“Nowadays, my escape from Germany and everything that followed seems far away. I’ve lived in London more than seventy years. I have been happily married and our children are a joy. It has been a wonderfully happy life. But it almost didn’t happen…I can never forget how lucky I’ve been.”
Judith Kerr ( Note from the author 2008 When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit)
When Judith Kerr, the award winning children’s author and illustrator, died in May at the age of 95 there was an outpouring of love, respect and, despite her great age, a sense of shock. There were many articles written about the long lasting effect her picture books such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Mog the Forgetful Cat had on children. These picture books are classics, their images and storylines have become part of the fabric of many families’ everyday life and traditions. Like all the very best children’s books Judith Kerr’s gentle stories work partly because they encourage us to savour those small, everyday joys.
My first book in the 20 Books of Summer challenge is When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. This is a semi autobiographical novel relating the story of Judith Kerr’s family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1933 and their life as refugees in Switzerland, France and finally in England. The first of a trilogy it is regarded as a classic and has been popular in school classrooms since its publication in 1971. Anna, the nine year old narrator of the story is a child of intelligence but also of practical and resolute optimism. She notices the good things each day and treats life as an adventure. Although this was largely due to the manner in which her brave parents protected Anna/Judith and her brother from the mounting horrors of pre-WW2 Europe, the author’s positive attitude to life is undoubtedly a trait which helped carry her through these difficult times. This positivity shines through her children’s books and is, quite probably, one of the reasons why we love them so much.
At the beginning of this novel Anna is too busy with schoolwork and tobogganing to pay much attention to the talk of Hitler. Her friend says that when her little sister saw his face on a poster she mistook him for Charlie Chaplin. This innocence is in sharp contrast to the reality for Anna’s Jewish parents. Unknown to Anna and her older brother, their father, a published writer of anti Hitler articles, is wanted by the Nazis. In the middle of the night he flees to Switzerland to avoid capture and this is when Anna’s world changes. They must leave Germany quickly and Anna may choose only the very few things that will fit in her bag. After deliberation she selects a new woolly toy dog rather than her old but much loved pink rabbit, a decision she later regrets. She, her brother and her mother rush to join Anna’s father in secrecy, leaving their home, their friends and everything the children have ever known.
“He put his arms around Mama and hugged her. Then he hugged Anna and Max. He hugged and hugged them all and would not let them go.
‘I couldn’t see you,’ said Papa. ‘ I was afraid…’
‘I know,’ said Mama.”
Judith Kerr tells the story of the family’s escape as an adventure with moments of humour. However there are difficult incidents too and once or twice the reality of the brutality and horror of the situation strays into the protective bubble Anna and Max’s parents have created for their children. For the children their lives as refugees revolve around adapting to their new surroundings, learning a new language and making new friends. Anna’s matter of fact attitude to her changed circumstances makes the moments when the exposure of the cruelty that has triggered their situation all the more shocking. The burning of books by the Nazis, including those written by Anna’s father and the prejudice shown by the German family holidaying in Switzerland who will not allow their children to play with Anna and Max because they are Jewish give young readers an idea of some of the attitudes at the time. The most shocking moment occurs when Anna overhears a conversation between her mother and grandmother about the fate of a well known professor who was imprisoned in a concentration camp. Anna feels sick as she listens and the reader feels a similiar sense of revulsion. As an adult reader with a knowledge and understanding of historical events this is difficult to read and yet Judith Kerr has carefully presented her experiences in an accessible manner for young readers that makes it easier for them to cope with.
It is the fact that the family are united throughout all of this that enables Anna to cope. Their previous comfortable lifestyle may be long gone but she draws great comfort from the sound of her father typing in the next room and family meals in their cramped flat in Paris. Again and again we are reminded of what matters. A sense of belonging, no matter where they live, and the support of a loving family make things bearable for Anna. In fact there are times when she thinks her new life is exciting and an improvement on her old one. As an adult reader we realise that this is largely due to her parents keeping the worst of the situation from their children but for children the underlying message of hope, determination and resilience is an encouraging one.
“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.”
Judith Kerr was a shining example of someone who made the most of her opportunities and was lucky to be able to seek refuge and make a home in a country that welcomed her. This important novel will continue to convey a message of kindness and hope to future generations of children.
This lovely and fascinating interview with Judith Kerr from The Financial Times in 2017 is well worth a read.
Following a recommendation by children’s author, Emma Barnes I intend buying a copy of Judith Kerr’ s Creatures – A Celebration of the Life and Work of Judith Kerr