June 14, 2023, would have been Judith’s Kerr 100th birthday. I am so grateful that I was able to interview Judith in 2001 and that I could spend an entire afternoon with her in her wonderful home in Barnes. In her honour, I have just released the entire uncut interview, plus the full transcript, which you can read here:
In the interview she chronicles her experiences, from the perspective of a young child refugee and also talks about her life and work.
Judith Kerr, who sees herself as ‘a Brit who did not originate here, but, with luck, gave something to the country’, also highlights the positive aspects of her emigration. She says: ‘It was the best thing that ever happened to me.’ In her interview, she discusses the difficult financial situation the family faced following their emigration and the hardship her parents experienced in London. As in other cases of refugee children who came to the UK with their parents, she does not see herself as a refugee but considers her parents refugees.
Judith Kerr OBE - Biography
Judith Kerr was born on 14 June 1923 in Berlin to Alfred Kerr (originally Kempner) and his wife Julia. Alfred Kerr was Germany’s leading theatre critic. The Kerrs also had a son, born two years earlier, who went on to become Sir Michael Kerr, a barrister who rose to the rank of Lord Justice of Appeal. Alfred Kerr was both Jewish and a longstanding critic of the Nazis, so on 14 February 1933, two weeks after Hitler became chancellor and the beginning of the persecution of political opponents, he packed a bag and fled to Czechoslovakia. On 5 March 1933, Julia and the children slipped across the border to Switzerland, where the family was reunited. They spent some months in Switzerland, before moving to Paris. Alfred Kerr loved Paris but found it impossible to earn a living there. So began years of demeaning poverty and the loss of the comfortable life that the Kerr family had enjoyed in Berlin.
On the promise of a lucrative contract, never fulfilled, to write a film script for the film director Alexander Korda, Kerr and his wife left for London in late 1935; the children followed shortly afterwards. The family could afford no more than rooms in a shabby hotel, the Foyer Suisse in Bloomsbury. However, the Kerrs ensured that their children were well educated, sending them both to private schools. The role of breadwinner fell on Julia Kerr, who was able to earn a modest income from secretarial work. Judith Kerr was also restricted to such jobs as were open to ‘enemy aliens’, in her case a dead-end position with a dull but worthy wartime charity.
During the war, Judith Kerr began her studies at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, which was to lead on to her first career as an illustrator, a career that she continued to pursue alongside her writing. In 1954, she married the screenwriter Nigel Kneale, best remembered for the Quatermass series on BBC TV in the 1950s, and they settled in Barnes, where Judith Kerr lived until her death. They had two children, Matthew and Tacy. In the late 1960s, Judith Kerr began to publish the illustrated children’s stories that earned her legions of devoted fans across the world. First came The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968), followed by Mog the Forgetful Cat (1970), the first of the eighteen illustrated books.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit was published by Collins in 1971. The period between 1933 and 1936, the early years of the Kerr family’s emigration, forms the background to Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical account of the experiences of a family very similar to her own. It marked a new phase in literary works about the refugees from Nazism, in particular by introducing readers to the plight of the children among them. Together with Bombs on Aunt Dainty (originally published as The Other Way Round) and A Small Person Far Away, it forms the trilogy Out of the Hitler Time. The German translation Als Hitler das Rosa Kaninchen Stahl sold more than 1.3 million copies in Germany and won the prize for ‘best children’s book’ in 1974 (awarded by the German Prize for Youth Literature). The book became a standard work in many schools and was recently made into a new feature film (directed by Caroline Link, 2019). Judith Kerr died on 22 May 2019.