“I’ve been incredibly lucky”. An interview with author and WWII refugee Judith Kerr OBE

Judith Kerr

A return visit to the Southbank Centre today for another slice of its ground-breaking ‘(B)old’ festival (see yesterday’s post about Dame Cleo Laine for an explanation). This time, it was for an interview with Judith Kerr OBE regarding her life and career.

As one of our best-loved children’s authors and illustrators Judith needs very little introduction. Her ‘Mog’ books, ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ and ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ have inspired countless generations of children to read and remain as popular as they ever were; ‘Pink Rabbit’, unbelievably, turns 50 this year – and Judith, even more unbelievably, is 95.

And yet, as she told a rapt audience, it could have all turned out so differently. Judith and her family were German Jews who escaped from Germany, just four days before Hitler came to power in January 1933; her father, the theatre critic Alfred Kerr, had spoken out against the Nazis (who burned his books once they were in government).

Fleeing the country, the family had to leave most of their possessions behind – including Judith’s beloved toy rabbit, which would later inspire ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’. Somehow, though, Judith’s mother, Julia, was able to pack Judith’s artwork: “She was always very proud of my drawing – and I always drew. I loved art in the same way as my brother loved football”.

 

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

The family travelled first to Switzerland, where Alfred thought he would be able to find work with a Swiss newspaper: “None of them would touch him, though – they were all too afraid of upsetting Hitler”. On they journeyed, to Paris; Alfred spoke French fluently and they stayed in the French capital for a while, an experience which Judith and her brother, Michael, thoroughly enjoyed. Money remained a problem, however, with Alfred unable to earn enough to keep the family.

Then, a stroke of luck. Alfred sold a film script for £1,000. Anticipating a whole new life, the family moved to England – “a very good thing”, according to Judith. She was sent to boarding school, which she hated and left aged just sixteen. “We were still very poor”, she told us, “so I learned stenography and shorthand – which I failed!”

With the advent of World War II, Judith took a job with the Red Cross, sending wool all over Britain to be knitted into comfort packages. She also managed ‘Officers’ Replacement Kits’, a process in which the effects of young men killed during the war and returned to their parents were cleaned and passed on to other soldiers, airmen or sailors.

At the close of the war (which had seen the Kerr family bombed out of their home but, thankfully, unhurt) Judith procured a scholarship to art school – where, she informed a disbelieving audience, she failed the Book Illustration module (yes, really).

Eventually, Judith became a teacher and, she says, never really thought about writing until she married a writer – Nigel Kneale, of ‘Quatermass’ fame. Through a contact, Judith took a job with the BBC “reviewing dreadful plays” and worked her way up to the position of script writer.

This, however, might have been an interesting job “but it wasn’t drawing, which is what I really wanted to do”. Picture books, Judith decided, would be a good compromise – and it was having children of her own that inspired her to write ‘Tiger’. The reason for its enduring popularity, Judith believes, is that it contains all sorts of things liked by three-year-olds – although she describes herself as “surprised, lucky and amazed” by its success.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Unsurprisingly, the events of Judith’s childhood greatly influenced her writing. When she wrote ‘Pink Rabbit’ her children were the same age as Judith and her brother when they fled Germany and the book was a way of explaining to them what that experience was like. Writing ‘Pink Rabbit’, Judith mused, also helped her to understand better how her own parents must have felt, smuggling their family out of Germany. Her writing became a way of remembering Alfred and Julia.

It is Mog, perhaps, who is the most famous of Judith’s creations and who also recalls her childhood. Judith had always wanted a cat, but because her family moved so much they were never in a position to have one. When she got married it transpired that Nigel, too, was a cat lover and as soon as they had a house with a garden they adopted a cat – whom they named ‘Mog’. The rest, as they say, is history: “…and I still love cats. Their love of power. And those extraordinary minds; the way they try to make you do things.”

Reflecting upon her remarkable life, Judith describes herself as “very lucky – in part, because of the things that didn’t happen to me”. At the time the Kerr family escaped Berlin, terrible things were taking place around them, but her parents managed to shelter her from them. The same as regards her wartime experiences in London: Judith witnessed the bombing, but never saw anyone hurt or killed. She found the kindness of Londoners “heartening”: both her parents spoke English with strong German accents, but never suffered any form of abuse, even during the worst moments of the war.

Asked for her views on the plight of today’s refugees, Judith was refreshingly honest. Describing herself as “horrified” by the Windrush scandal (a sentiment with which I think we can all concur), she stated that, at the same time, she understands the challenges European governments are now facing in respect of the influx of refugees. “I don’t know what the answer is”, she said, frankly. “I don’t think anyone does”.

A nonagenarian Judith might be, but she finds age no barrier to working. What spurs her on? “Drawing!” And, jokingly, “I don’t have anything else to do”. Smiles from the audience – and a few tears, too. Most of those present will have read Judith’s books growing up and many will have read them to their children and grandchildren – who, I have no doubt, will read them to their children.

What a legacy this charmingly modest lady leaves behind her. To have lived for nearly a century and to have witnessed some of the most catastrophic events that this planet has ever seen…it’s a tribute to Judith Kerr that she remains so unruffled by – and engaged with – life. Let’s hope that there are many more sequels to ‘Mog’ and friends to come.

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