When Judith Kerr sadly passed in May, we lost a great icon of children’s literature, a writer that has inspired and delighted children for generations with The Tiger who Came for Tea, Mog (who even inspired a Christmas advert a few years ago) and more. However it perhaps was Judith’s own story that was remarkable as her writing, though she herself stated she didn’t feel it, she was just remarkably lucky.
For those unfamiliar with the work Judith Kerr and her family fled Nazi Germany during the elections in 1933 when she was just 9 years old. In 1968 she published the first book When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit a fictionalised memoir of the time from just before and the first few years after leaving Germany as a refugee first in Switzerland then Paris, France and ends just as her family have just made the final move to England in 1935 when she was 12.
When Judith Kerr began gathering her memories of her later childhood as a political and religious refugee from Nazi Germany she was worried that no one would want to read it.
Over 50 years later it is irrevocably a classic of children’s literature and it’s experience, themes and meaning are just as pertinent today, if not more so with the storm clouds of right-wing fascism thundering again, and the fleeing of ordinary people across the globe from danger and persecution to find a harsh reaction from the media and increasingly Orwellian systematic responses.
I’ve read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit within 3 different stages of my life. As a child, as a teenager studying World War II and now thanks to the prompting of@AnnalieseAvery and@authorontheedge aka Lorraine Gregory #PinkRabbitReadalong to commemorate Judith Kerr’s contributions to literature.
As a child I think I was very much like Anna, it seemed an adventure as the fear factor of what they were doing rolled over me and even as a more informed teenager it was more of a ‘research exercise’ into sources encouraged by teachers.
As an adult reading though it was terrifying, horrifying and heartrending and I strongly associated with Anna’s mother the fear, gripping the handbag so tightly the camel is distorted- but I also want to weep for young Anna as her world falls apart and she doesn’t really understand why, only that it must.
Fear & Innocence
Kerr plays along this parallel throughout the novel. Kerr notes in the back of my edition that Anna’s Story is basically hers and that Anna’s naivety at the preexisting Nazi danger and the impending threat of the elections is based on her own.
The parents shielded Anna from the troubles caused by the rise of fascism and Nazi popularity, even their principles and aims- this is shown in the beautifully innocent statement of ‘Nobody can stop Rachel Lowenstein… She’s form captain.’ in response to a comment about ‘stop the Jews’.
He turned and saw them. And then Papa who was always so dignified, who never did anything in a hurry suddenly ran towards them… 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.
The dichotomy of innocence and fear is played out most exquisitely on the train journey to the Swiss border. Anna’s mother has been having such kittens throughout the journey about whether they are at the border yet the lady with the mogger seems quite jolly to tell her they are finally in Switzerland before being asked!
This compare with the way Anna chastises her mother almost catatonic with fear gripping her camel handbag and then she almost gives them away to Passport control after being warned it could go terribly wrong. The horror of those moments are excruciating as a reader with awareness.
Anna and indeed Judith’s parents did all they could to protect her childhood in Germany, Switzerland and in Paris, even if Anna laments how it has changed and whether it is a tumultuous one, she has a childhood innocence throughout which is testament to her parents efforts.
Concepts of home
Throughout the novel Anna has wistful moments that bite at her reminding her of her life and home in Germany.
Juxtaposed against the sometimes wonderful and sometimes baffling differences between the landscape, culture and behaviours in Switzerland and France is a sense of loss and longing, not necessarily for Germany or the German culture but for the permanence.
It isn’t festivals and school friends that flicker in her heart, it is in the mundane that the longing lingers- remembering the sweep of the staircase, the pear tree visible from the garden- the sense of belonging somewhere.
The coffee was good too. There was a red oilcloth on the table which made the cups and plates look very pretty and the room was warm in spite of the blustery November outside.
In Paris Anna finally gets an anchor after months staying in the hospitality of an inn. The tiny flat and the table with the red oil cloth represents safety, sanctuary, security after the turmoil, especially the fear of almost boarding the wrong train that Anna then knew would certainly have been a death warrant for her father as details of the horror of the internment/concentration camps for political prisoners was coming to light- sometimes unbearably so despite her mother’s best efforts.
The daily rhythm and events taking place around this anchor of the red oil cloth table show how Anna is beginning to build a sense of home and community in a place that felt so strange and impossible but eventually has a feel of belonging.
Pride and Humility
Kerr wondered if she is entitled to ever express any feelings about the turbulence of her later childhood considering that without the extraordinary forethought of her father and the kindness of an unknown policeman they most likely would have perished in the concentration or death camps or Nazi Germany.
This humility often resurfaces as Anna questions if her childhood is difficult enough to write a book and be famous and decides its not.
‘There are Jews scattered all over the world,’ he said ‘and the Nazis are telling terrible lies about them. So it’s very important for people like us to prove them wrong… the Nazis say Jewish people are dishonest. So it’s not enough for us to be as honest as anyone else. We have to be more honest. ‘
This humility runs parallel with a deep pride from her father to prove the Nazi propaganda wrong about Jewish people and particularly a fierce pride to not ask for help nor accept charity, even if its desperately needed, or genuinely offered.
Kerr seeds the path for chapters with money troubles leading to Anna outgrowing her coat before visiting her great Aunt in Paris who gives them the fabric to make new clothes creating a wobble between her parents- her father’s panicked ire for Anna being considered a ‘needy’ child after coming from so much and feeling responsible for their circumstances against her mother’s painful frustration about her ineptitudes from a privileged life and the paralysed embarrassment about asking for help from Madame Fernaud who is indeed a godsend to the family to help them make the adjustments to working class life let alone in Paris.
I’ve never seen such a change in anyone,’ she said ‘A few days ago you looked green and miserable. Now it’s as though you’d grown five centimetres and you look quite pink. What’s happened to you?’
‘I think I’ve learned to speak a French,’ said Anna.
Yet there is positives to pride, from Max looking like a proper French boy to the small victories leading to the triumph of thinking in French, not painfully double translation, the joy and pride in Anna’s voice as she tells of winning an essay and taking French school exams after such a short time in the country and language.
The humiliation at their fall from plenty is palpable and hard to read at times, but the parents still try to make things as special as possible for the children, from a sunset talk, to a café treat that forces a change in dinner.
The humility in the experiences both good and bad is just heartbreakingly beautiful, that Anna can still come out of this all with joy, with ambition and a feeling of permanence in that love.
I don’t often speak so openly politically but I wrote much of this post in tears. I drafted this the day after photos emerged of a father and his infant daughter found drowned on the banks of the Rio Grande trying to escape to America in search of a better life, that is if one could avoid the migrant detentions.
The message that sings throughout Judith Kerr’s Out Of Hitler Time Trilogy is that no one expects to be a refugee; Kerr’s parents were wealthy, educated, well respected and they had a happy fulfilling life in Germany until the Nazis rose in popularity.
No one can control the situation of their birth, nationality or heritage and no matter the religion, the economic standing, political belief or class ANYONE’S life and country can spiral into chaos. How Anna and her family were treated as refugees gives us a strong insight into how people adapt and begin to belong.
Kerr’s story tells us that whilst not everyone will, it is a truth that anyone can end up a refugee, quite literally ‘there but for grace go I’.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr and the sequels Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away are available separately or as a The Out Of Hitler Time Trilogy.