of prisoners, and Witkop soon followed. In Germany they participated in the anarcho-syndicalist and womens’ movements, as well as helping to establish the International Workers’ Association. Rudolf Rocker’s books on anarchism and nationalism are widely read to this day, due to his clear and straightforward writing style.