Judith Kerr’s death at the age of 95 was met with an avalanche of tributes from readers, writers and publishers alike. Her illustrated books such as the Mog series and her first book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) have endured as children’s classics, with illustrations that bear witness to the domestic spaces of the 1960s suburban British home, carrying a focus on children and their pets and the security of a loving family life. The loving depiction of a safe and stable childhood that Kerr created in her books stands in sharp contrast to her experience of childhood as one involving a sudden cataclysmic destruction of the life she knew in Berlin under the Nazis.
This history speaks to her place in the children’s literary canon as one of its most loved writers but also part of a transnational group of writers who bore witness to the Holocaust and contributed to a distinctive and significant migrant vision and storying of London and Britain.
Both Kerr and her brother made their homes in Britain and all her family took British citizenship after the end of the war. Her London settings can seem quintessentially British, offering an intimate portrait of 1960s London. But her own childhood was marked by constant movement and upheaval, as well as a need to learn new languages, fleeing Germany for Switzerland, France and finally England, where her family lived in impoverished conditions for a number of years in cheap London hotels, often relying on the kindness of friends and connections to survive from week to week.
Her books describing these years show she was conscious of being an outsider – a “clever refugee girl” as the fellow pupils in her school dismissively referred to her. Visibly different, she was poorly dressed in hand-me-down clothes from the two daughters of a London friend. She sometimes “passed” as English because of her command of the language, but left school at 16 out of desperation to earn money to help her parents survive in London lodgings.
Kerr’s trilogy of less well-known largely autobiographical books about this period sheds light on her illustrated work in perhaps unexpected ways and are testimony to survival after an experience of the almost total destruction of her own security and stability.
Collectively called Out of the Hitler Time, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971), Bombs on Auntie Dainty (1975) and A Small Person Far Away (1978), the trilogy loosely followed her own experiences as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. Her father, Alfred Kerr, a well-established and respected German-Jewish theatre critic was a vocal opponent of the Nazis (his books were burned by them after he fled Germany in 1933).
The first and most well-known is a memoir of leaving Germany and living in exile in Switzerland and France, told through her eyes as a nine-year-old child. The second speaks to her earliest experiences of living in England. It tells of her family’s move to London to escape German advances into France, depicting life among the international refugee population of the hotels in Bloomsbury, with her parents in severely reduced circumstances and her father struggling to cope in a foreign language or to find paid writing jobs. It also recounts her experience of the Blitz and of her brother’s sudden internment on the Isle of Man, as an enemy alien, two weeks before he was set to take his finals at Cambridge University. The last portrays her return to Berlin as an adult, now married to an English scriptwriter, to visit her sick mother after her father’s death.
Literary critics have offered readings of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, reflecting on the tensions between pleasure and fear surrounding the arrival of a tiger with unlimited appetite into the protagonist Sophie’s home. Louise Sylvester offered a reading of the book juxtaposed with extracts from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, in order to construct an argument about how the story might reflect the radical instability of Jewish households during WWII.
Tim Beasley-Murray read the book as a space of carnival, but one which is resolved when it appears to threaten the continuation of normal life, once the father returns from work. Beasley-Murray argued, however, that the father is an ambiguous figure of safety who never meets the tiger but instead resolves the situation by taking the family out for dinner.
Alongside Kerr’s second book in her trilogy another reading might emerge. Her father was truly the centre of their lives in Berlin in the 1930s, his life in London was as series of hard reversals, speaking poor English and finding little written work as a journalist or novelist he underwent a catastrophic collapse of fortunes. And while he was briefly rehabilitated in Germany after the war he died soon afterwards.
This contradictory status of her father is painfully witnessed by Kerr as she comes to grasp the great respect he is held in by the German Jewish émigré community and the frustrating powerlessness of the position he finds himself in. When Kerr narrates going to visit her parents from free lodging she has been given, to their hotel room in central London where evening meals are included in the price paid for the room, her mother argues with the waitress that she should not have to pay for her daughter’s meal as she missed her own the previous day due to illness.
The pain and precarity of the scene are keenly felt. During the war years in London the family had no private home, no kitchen and no food supplies apart from those that were served in the hotel restaurant. Kerr lived apart from her parents when they could no longer afford two rooms, and they all relied on charity and the goodwill of friends. Like the tiger, the war swallowed up not just all the food in the house and the water in the taps but the kitchen itself, the table, the chairs, the bathroom and the parenting that might have taken place in all those domestic spaces. The family did eat in a restaurant every night as lodgers in a hotel because they had no home of their own.
Kerr’s illustrated books were written for her own children and featured thinly disguised family members and pets, but her autobiographical trilogy was also written with her children in mind to try to portray how different her childhood had been to theirs. Reading them together is to bear witness to her immense artistic achievements and to her important accounts of the German-Jewish refugee experience in Britain.
Eleanor Byrne, Senior Lecturer in English, Manchester Metropolitan University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.