Remembering Judith Kerr, Author of 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit'
The best-selling children’s book author about a Jewish girl fleeing Nazi Germany has died aged 95 in Britain.
Judith Kerr was nine years old when her father, a renowned literary and theater critic, made the decision to flee Germany in 1933. A formidable and influential voice in Berlin, Alfred Kerr had taken to publicly criticizing Hitler and knew his card was marked.
"He always had a very strong sense of Jewish ethics,” Judith Kerr once said of her father. "He would always speak out." Despite the very real risk to his life, he continued to criticize Hitler until his microphone was confiscated. "When I would go into his room, there were newspapers piled so high that I had to wade through," she said. "He used to broadcast a lot on the radio, before they stopped him. Quite often, he was very funny, even when he was warning against Hitler.” When the Nazis placed a price on Kerr’s head, he joked that he felt insulted because the amount was too low.
Kerr’s books educated millions of children about the Holocaust.
A few weeks after he finally left Germany, Alfred Kerr’s books were thrown into the flames outside the Berlin Opera Hall in the infamous book burnings of May 1933, amid the cheers and howls of frenzied supporters of the Nazi Party.
A new life in Britain
Moving first to Switzerland, then to France and then, after a lengthy process to acquire a visa, on to London, Judith was 15 at the outbreak of World War II. She was witness to additional horrors of war as she volunteered for the Red Cross helping to treat wounded soldiers.
The Kerr Family in Germany
Although her father had been unable to kick start his career in Britain in a language which he was not proficient, Judith dreamed of following in his footsteps into the world of literature.
Her childhood memories provided the inspiration for a bestselling trilogy, beginning with When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit in 1971, followed by Bombs on Aunt Dainty, and A Small Person Far Away, collectively telling the story of a Jewish girl growing up in Nazi Germany, forced to leave as a refugee to Britain growing up during World War II.
The following exchange between Anna, a young Jewish girl and her father spotlight a family of refugees stuck between worlds.
"We’ll come back" said Papa.
"I know," said Anna…"But it won't be the same – we won't belong. Do you think we'll ever really belong anywhere?"
"I suppose not," said Papa. "Not the way people belong who have lived in one place all their lives. But we'll belong a little in lots of places, and I think that may be just as good."
In 1993, the book won the prestigious Youth Book Prize in Germany, leading to a school being named after its author in her native Berlin. In 2012, aged 88, Kerr was given an award by the Queen for her services to children's literature and Holocaust education.
Best Selling Children's stories
Not all of Judith Kerr's books had an overt Holocaust theme; but her experiences fleeing Germany, seeing her father lose his status and her mother suffer from depression for many years, provided underlying themes in many of the books. The Tiger Who Came to Tea, published in 1968, is about a domesticated Tiger who arrives at a suburban home and eats every last crumb. It has long been seen as a requiem to her own childhood home amid the rise of Hitler.
Mog, about an often depressed family cat which she began both writing and illustrating in 1971, ran for decades eventually spanning 17 best-selling books. The last in the series, in which the cat dies, has been translated into several languages and is used internationally to help children cope with grief.
Mourning Kerr as a “national treasure,” one British newspaper wrote this week, "Her genius was in knowing just how far to let darkness in."
Life is precious
As she aged into her 90s, Kerr increasingly spoke of the great value of life she learned from her father. One of her last books, Mr. Cleghorn's Seal, published when she was 92, was inspired by an episode in which her father rescued and then adopted a baby seal. “He had such a love of life,” she said in 2015. "He saw such value in everything he saw.” In a separate incident, her father once noticed a mass of washed up jellyfish stranded on the sand. “He spent the whole morning throwing them back into the waves.”