Remembering Judith Kerr, Whose Children’s Books Turned Anguish Into Hope
The beloved children’s book author Judith Kerr, who died on May 22 at age 95, proved that one way of coping with the tragedies of modern Jewish history was with an appetite for creative work.
Born Anna Judith Gertrud Helene Kerr to an uncommonly creative German Jewish family, she would write and illustrate such endearing books as “The Tiger Who Came to Tea,” and the Mog series, inspired by her pet cats. Her sense of invention never failed her; her final book, “The Curse of the School Rabbit,” is due out in June from HarperCollins Children’s Books, her long-time publisher.
Kerr’s gentle, soothing books were likely a response to her own eventful childhood, which seemed tumultuous to her only in retrospect, so careful were her parents to shield their offspring from the harshness of their family’s experiences as a refugees. Her father, the much-feared critic and political commentator Alfred Kerr (1867–1948), was an early and vehement anti-Nazi campaigner. As his biographer Deborah Vietor-Englander recounts, in 1933 a Berlin policeman warned him that his passport would shortly be seized by German authorities. Although he was suffering from the flu, Kerr’s father left his sickbed and fled to Prague; his wife and two small children soon reunited with him in Zurich.
Escape from Germany did not resolve the family’s problem of how to survive economically. Before he became a refugee, Alfred Kerr had been a frequent contributor to the pages of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, but the editors of that Swiss daily decided they could not risk offending Hitler’s government by employing him. After trying, and failing, to find work in Paris, the family finally landed in London, where they lived in penury.
During that time, the family drew strength from their Judaism. Alfred Kerr, who was raised in an observant Jewish family, eventually embraced a more secular lifestyle, but remained powerfully aware of Jewish culture, naming his daughter after the heroine of the Book of Judith, the widow who beheaded the Assyrian general Holofernes. He made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1903, writing exultantly that what he saw there made him feel like the heir of a “fabulous people,” and although he did not understand the Hebrew language, the sound of it “resonated with crowded symmetry; paternity; God.” Yet when Kerr was five, she was instructed to explain to schoolmates that she did not join religious training classes because she was a “free thinker.” In 2016, she explained this apparent contradiction to “The New Statesman” by noting that her father “always had a very strong sense of Jewish ethics.”
Alfred Kerr’s books were among the first to be burned by the Nazis. But his descendants, undeterred, followed in his professional footsteps. Kerr’s elder brother Michael (1921–2002) would write an acclaimed memoir detailing his legal career in the UK, during which he was appointed a Lord Justice of Appeal, Britain’s first foreign-born senior judge for 800 years. And Kerr’s son, Matthew Kneale, is an award-winning novelist.
Kerr escaped Germany in the early days of the Nazi regime, but the Third Reich would influence much of her work, and specifically her “Out of the Hitler Time” trilogy, consisting of (“When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” “The Other Way Round,” later retitled, more graphically, “Bombs on Aunt Dainty,” and “A Small Person Far Away.”
Recounting the unspeakable in quiet, understated terms, Kerr’s books helped children and older readers cope with perplexing concepts such as exile, estrangement and the persecution of minorities. “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” centers on a girl refugee who is given the choice of a single plaything when her family flees their homeland. She leaves a bunny behind, planning to recover it when her family returns. As they never do, she that the Nazis looted her toy.
By the early 1960s, Kerr had settled in Barnes, a district in South London, in a modest, functional home in which she lived for the rest of her life. Years as a bestselling author likely would have allowed her to seek a more upscale residence, removed from the incessant sound of jet planes on a flight path to Heathrow Airport. Yet she opted for stasis, spending decades devotedly drawing and writing her books at the same rickety old table.
In her later years, as Kerr befriended a group of fascinating older women, she found further inspiration, writing “The Great Granny Gang.” The book celebrates how with old age, people may retain competence, whether for auto repair, masonry, or other skills. Even the heart-wrenching experience of the death of a pet provided grist for the mill. Kerr wrote “Goodbye Mog” to give small children a way of conceptualizing what happens when living things die.
She wrote about grief, as well, in “My Henry” (2011), a fictionalized ode to her late husband, BBC screenwriter Nigel Kneale, who won fame by creating the character of Professor Bernard Quatermass, an heroic scientist featured in television, film, and radio shows. Kneale and Kerr were married for over a half-century, until his death in 2006. “My Henry” idealizes the inventive ferment of those years, depicting a widow who recalls supposed highlights of a marriage, including water skiing atop a dolphin, climbing Mount Everest, and riding dinosaurs.
Throughout her life Kerr retained a strong belief in the consoling power of stories, especially children’s stories, at times of strife. In 2018, she reminded an interviewer from “The Observer” that Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle stories were first formulated in illustrated letters to his children, written from the trenches while serving in the British Army during World War I. Aware that her family was among the rare lucky Jewish refugees who were able to keep their families intact, she was particularly sensitive to the effect of parental separation, and the healing power of narration for children.
She also remained acutely aware of dangers, past and present, targeting Jewish people internationally. Last year, with a hint of déjà vu, if not weariness, she spoke with the “Evening Standard” about the worldwide rise of ultra-Right and fascist politicians: “I hear about it now and it does seem rather sinister and rather boring. Having had all this once, surely they could have thought of something better?”