Judith Kerr on refugees, Hitler and ‘The Tiger Who Came To Tea’
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It’s an unremarkable three-storey terraced house in suburban Barnes, south-west London, but one day there will be a plaque here. In her upstairs study Judith Kerr, now 94, wrote and illustrated the 33 books that have sold 10 million copies. Her debut, the children’s classic The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968), immortalised the home’s interiors. Writing in her third language, she morphed from child refugee fleeing Hitler into that most elevated of British caste categories: “national treasure”.
We sit in the living room, watched from the windowsill by Katinka, the star of Kerr’s latest book. The elderly white cat with a tabby tail is the inspiration for Katinka’s Tail.
Courteous, understated, dainty and animal-loving, Kerr is practically the Platonic ideal of 1950s Englishness. “As soon as the vote of Brexit came through,” she says in crisp prose and complete sentences, “half the people I know were trying desperately to work out whether they had Irish grandmothers. But I would never take dual German nationality because I owe this country too much, and I wouldn’t want to dilute it.”
Kerr was born in 1923 into a bourgeois Jewish family in Weimar Berlin. Her father Alfred was a famed theatre critic and essayist, her mother a housewife and talented composer. Alfred’s frank prose made enemies. He wrote of one actress that she undoubtedly had many talents but that acting wasn’t among them. She happened to be the lover of Kerr’s grandfather, who hired two thugs to beat up his son-in-law. They accosted him while he was walking in the woods, recounts Kerr in her 2013 autobiography, Judith Kerr’s Creatures, “but their hearts were not in it, and the three of them ended up having a beer together”.
Alfred often mocked the Nazis, and fled Germany in January 1933 when Hitler became chancellor. In March, days before Hitler solidified power by winning federal elections, nine-year-old Kerr, her elder brother Michael and their mother escaped by train across the border to Switzerland. Though they left most of their belongings behind, the mother packed some of her daughter’s drawings. After a few months in Switzerland, they arrived in Paris as penniless refugees.
Kerr has written of her parents’ exile, “Their lives were destroyed.” But, she says, “My brother and I always agreed that the childhood we had was infinitely better than the childhood we would have had if Hitler had never happened and we’d stayed in Germany. My brother — rather a bad child, always in trouble in Germany — said that if he’d stayed, he wouldn’t have done at all well.
“We loved the change, the interest of different places, and learning a language. I think the language is a huge thing because something that appears impossible, suddenly you find you’ve done it. I loved the brevity of French after the endless sentences in German.” In 1935, two years after arriving in Paris speaking no French, she and her brother finished “top in French in the final exams”, she writes.
But wasn’t refugee life such fun only because her parents were shielding them from their anguish? “Well,” she replies, “this was the answer to everything [about her childhood].”
As an adult, long after writing two cheerful novels about the family’s refugee years, she found a letter from her father in Paris that described his wife talking of killing both herself and the children. “I was horrified,” says Kerr. “I had no idea. She had made a serious attempt at suicide long before any of this happened, in Berlin. She wasn’t depressed, but she was almost childlike in that she enjoyed things very much, but sort of, ‘If life isn’t as I want it, then I don’t want it.’
“I looked at the date of the letter, and I realised it was at a time when I was particularly happy because I’d learnt to speak French completely. My brother must have noticed a bit more of what was going on because he was two years older than me, and I think more observant. I did tend just to draw and wander about and not notice things. Well, it’s how we both ended up. He became a brilliant lawyer; that means you know about a lot of things, and you’re interested in a lot of things, and I didn’t.” Sir Michael Kerr, who died in 2002, was a Lord Justice of Appeal.
In childhood, Kerr assumed her father was too bookish to help his impoverished family navigate refugee life. Now she knows he was always hustling for them. Among the books piled up in her living room is a thick German biography of her father. The biographer, says Kerr, “is not a writer, I think, but she’s a brilliant truffle hound; she finds things. I was shattered by the letters she found.
“My father — this must have been 1934, 1935 — wrote to Einstein in America, who had been a friend in Berlin. [My father had] been invited to America to make a series of speeches, I think. They were going to pay his fare and all that, and he was desperate to get us all out of Europe because he said, ‘There’s going to be a war, I must save my children.’ So, he wrote to Einstein and said, ‘Could you possibly use your influence on these people who made this offer that they’ll pay the fare of the whole family?’ But Einstein wrote back and said he hadn’t been able to do anything.” (In happier times, at a party in Berlin, Einstein had explained the theory of relativity to Kerr’s mother. Kerr writes, “She said she totally understood it at the time, only couldn’t remember it afterwards.”)
A fortnight after interviewing Kerr, I’m asked to call her. She apologises for overemphasising her parents’ sufferings. “I forget to say the thing that is at the back of everything: that compared to the people who did not get out, we had no problems.” Her autobiography is dedicated to “the one and a half million Jewish children who didn’t have my luck, and all the pictures they might have painted”.
The Kerrs could easily have still been in Paris when the Nazis invaded in 1940. Thankfully, the film director Alexander Korda, a Hungarian Jew working in Britain, had bought Alfred’s film script about Napoleon’s mother. That enabled the family to move to England. Korda never made the film; Kerr suspects he only bought the script to save them.
Does she still recognise herself in the 12-year-old who arrived in London in March 1936? “Oh yes. The two-year-old is me. I’ve never changed.”
What she’s always been, she explains, no matter the circumstances, is an illustrator watching the world. “I remember, I couldn’t have been more than about two. I was sitting on the kerb, and we were all playing in the street, and somebody had spilt some oil or petrol or something and I was stirring it with a stick to make all the colours move about, and the other children saying, ‘Come and play’, and thinking about it for a moment and deciding no, that stirring the petrol was more important.”
She interrupts herself to apologise: “This is all ‘I’, isn’t it?”
Well, I say, this is an interview about herself.
“So it’s all right, yes,” she accepts.
Kerr and her brother learnt English almost instantly but their parents continued to struggle. They never had money. They carried suicide pills in case the Nazis invaded. Alfred, a writer deprived of his language, barely published again in his lifetime. However, he became Kerr’s model for how to be an artist. “He was a perfectionist,” she says. “Here in England, I think he managed to get almost all his own books. He hadn’t managed to take them all out with him, and friends gave him some he didn’t have, and I used to see him correcting bits that he thought could be better. To correct your work, not only after it’s been published, but after being burnt by the Nazis, that’s perfectionism. He told me about Mozart, that apparently he wrote ‘Give Me Your Hand’ eight times. So I do that. I wish I didn’t, in a way. I rub out so much.”
Kerr remains grateful for getting through the war. “When I was 17, and the Blitz was on, and everybody was expecting the invasion any moment, I remember being quite sure I wouldn’t live much longer. But then I did, you see, and the invasion didn’t happen, and I survived the war, and I got to art school, which was wonderful.”
On VE Day in 1945, she went around London sketching Britons dancing, waving paper flags, carrying their children on their shoulders. In her autobiography she recalls a “happy hum of chatter and laughter — nothing triumphant, nothing organised . . . I thought, this is the country for me.” Maddeningly, her sketchbook of that day has disappeared.
In 1948 the British Control Commission flew Alfred back to Germany to write about the German theatre. When he walked into a Hamburg theatre to see Romeo and Juliet, the audience gave him a standing ovation. That night he had a stroke. “It was not the performance,” he told the journalist who found him on the floor of his hotel room. “It was bad, but not that bad.” Some weeks later, when he knew he couldn’t recover, his wife helped him commit suicide, aged 80. Kerr and her brother came to the funeral, and were satisfied to see Germany in ruins. Kerr’s mother later made repeated suicide attempts, but died in 1965 of a heart attack while playing tennis.
By then Kerr had married Nigel “Tom” Kneale, one of the earliest BBC TV writers. He created the Quatermass series, about the scientist Bernard Quatermass, who has been called Britain’s “first TV hero”. Kneale’s 1968 TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics anticipated reality television.
On the wall behind Kerr’s head hangs a rather green-faced painting of Kneale, by his brother Bryan, a painter and sculptor. The brothers helped shape Kerr’s career. She explains, “I wanted to be a painter, like everybody at art school and, actually, I didn’t do badly. I had various paintings accepted by the Royal Academy and The London Group, which was rather grand at the time. I think what slightly put me off the idea of being a painter was seeing what Bryan was doing. He was seven years younger than me, and light years ahead. As a child he was painting portraits of his friends in oils; that was a painter. I did street scenes and children at school. Every bit of it was illustration, something happening, so I think I was very lucky to become an illustrator because that’s what I really am.”
Meanwhile Kneale got her into the BBC. She started out reading the slush pile of scripts submitted by the public. But TV in the 1950s was growing fast, and needed writers. “I ended up as a writer, and that’s how I learnt to write, really, but with an awful lot of input from Tom. Fiction is all construction, isn’t it? And he was very, very good at that.”
The births of her daughter Tacy, in 1958, and son Matthew, in 1960, interrupted her career. The family needed more room. Barnes was rundown and bohemian but, crucially, the house faced Barnes Common. Kneale and Kerr would spend their working lives looking out at trees, near the river.
Frustrated by the tedious didactic children’s books of the 1950s (notably Janet and John), Kerr began telling her children stories. One day, when she and Tacy were bored, and wishing somebody would visit, Kerr made up a story about a tiger coming for tea. (Tacy is now a painter who designed creatures for the Harry Potter films. Matthew inherited Kerr’s other gift: he is a prizewinning novelist.)
Once the children were at school till 3pm every day, Kerr had time to turn the tiger story into a book. She drew Tacy, their house and the tigers in London Zoo. The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) exemplifies Kerr’s storytelling style: she transforms terrifying situations into pleasant adventures. When I say this, she demurs: “The tiger, as far as my daughter and I were concerned, was the best thing that could possibly happen to you, because I never thought of a tiger as being dangerous, and I certainly never told Tacy they were dangerous. I only thought of it being beautiful. Again, this is unobservant: to look at a tiger and never think it could bite you.” More than five million copies later, Tiger remains Kerr’s most famous book, which seems to irritate her mildly. “I’ve got better at drawing, obviously,” she says.
The Mog series of books — inspired by Katinka’s eight predecessors — began in 1970. But by then, Kerr wanted to tell her growing children about her own refugee childhood. When she suggested a book about it to her editor, Roger Benedictus, he said, “Jolly good idea, we haven’t got anything about that period.”
Kerr seems to have had in mind a cheery children’s adventure, without Nazis. But Kneale told her, “‘You can’t just write about these different countries you lived in. Hitler has to appear on the first page.’” Kerr says, “Which hadn’t occurred to me, but I got him on the second page.”
Another breakthrough was stumbling on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie in Tacy’s room. “That made me realise how to do it, because that is very truthful and realistic and yet told like a story. I didn’t want to do it in the first person because you have to be 100 per cent accurate if you do that, I think.” She gave herself the freedom to merge events and invent dialogue. But she found she had extreme recall of childhood, including, unusually for a writer, visual recall. “Well, I’m not really a writer. I would never have written novels if I hadn’t had that childhood. I did try to write a novel just out of my head, and I couldn’t do it.”
In 1971, the first part of the Out of the Hitler Time trilogy appeared, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. (The title was Kneale’s.) The children’s author Michael Morpurgo has called it “ultimately the most life-enhancing book you could ever wish to read”. That’s mostly because the family in the story is the ideal family. Wandering through Europe fleeing Nazism, they become what Anna, the Kerr character, calls “a close, close family surrounded by people different from themselves”. As Anna tells her parents on arrival in Paris: “I don’t really mind where we are — as long as we’re all together.”
Do Kerr’s happy stories repress her childhood trauma — or has she no trauma? “Well, you see,” she explains almost apologetically, “I never saw anything bad. Nothing happened to me. I think sometimes what it can be like for people who did suffer. I was at art school with a girl, she only died recently. She was Czech, and she’d lost her parents. Her brother and sister got here by the skin of their teeth, and she lost everybody else. Someone like me lost no one — I think a couple of great-aunts, whom I hardly knew.
“During the Blitz, I never saw anybody badly hurt. And then, you see, it was over, and one hadn’t been killed, and the Nazis hadn’t taken over the world, which I had expected them to do. Later, like everybody, I was worried about nuclear war and Russia taking over. This seemed extremely likely, and that didn’t happen either. So, I don’t know now about North Korea and Trump, but so far it’s all worked out. My generation or anybody who survived the war has lived through, in this country, the most peaceful, wealthy, happy time probably in history. I am also conscious of how quickly it can change, and sometimes it seems very fragile.”
Has surviving Hitler made her unusually appreciative of ordinary life? “Yes, I suppose so. I think also being so old, because I remember these things — London and the wartime ruins.”
Anna in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit dreams of becoming rich and famous. Kerr got there. As her trilogy sold worldwide, she thought, “I am earning money from my parents’ hard times. And that money would have been a godsend to them in the period I described.” Neither parent lived to see her publish. She thinks they would have been pleased but adds: “I imagine my mother saying, ‘Yes, but Michael was a Sir.’ ”
Kerr’s generation of continental refugees from fascism marked postwar British cultural life: think of the painters Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, the architect Richard Rogers, or the historians Ernst Gombrich and Eric Hobsbawm. When I ask Kerr why, she says, “Certainly we were given an awful lot of help. People were incredibly good to us. We were helped with scholarships and advice for schools. The same thing is happening now, isn’t it? London schoolchildren are ahead of the whole country, and they think this is probably because there’s so many refugees.” (Most educational experts would probably say the effect has to do with immigrants, not specifically refugees.)
“A child comes to another country, and you can’t understand a word anybody says. Then within a year or two it’s your own language, and I think this gives you a huge boost. Probably knowing two languages helps the brain. Being a refugee, I think, gives you an extra impact because everything is more difficult. If you’re a refugee and your parents have lost a life that was full of skills, then perhaps you have a more urgent need to succeed because you know what can be done.” But Kerr says today’s refugees come in greater numbers and have it harder: “We didn’t have to live in camps.”
Her 2015 book Mog’s Christmas Calamity, a number-one bestseller, raised more than £1.5m for Save the Children’s literacy campaign. What would she advise a 12-year-old refugee arriving in Britain today? “Learn the language. That’s the only thing that matters. And then you’re away.”
In 2006, Kneale’s death — after 54 years together — left her alone in the Barnes house. Since then she has worked obsessively. “The reason I go on now is because I would be totally miserable if I didn’t. The only good thing about being on one’s own is that, for the first time in my life, I can work 24 hours a day if I want. If I didn’t work, life wouldn’t have a shape, and having all this time I have got better, which is nice. I start about half-past 10, 11. Sometimes I can go on until six, but sometimes you realise you’re just doing rubbish and it’s not going to get any better, so you have to stop. I’m almost two-thirds through another book, a picture book.”
It’s as if 94 years aren’t enough. Kerr has written about making up for her creative years lost to child-rearing, but she also appears to be making up for her parents’ lost creative years. In the evenings she goes for walks, during which she’s sometimes pulled back to childhood. “It’s beginning now to get leaves on the ground, and I remember coming home from a walk [in Berlin], and walking through the leaves and kicking them with my feet and knowing it was getting dark. We were going home, and there’d be tea. I remember that vividly.”
It’s a life of routine. Is Barnes the unchanging English suburban cocoon that this refugee needs? She replies instantly: “Well, yes, it’s worse than that. Our cleaning lady has been with us 30 years. The man who’s cut my hair has cut it for 40 years, I’ve been with the same publishers for 50 years. I’ve worked in the same room for 50 years. I’ve had the same drawing table thing since I was 25, I think — my brother gave me the money for it. I don’t do it consciously, but I do seem to.” Even her cats provide stability. As a child refugee, she could never have one.
What is her identity — British, Jewish, European, a Londoner, or a mix? “British,” she says. But she has made her peace with today’s Germans. She has even learnt to love Berlin. This summer, she says, she showed her grandchildren the old family home in the Grunewald neighbourhood, and the local station “where my brother and I used to write down the numbers of trains without having any idea why. And it is now a great memorial, because from this station the Berlin Jews were sent to Auschwitz. They’ve done it very, very well. I think my grandchildren found it very interesting. I suppose they’re millennials. My grandson, who is just 16, looked a bit strange later, and I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ He said, ‘I’ve never seen anything so sad.’ ”
One day, how would she like to be remembered? “I don’t know. It would be nice to be remembered at all.”
Portraits: Thomas Wynne