This afternoon in our book club we were discussing ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ by Judith Kerr. It’s a children’s book published in 1971 and is a semi-autobiographical story about a Jewish family living in Germany in the early 1930’s. There are two young children and the story is told from nine-year old Anna’s point of view. It recounts their escape from Germany to Switzerland and then via France to England just as Judith and her family did.
It was an excellent choice and we had a great and varied discussion about it. For some of us it was a revisit to a loved story, for others, like me, it was the first time I’d read it. It wasn’t on the reading list when I was a teacher but I would have enjoyed using it with a class, and I am sure that young people would have enjoyed it – would it have dated now? Maybe. It may seem strange I should think of it as ‘dating’ but I feel its style is a little stilted and maybe children now would not engage with it as much as they did forty odd years ago.
When I got to the notes in the back there was a comment from Judith Kerr herself:
When I first began to write, I found it very difficult. up to then I had only done picture books, and a novel was quite different.
That to me, completely explained her style, particularly at the beginning of the book. English wasn’t her first language and although she speaks it perfectly, I think when you are writing certain patterns of speech emerge. She is a marvellous writer, I wouldn’t want to discourage you from reading this book!
The story is a child’s perspective, so the horrors are not always apparent as the children are shielded by their loving parents. They know that the Nazis are evil they know that Jews in the 1930’s were beginning to find life difficult) but it’s when Anna finds out about a professor who is chained up in a dog kennel – we the reader understand the full horror of it, whereas to her it just seems nasty and strange. Many of the details must be autobiographical – her mother is carrying a bag with an embroidered camel on it as they are on the train to escape Germany; as they cross the border going through various checkpoints, she clutches the camel more and more tightly – without being told, we readers understand her fear and tension.
Judith’s father Alfred Kerr (né Kempner) was an outspoken critic of the Nazis and wrote books which were ultimately burned by them. Her mother was a musician so it’s not surprising that she and her brother were gifted people; Judith’s other books include two further volumes of what you might call the pink rabbit trilogy, the Mog series and ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Her brother Michael (named Max in the book) served in the RAF during the war and afterwards studied law at Cambridge and became an eminent a senior judge.
I was very interested to discover that Judith’s husband, Nigel Kneale created Professor Quatermass! I also discovered he wrote ‘The Stone Tape’ which was incredibly scary and had a great influence on me – I had forgotten what it was called so I’m delighted that I know it now! Judith has two children, Tacy and Matthew Kneale – the latter wrote one of my all-time favourite novels, The English Passengers.
Once again, book club has led me to many things of interest, as well as having an interesting afternoon with my friends!
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