Tag Archives: Ian Seraillier

Book Review Saturday – ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’

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.

Judith Kerr Image: theguardian.com

Judith Kerr
Image: theguardian.com

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.

The 2013 Commemorative Edition of the book. Image: bookmavenmary.blogspot.com

The 2013 Commemorative Edition of the book.
Image: bookmavenmary.blogspot.com

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.

Recommended Books (Vol. 1)

The other day on Twitter, a very kind lady named Steph asked me if I’d ever blogged a list of books I’d recommend. I thought about it, and realised that I hadn’t, really, ever written a post like that. I do random book reviews, and I’ve talked a bit about why I buy certain books and not others (which, no doubt, you’re aware of if you’ve been hanging out here for a while), but I’ve never put together an actual list of books I would recommend to others.

It’s been on my mind for a few days now, and I think I’ll give it a go.

It’s a bit scary, though, in some ways. It’s sort of like opening the door to your mind and showing people around, hoping they won’t turn their nose up at your choice of curtains or finger your upholstery in a derisory way, going ‘Really? This fabric? Couldn’t she afford anything better?’

'Well, I never! How *could* she choose that colour for the walls? Has she *no* decorum? You wouldn't see that at one of my candlelight suppers!' Image: politicsworldwide.com

‘Well, I never! How *could* she choose that colour for the walls? Has she *no* decorum? You wouldn’t see that at one of my candlelight suppers!’
Image: politicsworldwide.com

Anyway.

So, the list of books below are some of those which I found world-enhancing, life-changing, utterly wonderful in every way, and which I’d recommend everyone reads as soon as possible. Here goes. Be gentle.

The Silver SwordIan Seraillier. I first read this book in first class at primary school (so, I was about seven or eight); we were going through a World War II phase, wherein we read this book, ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank, and another book I adore called I Am David by Anne Holm.  Everyone in the world has heard of Anne Frank, but not everyone has heard of the others. So, that’s why these ones are recommended.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine l’Engle. I brought this book on a family holiday when I was about ten, and I lost it. I almost lost my reason, too. The strop was almighty and unmerciful, and nobody escaped my wrath. I actually found it again years later, after I’d already bought myself two replacement copies, but I didn’t apologise to my family for the temper tantrum. So it goes.

Speaking of l’Engle, though – as much as I adore A Wrinkle in Time, I’m not completely sold on the other books in the series of which this book is the first volume. As they go on, they get a bit less interesting and a bit more ‘preachy’. But Wrinkle is definitely worth reading.

I’ve already wittered on about The Little Prince and Elidor before, so I won’t do it again.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, and The Owl Service, all by Alan Garner, are so amazing that I don’t have a word to describe them. Just read them, as soon as possible, and then read everything Alan Garner has ever written, including Boneland, Strandloper, Thursbitch, The Stone Book Quartet, The Voice that Thundersand anything else I may have forgotten.

I need to go and have a lie-down now, after thinking about Alan Garner’s books. They’re that good.

Right. Next, move on to Susan Cooper, and her magnificent The Dark is Rising sequence of books; once you’ve read them, try Victory for size, a story which links the modern day to the Battle of Trafalgar, and which is one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read. I read the last fifty pages of it through a veil of tears. Just a fair warning.

Then, there’s Jenny Nimmo, and her Snow-Spider Trilogy, which is fabulous.

There’s also John Connolly, who has written for children (beautifully), but who also has the marvellous Charlie Parker detective novels, all of which are worth reading; my favourite is Bad Men.

I’ve spoken before on this blog about Jeanette Winterson. To be honest, I’d find it impossible to recommend one of her books above any of the others, but if I had to, it’d be Sexing the Cherry. Or The Passion. Or The Power Book. Or Written on the Body. Gah! I can’t choose. Read them all, and you decide.

Margaret Atwood. What can I say about her? Read The Edible Woman, and follow it up with Surfacing, and then let me know if your mind is blown. Because mine was when I first read these books. I was the same age as Atwood had been when she’d written them, and I went into a funk of ‘what on earth am I doing with my life?’ that lasted about four years.

It’s pretty unfashionable not to read and love Neil Gaiman these days; I’m no exception to the rule. Pick anything he’s written and give it a go, and I’m pretty sure you’ll love it. I recommend all his novels (perhaps not Anansi Boys as much as the others, for some reason), but my absolute favourite Gaiman is Sandman, his graphic novel. Genius.

I love Garth Nix. I read The Abhorsen Trilogy several years ago, and was astounded. Those books inspired me to write more than (I think) any other young adult/children’s book I’ve ever read. Give them a whirl, if you haven’t already.

When it comes to Ursula le Guin, everyone recommends The Earthsea Quartet. Of course, I do, too. But there’s so much more to her than that. The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and The Word for World is Forest are also amazing.

I’ve just finished reading A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly, either. I took a chance on it, as I’d never read anything by the author before, and I was richly rewarded for it. A beautiful, completely unique book, it’s great and should be widely read.

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando changed my life when I first read it. It showed me what a novel can do, by breaking every single narrative rule in the universe and then making a brilliant story out of the shards. Incredible.

Also, Sylvia Plath’s Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, which isn’t a novel (it’s a collection of stories). This book left a lasting impression on me. Everyone has read The Bell Jar (also wonderful), but not as many people have read Plath’s stories. So, do it.

I reckon that’s enough for one day. I have a feeling I’ll revisit this topic, because I’ve really enjoyed taking a stroll through my bookish memories.

Have you read any/all of the books I mention here? What did you think? Would you agree that they’re worth recommending to others, or am I off my trolley?