By Beth Loveless, History Student
The recent death of Judith Kerr, writer and illustrator of many well-beloved books including The Tiger Who Came to Tea, has shone renewed light on her work and the conversations it starts about family, conflict and identity. Kerr was born in Berlin to a Jewish newspaper columnist father who criticised the increasingly prevalent Nazi party. His open opposition meant that the family had to flee Germany in 1933 for fear of persecution after the German elections. From her childhood experience, Kerr produced the Out of the Hitler Time trilogy.
The first novel in the series, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, was published in 1971 and remains continually and, regretfully, relevant to the world we live in now. Kerr tells the semi-autobiographical story of Anna and her family who leave their comfortable life in Berlin, where Jews are beginning to be targeted, to start a new life in Zurich. They become refugees, moving from Switzerland to France before settling in England some years later. Anna’s father struggles to find work once Hitler is elected as the press in Switzerland is concerned about maintaining their neutrality. Anna’s mother learns domestic tasks that she previously employed a housekeeper for. At one point, Anna humorously notes to her brother that their housekeeper’s ‘easiest’ recipe took their mother hours to cook. The children themselves similarly face culture shocks.
Whilst this novel is set in the context of pre-war Europe, the focus is not on bloody battles and fraught politics, but instead on each member of the family fighting to maintain ‘normal’ family life. This is a story about refugees being forced to adapt in every manner possible. Whether that be in Switzerland with no furniture of their own, adapting to yodelling teachers, or in Paris in a cramped apartment with no knowledge of the language. The importance of family is clear when Anna wakes from a dangerous fever to see her father reading a letter, assuredly containing bad news, but upon seeing her awake he firmly states nothing else matters but her health. Despite losing all of her belongings and becoming poor, Anna realises that past pleasures, such as extravagant birthday gifts, cannot compare to being a united family, together in one place… even if that place is a tiny Parisian apartment complete with a very irritable au pair.
Sometimes it is hard to read a story one knows is stooped in horrific truth, but Kerr succeeds in creating something readable and enjoyable. This is in part due to the fact that it is admittedly much easier- emotionally – to engage with the past and its dark times through the eyes and ears of a child. Kerr endeavours to give an account of a dark time and inject every page with light hearted childish sentiment. Instances of culture shock and misunderstandings reduced me to giggles. Anna is confounded at the idea of boys at her Swiss school throwing gravel at her because they all ‘love her’. In Paris, Anna and her brother make numerous attempts to buy pencils at a French shop armed with a dictionary and a fierce desire to get the best possible price, leaving the reader to laugh at the weary shopkeeper.
Equally it is this childish point of view that gives the reader pause for thought. One summer in Switzerland they meet other German children to play with, but their parents are Nazis and forbid them any contact with Anna’s family. The children become cold towards them after the intervention. Poignantly, Anna muses over what they will become when they’re older. This interaction gives insight into the experience of a child struggling to live through the time of Hitler as both a German and Jewish girl.
In mass media today, there is a static silence where the experience of refugees should be loudly discussed and heard. Too often it seems that many forget refugees are human too, not just statistics. We can become desensitised to their struggles. We may not be facing a world war, but there is still widespread persecution across the globe. The story of Anna remains current; she is representative of the millions of child refugees fleeing persecution in Syria, Iraq and other countries.
“The most life-enhancing book you could ever wish to read”Michael Morpurgo
Truth be told, despite this book not being intended as a moral tale for the reader, I finished the last page with a renewed sense of gratitude and determination. I am in good company too; Michael Morpurgo summarised When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit as “the most life-enhancing book you could ever wish to read”. I am not saying you should read this story to put a smile on your face- it is still lit with a backdrop of loss and uncertainty- but perhaps read it to gain a new perspective on both the past and present. There are too many children, like Anna, suffering due to circumstances out of their control, in the present world. Sometimes it is easy to forget that. I thank authors such as Kerr for continuing to spread awareness, even beyond the grave.