I’ve been aware of the writer and illustrator Judith Kerr for many years, knowing her only as the creator of the wonderful classics ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ and the ‘Mog’ series. Recently I watched a TV documentary about her life and career and realised that there was far more to this author than met the eye.
In this – her 90th year – one of the ways in which Ms Kerr’s life’s achievement is being celebrated is by republishing some of her books for older readers in special commemorative editions. One of these books is ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,’ the first in a collection of stories about her youth which has become known as ‘Out of the Hitler Time.’ The other books in this series are ‘The Other Way Round’ and ‘A Small Person Far Away,’ which I hope to get to as soon as possible.
I had no idea until a few weeks ago that Judith Kerr was German by birth; she had always seemed quintessentially English, to me. I never realised that she is the daughter of a prominent German-Jewish intellectual who had feared for his safety, and that of his family, because of his avowed anti-Nazi stance, and I never realised that, in 1933 – on the eve of the election which would bring Hitler to power – she and her family fled Germany for the relative safety of Switzerland, leaving all they had ever known behind. Judith Kerr went on to emigrate to England, where she has had a lengthy and successful career, first at the BBC and then as an author and illustrator, but it is in this book that we learn of how things were for her before she found the security of a safe and settled life. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is the story of a girl named Anna and her brother Max, who – along with their writer father and loving mother – are forced to leave Germany in 1933 because they are Jewish.
It is Judith Kerr’s own story, to a large extent. How she manages to tell it in such a matter-of-fact, clear-eyed way, then, is beyond me.
Judith Kerr described in the documentary how her own son, as a child, watched the film ‘The Sound of Music’ and felt satisfied that he now knew exactly how things had been for his mother as a girl. The highly unrealistic, melodramatic escape from the Nazis as portrayed in the film pleased the young boy, but it did not please his mother. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is her attempt to show her son how it felt to be German and Jewish in the 1930s, and how it really was to see your father bent double with worry and stress, and your mother working hard to keep the family together, and you – as a girl of nine, turning ten – struggling to understand why all this was happening.
For a reader like me, who cut her teeth on ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ and ‘The Silver Sword,’ this book is not what I expected. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is primarily a book about a family, and its efforts to stay safe and united in the face of great evil. We are introduced to Anna as she walks home from school one snowy day with her friend Elsbeth, and we meet her family – her genial, intelligent and gentle father, her ladylike and refined mother, her boisterous and fun-loving brother – until, one day, Anna wakes to find that her father has disappeared. He has fled to Zürich, where he wishes to prepare a new life for his family, and within a few weeks the others must follow him. They must also make haste, because all over Germany Jews are beginning to feel the iron hand of oppression – people are having their passports confiscated, and encroachments into their personal freedom are just beginning. Their family friend, ‘Onkel’ Julius, tells Anna’s father that he is being ridiculous – ‘this will all blow over,’ he feels. Anna’s father is over-reacting, he is sure.
Nevertheless, the family leaves with as much speed as they can muster without drawing undue attention to themselves. Within a fortnight, Anna’s mother has arranged their departure, and the removal of all their belongings, and they are making ready to flee. Anna’s father is quite famous, as a writer and journalist, and her life in Berlin is comfortable. The disappearance of such a high-profile figure as her father is hard to conceal, but they manage it, explaining his absence by saying that he is ill with ‘flu; then, finally, they take a fraught, tense train journey toward the Swiss border. Anna and her brother are delighted with the cat belonging to the lady who shares their carriage, and are happy to amuse themselves by looking out the windows at the new world zooming by – but Anna’s mother’s white-knuckled grip on her handbag, and her pinched face, tell the reader all they need to know about how much fear she was in. The story follows the family as they move from hotel to boarding house, to cheap rented flat, as their money begins to dwindle. They lose their household staff, and Anna’s mother must learn how to do tasks she has never before needed to perform in order to keep the children clothed and fed. Anna’s father cannot find well-paying work – nobody is willing to employ a writer with his profile, or at least not for the money he could earn in Berlin. They leave Switzerland for Paris, and then finally they go to London.
This is not a book about the war, as such. There are no moments of violence here, and no descriptions of atrocity. This makes the poignant scenes – the loss of childhood innocence, the leaving behind of beloved toys, the separation from friends and family, the death of a beloved person – all the more powerful. This is a story being told by a ten-year-old girl, trying to explain to us how it felt to live in these troubled times, and how little sense it all made. A powerful scene early in the book shows Max and Anna happily playing with two German children – that is, until the mother of their new playmates comes outside and catches them. “‘Siegfried!’ she called shrilly. ‘Gudrun! I told you you were not to play with these children!'” (p. 70); the German mother then removes her children from Anna and Max’s company and refuses to let them play together any more. To the children, this seems ridiculous, unfair and stupid – and to the reader, seeing nothing more than the names given to the young Germans (both of them taken from Germanic mythology and folklore), it is clear what sort of people these Germans are. However, we share one thing with our childish narrator – the separation of these children, two of them Jewish and two Aryan, but all German – is ridiculous, unfair and stupid. It is a brilliant point, cleverly and gently made.
‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is a slow, seemingly slight, and simply-written book. It is not a war diary, and it is not a book filled with explosions and battles. It is the tale of one family remaining steady in choppy waters, and a powerfully moving testament to the ways in which war rips apart the fabric of normal life, severing families and separating loved ones. It is a piece of lace covering a dark black hole.
It is deservedly a classic.