One of the best things about being the parent of a young child was being able to read children’s books. Like countless parents in the last 40-odd years, among the books we read to our daughter when she was small were Judith Kerr’s books – the Mog series and The Tiger Who Came To Tea. When older, Sarah would herself read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and so I had a vague notion that Judith Kerr’s own story was bound up with the horror of Nazi Germany.
When I saw a trailer for this week’s Imagine – in which Alan Yentob accompanied Kerr as she revisited Berlin, the city where she grew up and which she was forced to flee as a nine-year old as the Nazis closed in on her father, an outspoken opponent of the Nazis – I was compelled to watch.
As Judith Kerr’s story unfolded I was struck by the parallels – and the contrasts – between her experience and the events narrated in a novel that I finished reading recently, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
As she visited her childhood home in Berlin, Judith Kerr told Yentob of the day in 1932 when her father received a tip-off from a sympathetic local policeman that her father’s passport was about to be seized. Alfred Kerr, fearing a Nazi victory in the imminent election, took the first train to Prague. In the days that followed friends assured her mother that Alfred had overreacted. But on the eve of the election that brought Hitler to power, she grabbed a few possessions (including Judith’s early drawings of street life in Berlin) and fled with her two young children on a train to Zurich.
Kerr grew up in the diverse, culturally-vibrant and deeply-politicised city of Berlin in the 1920s. Her mother Julia was a composer and her father, Alfred Kerr, a Jewish intellectual and theatre critic who counted Albert Einstein among his friends. He was fiercely critical of Hitler and the Nazis in his newspaper columns and radio talks.
In this early drawing of a Berlin street scene, Judith pictured a woman (dressed in yellow, beneath the U-Banhof sign) reading the Berliner Tageblatt, the newspaper for which her father wrote.
By 1932 Alfred Kerr was number two on a Nazi death list. In the Imagine film, German theatre critic Peter von Becker says:
These Jewish intellectuals like Alfred Kerr, they immediately understood that this was an attack on the whole of humanity, not only on themselves. They were, in a way, followers of the great poet Heinrich Heine who said, ‘When there are books to be burned, human beings will be burned afterwards’, and of course Alfred Kerr’s books were burned in 1933 in the Opernplatz, which Goebbels directed.
For Judith and her brother Michael, a happy childhood was about to end:
My parents were German. We spoke only German and my brother and I went to ordinary German schools. We were also Jews, but my parents were not at all religious, so my brother and I hardly ever thought about it. We lived in a nice house with a garden in a Berlin suburb. We had friends and a dog (though I really wanted a cat) and seaside holidays and very pleasant, normal life.
Warned of the danger he was in, Alfred Kerr left for Prague. His wife, with Michael and Judith, fled the family home soon after, just as Hitler took power in January 1933. Only nine at the time, Judith did not understand how secret their escape was meant to be:
My mother said, ‘When we get to the frontier and the man comes to look at our passports, I want both of you to be absolutely silent. You’re not to say a word’. So when we got to the frontier, a man came and looked at all the passports. As he went out, I was going to say, ‘There you are, nothing’s happened’ and my mother just gave me a terrible look and so I stopped. I think now what I might have done to my family. If we’d tried to leave Germany a day later, if my mother hadn’t shut me up at the frontier, if my father hadn’t been so far-sighted, it would have been too late. I would have been one of the other million Jewish children who died in Nazi concentration camps. I can never forget how lucky I’ve been.
Indeed, one of the most moving moments in this quiet but deeply disturbing film came as Yentob accompanied Judith Kerr as she revisited the railway station in the suburb where she once lived. No ordinary railway station, this: between October 1941 and February 1945 this was the major site for deportation, with over 50,000 Berlin Jews deported to extermination camps from platform 17 of Grunewald station. Today, there is a memorial, installed by the Deutsche Bahn at platform 17 (Gleis 17) from where most of the deportation trains departed.
With the Kerr family reunited in Switzerland, they became refugees with little money and travelled first to Paris. After being refused entry to America, they journeyed to London in 1936, where they lived throughout the Blitz:
We got bombed out, it was a hard time, but it wasn’t easy for anybody. I was hugely struck by the generosity and kindness and tolerance of people during the war. My parents still spoke with a German accent. But there we were in the Blitz, people being killed every night, and nobody ever said anything nasty to them. I couldn’t wait after the war to become British and belong here.
In 1940, with the Germans advancing on Dunkirk, Kerr’s parents feared the worst and prepared for a Nazi invasion. Judith Kerr spoke calmly with Alan Yentob about the nature of those preparations:
My father would have had very special treatment by the Nazis, so a doctor friend of ours gave them suicide pills, and I said, ‘What about me?’ They said, ‘Well, you speak perfect English, you may be able to survive’.
After the war, Judith Kerr was awarded a scholarship to the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1945 and began to make a living teaching and designing textiles and wallpapers. She later married scriptwriter Nigel Kneale (of Quatermass fame) and had two children. However, the war, had a devastating impact on her parents’ lives. Her father was welcomed back to Germany as a hero in 1948, but on the night he arrived, he suffered a stroke. With the help of his wife, he took his own life.
One reason Judith gives Yentob for her move into making illustrated children’s books was her frustration with the books available when her own children were learning to read, such as the Janet and John books that were the early-years staple at the time. One day her son said,’I’m sorry mummy, but I cannot read these books any more. They are too boring.’ So she began to write her own.
Once there was a little girl called Sophie, and she was having tea with her mummy in the kitchen. Suddenly there was a ring at the door. Sophie’s mummy said, ‘I wonder who that could be?
For parents as well as children, the opening lines of The Tiger Who Came to Tea are so familiar. The book, first published in 1968, has entranced several generations since then. It tells the story of a tiger who invites himself to tea and eats and drinks all the food and water in Sophie’s house. In the end he leaves, never to return.
Tiger began as a bedtime story made up for her daughter when she was two, getting on for three, Kerr told Yentob. The Mog series of picture books followed, about a cat of whom it was said: ‘She didn’t like things to be exciting. She liked them to be the same’. Unusually for a popular children’s series, Mog died of old age in a final book – 2002’s Goodbye, Mog – that appeared many years later, when our daughter was reading different books (we assume) at university.
In Alan Yentob’s film, children’s author Michael Rosen suggested that, metaphorically at least, the tiger in Kerr’s children’s book could be interpreted as a vision from her past – an underlying threat, robbing the family of everything they own (drinking all the water, eating all the food) and disrupting the comforting routine of a young child’s daily life. I always felt the tiger was a metaphorically more benign eccentric uncle, but then, at that time, I didn’t now about Kerr’s past:
Judith knows about dangerous people who come to your house and take people away. She was told as a young child that her father could be grabbed at any moment by either the Gestapo or the SS – he was in great danger. So I don’t know whether Judith did it consciously or not – I wouldn’t want to go there – but the point is he’s a jokey tiger, but he is a tiger.
Whatever the sub-text of The Tiger Who Came to Tea might be, the book has never been out of print since it was first published.
When Judith was forced to flee Berlin in 1932 with her brother and her mother, one of the possessions left behind was a pink rabbit which had been Judith’s comforter before it was displaced in her affections by a woolly dog. ‘We were allowed to take one toy each, and I decided on the dog’, she said (however, her mother did pack Judith’s early drawings of her life in Berlin). The pink rabbit – another metaphor, for a lost childhood – inspired When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, first published in 1971. In that book, Kerr took upon herself the challenge of asking young readers to imagine a situation in which your country began to change; that without your noticing, it became dangerous for some people to live there any longer and you found, to your complete surprise, that your own father was one of those people.
‘It’s an odd feeling,’ said Papa. ‘You live in a country all your life. Then suddenly it’s taken over by thugs and there you are, on your own in a strange place, with nothing.’
He looked so cheerful as he said this that Anna asked, ‘Don’t you mind?’
‘In a way,’ said Papa. ‘But I find it very interesting.’
Rebecca Davies in a recent blog post for the Independent wrote of Pink Rabbit:
It is quite simply one of the most heartfelt, life-affirming books you could ever read. The character of Anna – who is really Kerr herself – is so indefatigably bold and optimistic in the face of adversity that you can’t help but wish you were a bit more like her, even if she does let childish selfishness get the better of her at times. The child’s eye view makes the events in the novel seem at once more matter-of-fact and more terrifying than if they were being recounted by an adult. The eventual consequences of Hitler coming to power are so infamous today that Anna’s blissful ignorance of the danger she and her family are in will have readers of all ages shrinking back in their seats. […]
In an afterword to my edition of the book, Judith Kerr reveals how incredibly lucky she feels to have survived the war when so many Jewish children did not. Anna’s near-namesake, Anne Frank, was not so lucky. When you finish this book, you’re left with an overwhelming urge to make the most of every moment life throws at you – good and bad – just as Kerr herself has done.
This is how When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit opens, with Anna, nine years old, walking home from from school with a school friend in Berlin in 1933:
Anna was walking home from school with Elsbeth, a girl in her class. A lot of snow had fallen in Berlin that winter. It did not melt, so the street cleaners had swept it to the edge of the pavement, and there it had lain for weeks in sad, greying heaps. Now, in February, the snow had turned into slush and there were puddles everywhere. Anna and Elsbeth skipped over them in their lace-up boots.
They both wore thick coats and woollen caps which kept their ears warm, and Anna had a muffler as well. She was nine but small for her age and the ends of the muffler hung down almost to her knees. It also covered up her mouth and nose, so the only parts of her that showed were her green eyes and a tuft of dark hair. She had been hurrying because she wanted to buy some crayons at the paper shop and it was nearly time for lunch. But now she was so out of breath that she was glad when Elsbeth stopped to look at a large red poster.
“It’s another picture of that man,” said Elsbeth. “My little sister saw one yesterday and thought it was Charlie Chaplin.”
Anna looked at the staring eyes, the grim expression. She said, “It’s not a bit like Charlie Chaplin except for the moustache.”
They spelled out the name under the photograph. Adolf Hitler.
“He wants everybody to vote for him in the elections and then he’s going to stop the Jews,” said Elsbeth. “Do you think he’s going to stop Rachel Lowenstein?”
“Nobody can stop Rachel Lowenstein,” said Anna. “She’s form captain. Perhaps he’ll stop me. I’m Jewish too.”
“I am! My father was talking to us about it only last week. He said we were Jews and no matter what happened my brother and I must never forget it.”
“But you don’t go to a special church on Saturdays like Rachel Lowenstein.”
“That’s because we’re not religious. We don’t go to church at all.”
“I wish my father wasn’t religious,” said Elsbeth. “We have to go every Sunday and I get cramp in my seat.” She looked at Anna curiously. “I thought Jews were supposed to have bent noses, but your nose is quite ordinary. Has your brother got a bent nose?”
“No,” said Anna. “The only person in our house with a bent nose is Bertha the maid, and hers only got like that because she broke it falling off a tram.”
Elsbeth was getting annoyed. “Well then,” she said, “if you look the same as everyone else and you don’t go to a special church, how do you know you are Jewish? How can you be sure?”
There was a pause. “I suppose…” said Anna, “I suppose it’s because my mother and father are Jews, and I suppose their mothers and fathers were too. I never thought about it much until Papa started talking about it last week.”
“Well, I think it’s silly!” said Elsbeth. “It’s silly about Adolf Hitler and people being Jews and everything!” She started to run and Anna followed her.
In this Guardian video, Judith Kerr discusses her life, the genesis of The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog stories, and her childhood memoir, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit:
On BBC iPlayer there’s a clip (not used in the Imagine film) of Judith Kerr at the Jewish Museum in Berlin where her father is featured in one of the displays.
This was a film that, for all its quietness and Kerr’s understated calm – or perhaps because of that – was deeply disturbing. Perhaps the most shattering moment came towards the end, when this child’s drawing appeared on screen. As Yentob explained, this was not one of Kerr’s Berlin drawings. It was drawn, and then scribbled out, by a child who was held in Theresienstadt concentration camp, and later gassed at Auschwitz.
The way you feel is that we owe it to them to do something with our lives. What they wouldn’t have done with just a little bit of what we have.
– Judith Kerr
Watching Judith Kerr’s story unfold in Alan Yentob’s film, I was struck by the parallels – and the contrasts – between her experience and the events narrated in a novel that I recently finished reading, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Although apparently intended for an adult audience, The Book Thief has come to be targeted at young readers. Like When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, too, Zusak’s story is based on real-life events. Set during the years 1939-1943, it was inspired by two experiences related to him by his German parents – the Allied bombing of Munich, and a teenage boy offering bread to an emaciated Jew being marched through the streets, an act of generosity that ended with both being whipped by a soldier. And as in Pink Rabbit, the book’s central character is a nine year old girl.
However, there are differences between the Kerr family’s story and Zusak’s which is primarily concerned with recounting the everyday life of working class Germans under the Nazi regime. The narrator of The Book Thief is Death, who is kept extremely busy on a daily basis in the period in question. Death tells the story of Liesel, nine years old at the start of the story, who is effectively an orphan. Her father, a communist, has been imprisoned and her mother disappears after delivering her to foster parents.
Liesel’s foster parents, Hans and Rosa Herbermann, are poor Germans. Rosa, who does laundry for rich people in the town, is fearsome but has a big heart. Hans, a decorator and accordion player, teaches Liesel to read and write. He’s an unusual and brave man who hides a Jew named Max because Max’s father saved his own life when they were both German soldiers in the First World War.
Death first encounters Liesel when her brother dies, and watches her steal her first book, appropriately The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left lying in the snow by her brother’s grave. Liesel steals randomly at first, and later more methodically, but she’s never greedy. Death pockets Liesel’s notebook after she leaves it, forgotten in her grief, amongst the destruction that was once her street, her home, and carries it with him.
The great strength of Zusak’s book is his very real portrayal of Liesel, a child learning the power of words (while words can enslave you, they can also set you free) and living a tough life on Himmel (Heaven) street, playing football and scrapping with local kids, and stealing – apples or anything that can assuage the perpetual hunger of poverty, and books. There’s a lively humour and richness in the scenes where ordinary Germans get through difficult times, knuckling under and (mostly, with the exception of the noble Hans) adapting to the demands of the Nazi party.
However, Zusak’s poignant story is constantly interrupted by chatty interventions from our narrator, Death. These are emboldened and centred on the page, and sometimes have the appearance of Powerpoint slides, such as:
SOME CRUNCHED NUMBERS
Since 1933, ninety percent of Germans showed
unflinching support for Adolf Hitler.
That leaves ten per cent who didn’t.
Hans Hubermann belonged to the ten per cent.
There was a reason for that.
At other points in the story, Death breaks off from the narrative to ruminate, as here:
So many humans. So many colours. They keep triggering inside me. They harass my memory. I see them tall in their heaps, all mounted on top of each other. There is air like plastic, a horizon like setting glue. There are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and there are soft, coal-coloured clouds, beating, like black hearts. And then. There is death. Making his way through all of it. On the surface: unflappable, unwavering. Below: unnerved, untied, and undone.
I don’t want to knock the book too hard: resonant and beautiful, it is an impressive achievement for a writer to evoke pity for ordinary Germans who stand at the kerb and silently watch as Jews are herded down their street destined for the death camps. The intensity of war as experienced by Germans undergoing the nightly Allied bombing raids is powerfully portrayed. But Zusak relies too much on unnecessary devices for this to rate as a great novel.
Don’t be put off by the first few pages – once you are past their archness, The Book Thief has real pace and tension. It speaks powerfully of the redeeming power of books and the value of independent thought, and underlines how blurred can be the boundary between good and evil in people.