You might have heard of her sister, the anarchist Rose Witcop (also spelled Witkop). You might have heard of her life-long companion, another famous anarchist, Rudolf Rocker. Perhaps you’ve heard of her son, the artist Fermin Rocker. Most likely though, you’ve never heard of her, or of the Rocker family for that matter.
Born to a Jewish Ukrainian-Russian family, Milly Witcop was sent to London when she was seventeen. There she worked in a sweatshop in order to pay for her parents’ and sisters’ passage to England. The hard work and her eventual involvement in a bakers’ strike led to her involvement with the Jewish anarchist newspaper Arbayter Fraynd (Worker’s Friend).
Born to a German family four years before Milly’s birth, Rudolf Rocker experienced hardship early on with his father’s death in 1877 and his mother’s death ten years later. He ended up in a Catholic orphanage as a teenager. After running away to become a typographer, Rocker read works by Marx, Lasall, Bebel and Bakunin. Rocker became a member of the Union of Independent Socialists and founded a local section in Mainz, which mostly distributed anarchist literature smuggled in from Belgium or the Netherlands. While speaking at a Labor Union meeting, Rocker barely escaped after police came in to break it up. Eventually, Rocker found himself in London, where he met Milly Witcop in 1895.
Though they were in love, they never married. This was a problem when, in 1897, Witcop and Rocker traveled to the United States. America refused to let them in because their union wasn’t made legal. Rocker said, “our bond is one of free agreement between my wife and myself. It is a purely private matter that only concerns ourselves, and it needs no confirmation from the law.” Witop added: “Love is always free. When love ceases to be free it is prostitution.”* The scandal hit the newspapers in America, and the couple received some criticism for their “sinful,” unmarried lifestyle.
Back in London, Rocker and Witcop co-edited the Arbeyter Fraynd. In March 1900, the two also started publishing the newspaper Germinal. It was a theoretical paper, applying anarchist thought to the analysis of literature and philosophy.
When WWI broke out, both Witcop and Rocker remained pacifists and didn’t agree with either side of the war. Instead of joining any patriotic movements, the couple opened a soup kitchen to help alleviate the impoverishment that came with the war. After publishing a controversial statement about the war, Rocker was arrested and interned as an enemy alien. Witcop continued her anti-war activities until she was also arrested years later.
In March 1918, Rocker was taken to the Netherlands under an agreement to exchange prisoners through the Red Cross. After her imprisonment, Milly met up with Rocker and their son (famous painter, Fermin Rocker) in the Netherlands.
In November 1918, the couple moved to Berlin were they became members of the Free Workers’ Union of Germany (FAUD). Because the organization was male-dominated, Milly, with the help of others, founded the Women’s Union in Berlin in 1920. She believed that working class women were not only exploited by capitalism as were proletariat men, but were also exploited by their male counterparts. She therefore reasoned that women should fight for their rights against a patriarchal society in the same way that the working class must fight against capitalism.
After the Reichstag fire in February 1933, Witcop and Rocker fled Germany for the United States. In a letter to Margaret Sanger, Edith How-Martyn wrote about a dinner she had with the Rockers and others who fled Germany.
She wrote of the gathering:
I found myself in a nest of anarchists, Emma Goldman, the Rockers from Berlin (Milly Rocker being Rose Witcop’s sister). They having escaped from Berlin the day after the Reichstag was burnt. Doris–a Russian, Polly another sister of Rose’s, a young German girl communist. You can imagine the talk…Hirschfeld, Helen Stocker, Adele Schreider have all escaped from Germany. Hodann is in prison. Ruben Wolf, supposed to be in prison – Rocker said at least 100,000 have been thrown into prison. The amazing and, to Goldman and Rocker, disappointing thing is that the communists and social democrats have put up no resistance.
Their fight for social progress didn’t stop after their escape. In the United States, they continued to write and lecture about anarchist topics. During the Spanish Civil War, they educated Americans about the events going on in Spain. Both Rocker and Witcop continued to write, publish and lecture very late into their lives.
Milly Witcop died first on November 23, 1955. Rudolf Rocker died nearly three years later, on September 10, 1958. Their son, Fermin Rocker, went on to become a well-renowned painter and illustrator.
*Fishman, William J. (1974). Jewish Radicals: From Czarist Stetl to London Ghetto. New York: Pantheon Books.
Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
Rudolph Rocker, Milly Witkop-Rocker (Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Oriole Press, 1956).