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Judith Kerr – refugee


In November 2013, the BBC in the UK screened a programme called Hitler, the Tiger and Me about the children’s writer and illustrator Judith Kerr OBE.

I am ashamed to say that this was the first time I’d heard of her. Perhaps it was that, when she started writing children’s books, I’d already moved on to Ian Fleming. That’s no excuse because, when my son was growing up in the seventies and early eighties, he didn’t read them either but he should have and I should have known about Judith Kerr and made him aware of them.

Judith Kerr was born in Berlin in 1923 into a non-orthodox Jewish family. She had an elder brother, Michael, and her father Alfred was a well-known theatre critic and writer who had openly criticised Hitler and whose books were amongst those burned by the Nazis in May 1933. By this time, the family had left Germany. There were brief stopovers in Switzerland and Paris before they settled in London, where they remained.

Later, Judith met and married the writer Nigel Kneale whom I remember well from my childhood as the author of the Quatermass science fiction TV serials. They were married for fifty two years until Neale’s death in 2006. Judith Kerr still lives in the family home in Barnes, South-West London, where she has been since 1962. She is now in her ninety first year, fit and still working.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, one of her best known books, is an autobiographical novel telling of how the family left Berlin and ended up in England. Though told in the third person, the narrative revolves around Anna (Judith herself). I would guess that the target audience is younger teenagers but it can be read and enjoyed by both older teenagers and adults. I can think of no other book that so effectively captures the plight of political refugees. Anna has to learn French, which she initially struggles to do, and later English although the novel ends as they set off for England. How many of us could have coped with three languages by our 12th. birthdays?  Once they had left Germany, money became a serious problem for them as father found it difficult for newspapers, journals and publishers to accept his work while they were living in France. The Swiss weren’t too keen on him either as they were anxious to retain their traditional neutrality and not upset their powerful neighbours, Germany.

The family fled first to Prague (a safe haven in 1933) and then to Zurich. The train journey from Berlin to the border (minus father who had already left) is as tense as that undertaken by Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) in that brilliant film Julia but in a different way because Anna and Michael have to be completely on their guard without ever knowing why. Mother has to constantly remind the children to remain silent each time an official checks their tickets and other travel documents. Throughout the journey, the threat of being sent back to Berlin hangs over every kilometre. There’s a particularly hair-raising episode when they nearly board a German bound service by mistake while changing trains in Basle.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit tells of the horrors of Germany in the early nineteen thirties seen through the eyes of a child. Judith Kerr makes these times no less threatening than in adult books. Her achievement is to tell the tale in such a way that young teenagers could understand just how threatened Jewish people felt in Nazi Germany. Briefly, she introduces tragedy to remind the reader of the dangers of being a Jew in the Third Reich.

The post-script to the book poses and helps to answer some of the questions which younger readers may have about Nazi Germany as well of talking about refugees, bombs and life in Britain during the Second World War. There are pointers to places where the young researcher can learn more.

There are two more books in this series; Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away. I’ve read neither but certainly will.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit reminds us of those dreadful days and helps younger readers, who know little or nothing of that era, understand those events so that they, like us, will never forget.

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