Judith Kerr’s latest children’s book, “The Great Granny Gang,” is populated by feisty pensioners who think nothing of rebuilding chimneys, fixing broken cars, babysitting crocodiles and, ultimately, defeating a group of thugs robbing a bakery. It all seems rather far-fetched – until one meets Kerr in person.
Early on a Friday morning, the 89-year-old opens the door to her south London home, immaculately turned out in an elegant blue-and-red dress and a string of pearls. After discussing not one, but two upcoming projects, she relates the story of her life with acerbic wit. Of an early job, for example, vetting plays sent in by the public to the BBC, she says, “Somebody had to read that rubbish, and I could read rubbish in three languages.”
One senses that the gang in the bakery would not have stood a chance against Kerr.
But if the author is determined, it is because she has lived a most extraordinary life. The daughter of famous German refugees, she became an iconic writer for generations of British children. Decades after they were written, successive titles — mostly about cats — are still popular, and her most famous book, “The Tiger Who Came to Tea,” is regularly performed onstage in London. Meanwhile, she turned the story of her parents’ exile into a novel for young adults, “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” which is by far the best-known Holocaust-related novel in Britain.
This summer, Kerr was honored by Queen Elizabeth, who appointed her to the Order of the British Empire for services to literature and Holocaust education. The gesture was “marvelous,” Kerr says brightly.
“Having come here as a refugee, it is nice to know that nobody regrets letting one in!”
It seems unlikely. Kerr was born in 1923 into a distinguished family of German intellectuals and artists. Her mother, Julia, the daughter of a Prussian secretary of state, was a semi-professional composer who had already had one opera staged, and was almost finished with a second when the family left the country. But it was her father, Alfred, 30 years older, who was truly famous, for his theater criticism, journalism and essays. A friend of Albert Einstein, Kerr (ne Kempner) was nicknamed Kulturpapst – cultural pope – of Germany for the influence he wielded.
Kerr’s father was forced to flee when his name appeared on a list of state enemies. After he left, the Nazis burned his books
In 1933, however, he was forced to flee to Switzerland when his name appeared on a list of state enemies. After he left, the Nazis burned his books.
His family soon followed him out of Germany, settling temporarily in Paris, and later in London. From then on, professional success eluded Alfred, who never properly mastered English, and money was always in short supply.
Kerr says that she integrated quickly into British society, perhaps because she had no German accent, and that during the bombing of London known as the Blitz, “when people were killed by German bombs, no one was ever nasty to my parents. People were marvelous.”
Nevertheless, the family was categorized as “friendly enemy aliens,” and her brother, Michael, was initially interned in the Isle of Man (he later joined the Royal Air Force, unusual for a German). Judith’s desire to work for the War Office was deemed impossible because she was not British-born. Instead, she worked in a bombed-out children’s hospital, sending to soldiers clothes that had either been knitted by members of the public or had belonged to soldiers who were killed.
After the war, the family’s financial fortunes finally improved when Kerr’s mother, who had worked as a secretary in London, was hired as a translator by the Americans in Germany.
“It solved everything – we had dollars and a good salary,” says Kerr. A year later, it looked like another miracle when her father was hired by the British High Commission in Hamburg to work locally.
“They thought that if he went to the theater and wrote his reviews as he had done before, it would raise German morale,” she says. “They flew him to Hamburg on a troop plane – he was 80 years old and had never flown before. He thought it was wonderful.”
The very first evening, he went to a performance of “Romeo and Juliet,” and the audience stood and applauded as he entered.
“It was very moving,” she says. “No one in England had known who he was, other than a few writers.”
But then disaster struck. On his return to his hotel, he collapsed with a stroke.
“Another journalist found him in the morning. He knew exactly what had happened to him, as he told the journalist that the performance wasn’t to blame. ‘It was bad, but not that bad.’ ”
She wrote ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ to correct her daughter’s impression that her childhood was miserable
For a few weeks, he underwent treatment, but finally decided that he “wasn’t thinking properly,” and Kerr’s mother helped him end his life with pills.
“She had to do it secretly, as suicide was a crime back then,” says Kerr.
Together with her brother, Kerr traveled to Germany, where she discovered her mother’s actions. She says she was accepting: “We agreed with what she had done.”
Nevertheless, she missed her father terribly. By then, she was following her first passion, painting and attending art school while working in a factory designing textiles.
“We never had any money, and I always looked awful. My mother was quite discouraging about it all — she wanted me to get married to someone nice. My father used to encourage me, telling me I had talent.”
In a sense, they both got their way. Kerr met her husband, Nigel Kneale (known as Tom), in the early 1950s. Already a successful short-story writer – who later found fame as the creator of “Quatermass,” a television science-fiction series – he had a junior position at the BBC, and helped her get the job reading the public’s plays.
“It was the very early days of television, when people were apt to get promoted rather easily,” she says, and she was soon appointed as a script writer.
After the birth of her two children, Tacy and Matthew, she spent more time at home. But this was when she really came into her own professionally. In the evenings, she used to tell her daughter a story about a tiger who intruded on a family’s tea time, eating and drinking everything in the house.
When the children started school full-time, she decided to turn the story into a picture book. In addition to writing “The Tiger Who Came to Tea,” she illustrated it, creating the now iconic pictures of a big, furry, striped tiger and a girl in a purple dress.
The 1968 book was an immediate success, and still is – which Kerr attributes to the fact it was “tailor-made for a three-year old.”
“We had been to the zoo and seen tigers – [Tacy] was very visual, and thought that they were wonderful,” she says. “I put in everything she liked, such as going out after dark, which she thought was terribly exciting. I told it to her so many times that it got edited in the process.”
Her next book, “Mog the Forgetful Cat” – about the adventures of a domestic feline – was inspired by her son, who told her that the books that he was learning to read were too boring. Following his lead, she turned to Dr Seuss.
‘I used to know a lot of cats,’ Kerr says of her protagonists. ‘Now I know a lot of old ladies’
“I used only 250 words, as he did, and used them repetitively in different ways. I also never, ever told [the readers] something they had already seen in the picture. It’s such an effort to learn to read, then to only find out what you know already – it’s terrible.”
The book, which was written in 1970, evolved into a series of 17 stories, finally ending in 2002, when Mog died of old age in “Goodbye, Mog.” Several subsequent books have also involved cats, although her two most recent stories, “My Henry,” about a widow who dreams about adventures with her late spouse, and “The Great Granny Gang,” which came out in late August, concern pensioners.
“I used to know a lot of cats,” she says. “Now I know a lot of old ladies.”
She wrote her semi-autobiographical novel, “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” which follows the family’s journey out of Germany, to correct Tacy’s impression that her childhood was miserable.
“She was very home-loving, and she thought that it sounded awful, to leave one’s house. Matthew thought it sounded interesting. I loved my childhood – I loved being in Paris, and I remember once, when we were living high up, looking down on the rooftops and saying, ‘Isn’t it wonderful to be a refugee?’ ”
The eponymous rabbit was a childhood toy that the fictionalized heroine, Anna, leaves behind in Berlin, and considers “stolen” by the Nazis. Although the 1971 novel has been used for Holocaust education, including in Germany, that was not the original intention.
“I remember Tom said, ‘It’s not just about your family. Hitler has to be on the first page.’ I got him on the second page.”
The process of writing, however, did make her reconsider some aspects of her childhood.
“It occurred to me rather late that this was very difficult for my parents. They made it into an adventure for us. Having thought about my parents, I was very distressed about my father’s difficult life . . . I feel not guilty, exactly, but a sort of regret. I’ve had such an extraordinarily happy life. They didn’t.”
This led to two more books covering the family’s challenging experience in England, her evolution into an Englishwoman and, finally, her return to Berlin in the 1950s to visit her sick mother.
‘When six million people lose their lives,’ Kerr says, ‘you have to use your life well’
“I feel slightly odd from earning money from the books that were really about my parents’ hard times. I was getting royalties – they could have done with the money. It was always such a huge problem.”
Perhaps paradoxically for the author of a book that has been so instrumental in raising awareness of Holocaust refugees, Kerr says she inherited very little Jewish identity from her parents, and has never been to a synagogue or a Jewish wedding.
“There was no religion in the family – only ethics,” she says. “My father simply stopped believing in God, but always remembered [Judaism] as very beautiful, and was very proud of being a Jew, and impressed the ethics on us. If Hitler hadn’t happened, I don’t think I would have given [religion] a thought. When six million people lose their lives, you have to use your life well.”
She did, however, inherit a strong stress of family values — perhaps, she says, because of her refugee background.
Her house radiates pride in her family, with photographs of the Far East by her son on the wall of her living room, a sculpture by her brother-in-law in the garden and paintings by her daughter, a professional artist and illustrator, in the dining room. Four long bookshelves house her own books, including translations in several languages, books by her father and several volumes by Matthew. His novel “The English Passengers” won the prestigious Whitbread Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker.
So has the Kerr artistic gene passed on to another generation?
“Maybe. Or you could say nobody has a proper job,” she smiles, with a typically mischievous glint in her eye.