I was so sorry to hear about the recent death of Judith Kerr, author, artist and refugee. She was born in Berlin in 1923 and died in London in May of this year, having fled Berlin with her parents in 1933 when her father, a prominent Jewish writer and critic of the Nazis, received a tip-off that he was likely to be arrested imminently.
She’s probably most famous for The Tiger Who Came to Tea, much analysed picture book (with wonderful illustrations) about a tiger who arrives to take tea with Sophie and her mother but whose appetites are insatiable. He not only drinks all the water in the taps, but also drinks up all daddy’s beer – an act that the child me found highly transgressive. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve never quite agreed with the suggestion by Michael Rosen (and others) that the tiger reflects the danger of Judith’s early life when the threat of the Gestapo knocking at the door was very real (although I love Michael Rosen’s clarification that whatever meaning is put on the tiger, “the tiger retains its tigerishness”.)
I’ve always preferred a feminist reading of the book – for me, the tiger speaks to the desire that Sophie’s mother might have to live life as more than a housewife, to escape the domestic. Or perhaps Sophie’s own desire to live a life more exciting than her mother’s domestic life? The tiger seems an exciting, fun, presence – with a very sexy tail – and once he has eaten all the food in the house (and drunk all the beer), Sophie’s father returns to the home and is obliged to take Sophie and her mother to a café for dinner. He does it with great good grace, and their trip out is described in one of the loveliest sentences in children’s literature, evoking all the excitement of being taken out for an unexpected treat: “So they went out in the dark, and all the street lamps were lit, and all the cars had their lights on, and they walked down the road to a café.” Note the presence of a rather tigerish cat watching them as they do.
Judith Kerr clearly had an attachment to cats, as she also wrote and illustrated seventeen books about Mog the forgetful cat, which are also wonderful, but my favourite of her work is the trilogy of novels based on her own childhood experiences of being a refugee.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is the first book, describing Anna’s comfortable, bourgeois childhood in Weimar Germany and the earliest days of the Nazi régime, and then her family’s flight first to Switzerland, then to Paris, then finally ending up in London just before the war.
I had a very deep attachment to When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit as a child. Although I grew up in London, due to my father’s job we periodically spent periods abroad, in France and Germany. So Anna’s experiences as a refugee reflected my own as a temporary migrant: while there was no danger for me, the uncertainty of the refugee experience in the books was like the chaotic experience of moving abroad with my parents. Incorrigibly spontaneous, my mother would simply pack us into the car and drive off, and we would arrive in a strange town with no settled accommodation and sometimes with my father’s employment status still uncertain. For Anna and her family there is the danger of being refugees, but as the books are written from the viewpoint of the child, the danger is always nebulous and undefined, and the closeness of her family is always reassuring:
“It’s just that I think we should stay together,” [Anna] said. “I don’t really mind where or how. I don’t mind things being difficult, like not having any money, and I didn’t mind about the silly concierge this morning—just as long as we’re all four together.”
Anna’s experiences in France were very close to my own, in particular the loneliness and misery of being deprived of speech in a foreign country. When Anna suddenly realises that she can speak French—not just better than before, but with a sudden instinctive fluency—I remembered the exact day that happened to me. Her bewilderment at the formality of French education, where children sit in silence in rows, was mine aged nine. Early 80s inner London LEAs were probably as inspired by Steiner and learn-through-play educational methods as Weimar schools were; sitting in rows, learning by rote and strict marks out of twenty were a strange, archaic novelty to me, which, thanks to a childhood fondness for old-fashioned boarding school stories, I rather enjoyed.
Irmgard Keun’s novel Child of All Nations also describes the refugee experience from the point of view of the child, but Keun’s novel also describes the realities of life with Joseph Roth, on whom the character of Kully’s father is probably based: a feckless, thoughtless gambler, liar and alcoholic, but an utterly endearing man whose generosity even when completely broke is unlimited. Keun’s novel goes beyond what Kerr can do in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, where the child’s experience limits our view of the world; in Child of All Nations, the perils and precarities of life with such a father – never sure where the money for the hotel bill will come from, constantly waiting for a cheque from the publishers and hoping that the father won’t drink it or waste it before the bills are paid – are apparent through the filter of the child’s point of view.
In Judith Kerr’s trilogy, as the three novels progress, Anna’s adult awareness and understanding develops of the difficulty and cost – emotional, psychological, material – of the refugee life. The Other Way Round (now published under the title Bombs on Aunt Dainty) takes up the story a few years later, when Anna’s family have moved on from France to England. It’s a story of adolescence, of the young adult breaking away from her parents, but it’s complicated by the fact that Anna is beginning to learn that her parents may need her more than she needs them. As she and her brother have grown up in England, they have ceased to feel like refugees; but her parents are less adaptable. Anna becomes a confident young art student; her brother gets an Oxford scholarship and becomes an RAF flying ace; but her parents are stuck in their boarding house in Putney full of other displaced people, their opportunities for material or intellectual fulfilment severely restricted. Her father, a distinguished writer and theatre critic (as was Judith Kerr’s father Alfred in real life) loses his language and loses the cultural life he enjoyed in Weimar Berlin: the passage when Anna is offered cheap tickets to hear a Beethoven concert and, somewhat reluctantly, takes her father with her is utterly heart-breaking. Papa is overwhelmed by the music and the steep climb to the cheap seats; at the end of the concert:
He was sitting quite still, his face a little raised and his hands folded over his coat. His eyes were half-closed, and then Anna saw that they were full of tears and that there were more tears running silently down his cheeks. […]
“I’m sorry if I alarmed you,” he said at last. “It’s just –” He spread his hands. “I hadn’t heard it for years.”
Papa is the sensitive intellectual, a gentle figure who never quite finds a place as a refugee; Mama, meanwhile, is the determined survivor, constantly fighting to survive, to keep the family together. As an adult, I still read the books with a sense of recognition, but now I find that it’s also recognition of the difficulty of growing up in the shadow of my own strong-minded, eccentric, sometimes difficult mother, whose enthusiasm for life is such that it can become oppressive, because it must be impressed on everyone else. (The other fictional mother who reminds me strongly of my own is Sarah in Chicken Soup with Barley, whose son says of her: “Strawberries and cream for everyone, whether you like it or not!”)
Mama is difficult not just because she is a strong-minded eccentric but also because she has had to abandon a life of ease and culture and wealth in 1930s Berlin, for the precarity and poverty of life as a refugee. In real life Judith Kerr’s mother was not just a contented bourgeois wife, but an extremely cultured and creative woman, a pianist and composer. In the books, it is Mama who struggles furiously to keep the family going, who fights to get her son Max out of the camp in which he’s interned after Britain declares war on Germany, who thinks of little ways to eke out the tiny income her husband still makes. Eventually, her children learn to think of themselves as British, or at least British most of the time, but Mama never can; she never loses her sense of precarity, of fear that things might so easily be disrupted. She never plays the piano in the Putney boarding house.
Judith Kerr has spoken about finding, years after her mother’s death, letters from her father in which he describes her mother talking about killing both herself and her two children. At the time, she says, she was particularly happy: she had just learned to speak French.
In the third novel of the trilogy, A Small Person Far Away, there’s a scene where Anna, with frustration, remembers her mother’s intense enthusiasms:
Anna had cooked the only dish she knew, which was a large quantity of rice mixed with whatever happened to be on hand. On this occasion the ingredients had included some chopped-up sausages, and Konrad had said, politely, how nice they were. At once Mama had said, “I’ll find you some more,” and to Anna’s irritation she had snatched up the bowl and rootled through it, to toss a succession of small sausage pieces on to his plate.
Anna is recalling this scene as her mother lies ill, having attempted suicide, and A Small Person Far Away is the culmination of the series because it is the point at which the adult Anna is forced to confront the full extent of her parents’ suffering as refugees. It’s set in 1956, when the material hardships of the war are long past, and as the novels grow with their central chracter, it’s an adult novel more than a children’s or young adults’ book.
Anna is now the successful young wife of a successful young writer; Mama has moved back to Berlin where she has been living a seemingly safe and affluent life. Papa has died. And the Berlin which Anna revisits, two decades after her family left it, is Cold War Berlin, as the Suez crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary both unfold in the background.
Judith Kerr describes brilliantly the sense of returning to a place that you have not visited since childhood: the uncanny feeling of recognising places you haven’t seen in decades. But better still, she describes the dislocating feeling of returning to another language. Anna visits her childhood home and is caught, suddenly, by the difference of twenty years and two countries:
It was as though, for a fraction of a second, she had half-seen, half-become the small, fierce vulnerable person she had once been, with her lace-up boots and socks held up by elastic bands, her fear of volcanoes and of dying in the night, her belief that rust caused blood poisoning, liquorice was made of horses blood, and there would never be another war, and her unshakeable conviction that there was no problem in the world that Mama could not easily solve,
The small person did not say ‘Is Mama hone?’ She said ‘Ist Mami da?’ and did not speak a word of English, and for a moment Anna felt shaken by her sudden emergence.
Anna’s brother Max arrives in Berlin, and the book also captures beautifully the connection between brother and sister, the sense of having a shared life which no one else can truly understand or remember. They meet Mama’s friends, people also deeply affected by the traumatic dislocations caused by the war and the Holocaust; situations seemingly impossible to reconcile with the post-war normality of the fifties: but Anna, her family, and the other refugees and survivors of the Holocaust must, nonetheless, continue living. Mama recovers. Anna returns to London; and she discovers, in the final passage of the novel, that she is pregnant.
Judith Kerr wrote When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit in order to tell her own children what it had been like to be a child refugee; not only because the experience was extraordinary, but also to say that it was not as horrific as they might have imagined. The brilliance of the trilogy is the layering of the recognisable and the remarkable; the ordinary concerns of a young woman growing up and dealing with family life set against the terrifying historical circumstances which force Anna/Judith and her family into refugee life.