When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

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Judith Kerr, who died yesterday, fled Nazi Germany with her family at the age of ten, eventually settling in Britain and becoming one of our best-loved children’s authors. This book’s based on her childhood experiences. Most people (if anyone’s reading this anyway!!) will know this book, but I just wanted to write something about it, to mark the passing of a great author.   Most of the tributes in the media are referring to her as “The author of The Tiger Who Came To Tea”, and she’s also known for many other books, notably those about Mog the cat, but this is the stand-out one for me. I’m better with history than animals, even illustrated animals! It’s a near-perfect example of how to explain difficult subjects to young children in an “age-appropriate” way.

How do you get “Hitler” and “pink rabbit” into the same book title? We see it all through the eyes of Anna, Judith Kerr’s alter ego, nine years old and part of a secular Jewish German family. The book starts off in Berlin in 1933, with elections looming and the Nazis set to take power.  Her father, a journalist, has written articles criticising the Nazis. They have to flee.  Anna and her brother Max each have to choose one toy to take with them. Anna chooses a woolly dog. Later, she regrets it, and wishes she’d taken her pink rabbit instead. When people start talking about the Nazis going through their house and taking their things, she imagines them taking Pink Rabbit. It’s part of a trilogy of books, the second set during the Second World War and the third set during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, but this one’s special.

At the beginning of the story, Anna, at nine, doesn’t really understand that anything’s going on.  Max and his friends, at twelve, have heard things, names, but don’t understand the potential consequences.  They have fights in the school playground, Nazis versus Sozis, but it’s more a case of each gang wanting to beat the other than knowing what either label stands for.  And everything’s normal.  They go to school.  They play out.  They go home and tell their parents about their day.  And they haven’t grown up with the mindset of being part of a persecuted minority, or even any minority at all.  This isn’t Anatevka, where one community lives apart from another.   Like Sarajevo, like so many other places before all hell broke loose, everyone just lived together.   And Anna and Max’s family are assimilated: they don’t even really bother with religion.

Judith Kerr shows so well how normality can just fall apart.  One minute, Anna and Max and Mama are sat round the table eating apple strudel for afters.  The phone rings.  The next day, Papa’s gone, and they’re planning to go too.  Just like that – leaving their entire lives behind them.   They go to Switzerland, just outside Zurich, and they settle in there, and everything seems to be OK … until some Germans come there on holiday, and the kids aren’t allowed to play with Anna and Max because they’re Jewish.  Meanwhile, a price has been put on Papa’s head.  Again, Anna doesn’t really understand what it means.  Just that it’s not good.

Then they up and leave again.  This time, it’s for Paris.  Another new country, another new school.  New friends.  This time, a new language too.  They’ve just got settled there, and Anna’s doing really well at school, and then a film script that Papa’s written is bought by a film director in England.  So it’s another new country, another new language, another new start.

On the final page of the book, Anna ponders whether or not she’s having a difficult childhood.  She decides that she isn’t – because she’s always been with Mama and Papa and Max, and because it’s all been interesting and some of it’s been funny.

That was Judith Kerr.  She lived this, and yet she could say that, in this wonderful book that she created.  A lot of it’s funny  – their grandma’s obsessed with her annoying dog, the train journey to Switzerland is enlivened by a woman with a cat in a basket, and, when they’re on the train in England, they see adverts for Bovril at every station along the way and think it’s the name of all the places.  But there are struggles too, like their father’s shame when Anna is given a coat by a relative who works for a charity providing clothes to poor children.  And there are moments of real horror, like when they hear that Onkel Julius, a family friend who stayed behind in Berlin and fell foul of the Nazi anti-Jewish laws, has committed suicide.

It’s not bitter. It’s not preachy.  Unlike some articles (it tends to be articles rather than books which do this) written by people who have never even faced persecution or been refugees themselves, it doesn’t try to make the reader feel guilty. Like so many things written by wonderfully brave people who have faced persecution and been refugees themselves, it’s so astoundingly free of self-pity that it humbles you.  It tells a story – and it does it so incredibly well. Children’s books are written by adults, which is problematic because it’s not easy for an adult to speak like a child, think like a child and reason like a child, especially about one of the most difficult subjects in world history; but Judith Kerr managed it.

Rest in peace, Judith. My Facebook newsfeed was flooded with tributes to you within minutes of the announcement of your death.  Your books meant a lot to very many people.  And you were an inspiration in yourself – an inspirational person who led an inspirational life and wrote inspirational books.

 

 

11 thoughts on “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

  1. Val Yates

    A lovely tribute to Judith Kerr and I hope your review encourages everyone to read this inspirational book. It’s ok you know to read children’s books. Lots if us do it!

    Like

  2. What a lovely review. As a school librarian I’ve shared Pink Rabbit with children and it conveys a message of hope and optimism which is so important to young readers. And adults too!

    Like

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