originally published February 2, 2012
To quote Wikipedia, that fair maiden who imbues me with a zesty yolk of seemingly meaningless information every day, Milly Witkop was “a Ukranian-born Jewish anarcho-syndicalist.” So why should we care?
In her lifetime, Milly was not only the reigning queen of Wrong-Place-Wrong-Time, she was also a pretty sharp rebellious tack. Oh, and she hooked up with a guy named Rudolf Rocker, which is totally not a stage name for a white singer from Nebraska who covers black R&B records in the 1950s for safe consumption by white audiences. No, Rudolf was a real dude, and his Wiki-article is considerably longer and more detailed than Milly’s.
But today we’re going to talk about Milly. She was born in 1877, the eldest of four sisters. When she was four, Czar Alexander II was assassinated, which led to a rather unpleasant persecution of Jews in the years that followed. The family’s plan to escape the Russian pogroms was to ship Milly off to England, where she would work to save up enough money to haul the rest of the Witkops west.
Milly was seventeen. She was young and ambitious and she ended up in a British sweatshop, tailoring clothes in deplorable conditions for long hours. Her first impression of ‘free life’ wasn’t so hot. She started questioning her faith. The answer came in the form of anarchy.
She got involved with a baker’s strike (because bakers, when on strike, bring the best goodies to the picket lines), and started writing for the Jewish anarchist newspaper Arbayter Fraynd (which roughly translates to Enough With This Fakakta Government Already). She met German anarchist Rudolf Rocker when she was eighteen, and the two of them fell in love.
You may have noticed I wrote in my second paragraph that Milly had ‘hooked up’ with Rudolf, not married him. You may not have noticed this (and, in fact, I had to scroll up myself to make sure I had written that), but either way, the distinction was intentional. Milly and Rudolf never got married. It was for this reason that they were denied entry into the United States when they landed at Ellis Island in 1898. They were sent right back to England on the same boat that had hauled them over. America would have none of their wicked sin.
Back in the UK, Milly and Rudolf started publishing their own newspaper, Germinal. The journal focused on philosophy and literature through a libertarian and anarchist perspective. It was a fine journal to have with one’s morning coffee, but sorely lacking if you wanted to find out the showtimes for Thomas Edison’s latest blockbuster, Guy Waves Arms In Front Of Camera And Oh My God The Image Is Moving!.
They gave birth to a son whom they named Fermin. Fermin Rocker. He became an artist (because with that name, what else would you be?), though decidedly less political than his parents (though he once sold a painting to Mick Jagger, so that’s kind of cool. Also his name is Fermin Rocker.)
Milly and Rudolf opened a soup kitchen. This is who they were – not your yappy hypocritical government-haters, but the kind of people who actively try to improve their world. So, like any great citizens, they were locked up.
Rudolf, specifically. The Great War broke out and Rudolf was German, so therefore enough of a national threat to warrant sending him to an internment prison. Milly became an anti-war activist, a hippie fifty years before the hippie movement. As such, she was also locked up.
After the war, the Witkop-Rocker clan decided that maybe the UK wasn’t for them. They moved to a place where they could never again be persecuted, as anarchists or as Jews: Germany. Yep.
They continued to publish their thoughts, and to muck about in the labor movements in Europe. They celebrated the February and October Revolutions in Russia, then flipped their opinions right away when they witnessed the rampant statism and totalitarianism that the USSR was destined to become. Milly and Rudolf were professional kvetchers – it didn’t pay well, but they hoped it would have some effect.
Where Milly’s voice really comes through is during her time in Berlin. While Rudolf quickly became an A-lister at all the happening union and labor shindigs, Milly was relegated to the fringe of the movement, despite her intense commitment. She spent the 1920s creating the concept of feminist socialism. She claimed that, not only did capitalism exploit proletarian women, proletarian men exploited them. She encouraged boycotts by housewives, anything that could get the fraus of Berlin to take an anti-capitalist stand on their own.
Milly branched out a bit more, trying to address the problem of anti-Semitism in the labor movement. She really made it her life’s work to encourage her husband’s “Stick It To The Man” philosophies, but also to add on “While You’re Sticking It To The Man, Make Sure You Aren’t Sticking It To The Women And The Jews And Really Anyone Else Who Doesn’t Deserve To Have It Stuck To Them.” Hard to fit that on a placard.
Of course it wouldn’t be a story about two Jews in Berlin in the 1920s without the old Nazi storyline goosestepping into the picture. After the Reichstag Fire in 1933, and when it looked inevitable that the Nazis were about to open a new chapter of Witcop-Rocker persecution, Milly, Rudolf and Fermin fled the country. This time America took them in.
The anarchist duo continued to promote their beliefs, trying to educate the Yankee masses about the Spanish Civil War and raising awareness about the various messes of the world. In 1937 they moved to the Mohegan Commune in upstate New York. They took a somewhat less pacifistic view of the next World War, believing that peace-and-love was all well and good, but someone had to kick some Nazi ass, lest they get even more out of control.
Milly didn’t jump on board the founding of Israel either. She supported the notion established by philosopher Martin Buber, of a bi-national solution in which Arabs and Jews lived together. Milly was nothing if not an optimist. She lived until 1955; Rudolf outlived her by only three years.
Milly, it seems, was in favor of a lot of solutions that never really came to pass. But she fought for them, and she didn’t compromise. Hell, she didn’t even give her son a feasible name, probably out of protest for something or other. Her most important contribution may well be her promotion of women’s involvement in anarchist and labor causes. Someone had to open the door for women to stand on the street and yell – why let men have all the fun?