The Extraordinary Life of Judith Kerr

Image: Christoph Rieger

Judith Kerr’s childhood memoir, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, meant a lot to me as a kid; I want to revisit her family’s story as an adult and take a look at what it means now, in a world in which more people are becoming stateless than ever before.

In Spring 1933, Alfred Kerr’s name was on a list. A Berlin theatre critic, essayist and intellectual with Jewish roots, Kerr was also a vocal opponent of the rising Nazi party. The day after Hitler seized power, they came for Kerr’s passport. Thanks only to a fortunate tip-off, he had already escaped to Switzerland.

It was Alfred’s daughter, Judith, who grew up to share the family’s story with thousands of British children. Nine years old at the time, she, her brother and mother all followed Alfred Kerr into exile. That German girl became one of the most popular children’s authors of the twentieth century with her bold and ingenious picture books, but When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit struck a particular chord.

By portraying exile through a child’s eyes, Kerr gives a charming and deeply moving impression of starting over in a new country. She shares the perspective of a small person (given the pseudonym Anna) who has to abandon a life that had barely begun in exchange for a new home and nationality. First, the once wealthy family experience Parisian poverty and Anna’s main concern is speaking enough French to fit in at school, before eventually moving to Britain. Importantly, kids also find the book very funny.

Kerr revisited these years in exile from the position of an established British author with an adoring readership and a firm place in creative, middle-class circles. She portrays the humanity of normal people caught up in large and terrible events with heart and humour.

Moving countries and learning a foreign language is made exciting for child readers; this undoubtedly speaks to Kerr’s honest memories of being a refugee, as well as the fortitude and love of her parents, who were able to protect their children and shield them from events in a way that kept them safe, physically and emotionally. The child reader, and indeed Kerr herself, misses most of the strain borne by her parents.

Judith Kerr and her brother both became successful in their fields and experienced life here to its fullest. They arrived as children and, based on their outward appearances, were allowed to assimilate into society. Alfred Kerr, who saved the lives of his family, had to abandon his profession. I do not think we should underestimate the losses which are occurring every day, in which normal people have to sacrifice normality to save the futures of their children.

There is everything to be gained personally from an interest in other cultures, a passion for languages and just emigrating out of love or adventure. Above that, we must be open to those who are forced into these upheavals, and to not just acknowledge victims, but also the people who manage to escape the tragedies which are yet to come.

Two “Stolpersteine” (stumbling block) memorials outside an apartment building in Berlin.
There are thousands of Stolpersteine in Germany, each representing a victim and their home.

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