Wikimedia Commons, von Christoph Rieger
(Geburtsname: Anna Judith Gertrud Helene Kerr, Ehename: Anna Judith Gertrud Helene Kneale-Kerr)
Born 14 June 1923 in Berlin
Died 22 May 2019 in London
German-British author and illustrator
100th birthday 14 June 2023
Best known in Germany for the novel for young readers based on her own experiences When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Judith Kerr became most famous in her new home in Great Britain for her children's books featuring the cat MOG and “the tiger who came to tea”.
CHILDHOOD IN BERLIN
Born and raised in Berlin, she was to say later that she never knew the real Berlin. For her, the city was only her childhood years and her childhood memories until 1933, when she had to leave Germany with her Jewish family. Judith Kerr and her brother Michael, who was two years older, were brought up without religion; as a child she described herself as a “freethinker” who believed that one had to behave decently in life, regardless of whether one believed in a God or not. This was an attitude she was to retain throughout her life.
Her father was the well-known author and theater critic Alfred Kerr, her mother the composer Julia Kerr née Weismann. Judith was unable to understand her father's profession as a young girl, and she never wanted to become a mother because for her a mother was someone always having to write music.
Judith Kerr began drawing at an early age, and this seemed to her to be a completely ordinary pastime. But she also discovered the power of words; she loved writing about accidents.
Looking back, she said that she had experienced only unimportant things in Berlin and had had a happy childhood. She had had no idea at the time about what was happening around her.
FLIGHT AND EXILE
In mid-February 1933, her father fled to Prague after being warned that the Nazis wanted to take away his passport. He then went on to Switzerland, where he met up with his family in early March. They stayed there for a few months before going to Paris, where they lived for almost two years. But Alfred Kerr - contrary to what he had expected - was able to publish very little in Paris. The family possessions in Germany were confiscated, and the family fell into a deep financial crisis. The parents did their best to convey this situation to the children as a great adventure. Judith Kerr, who went to school in Switzerland as well as in Paris, felt quite at home in the big city and, she said, she found it wonderful to be a refugee.
In 1935, a script by Alfred Kerr was accepted in Great Britain, which brought in a lot of money, and so the family moved to London. It was again a matter of learning a new language for the two children, even though they had already acquired a fragmentary knowledge of English in France. Judith Kerr received private lessons with two American girls who were being home-schooled. When her family's finances were insufficient to pay for the hotel for her, she even stayed with that family until they returned to the U.S. when the threat of war became too great. Later some “kind ladies” paid for a fancy and snobby boarding school for her, from which she graduated.
In 1940 Kerr took a foundation course in art at the Polytechnic College in London. However, she was only able to remain there for one semester due to a lack of funds. In the meantime, the war had started; she experienced the bombing attacks on London and worked for a time as a fire warden.
For Judith Kerr, it was the time when she “became British,” as she writes in her autobiography. Only now did she get to know the „ordinary people,” and appreciate their humor, patience and tolerance. With the exception of her brother Michael – who was taken to the internment camp on the Isle of Man, albeit only for a few days – the family was classified as “friendly enemy aliens” and was not interned despite their German origin. Through employment with the Red Cross, Judith Kerr became financially independent.
In 1941 she was able to take a nude drawing course at St. Martin's School of Art. Here she had to deal with naturalistic drawing, which she had avoided until then. This was followed by courses at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, which she attended after she had finished work.
She experienced the day of liberation without feelings of triumph. She was glad that people could just finally be confident that they could go on living. And she felt that it was HER country. In 1947 she became a British citizen.
AFTER THE WAR
Shortly after the end of the war, Judith Kerr received a trade scholarship that required her to spend two days a week doing work that had something to do with drawing, for which she was paid, and she found employment in the studio of an upholstery fabric manufacturer. On the remaining three days, she was able to use it to go to Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she attended various classes for three years. She designed fabric patterns that she could sell in her spare time.
Her first successes included one of her paintings being accepted by the Royal Academy for an exhibition, and another by the renowned London Group. She also won a prize for painting.
Kerr did not manage to get her diploma, but she was subsequently able to work as an art teacher at various schools and continued to sell the fabric patterns she created.
In 1952, she started working for BBC television (a new medium at the time) as an editor for unsolicited manuscripts which she could read and judge at home. The following year she got a full-time job editing BBC feature films - a job she loved.
It was there that she met her husband, the author Tom (Nigel) Kneale, whom she married in 1954. Those years working together at the BBC were happy and exciting years for her.
It was always clear to Judith Kerr that she did not want to have a nanny or an au pair, and would prefer to take care of her children herself. After the birth of her daughter Tacy in 1959, she therefore stayed at home. Her husband had started working as a self-employed person shortly before, and so the three of them were often at home together. While he had a lot to do, she was sometimes bored. The birth of their son Matthew followed in 1960. During this time, Kerr was struck by how unappealing mainstream children's books were. Both parents were good at making up stories to tell their children.
SUCCESSES AS AN AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR
When the children started school, Judith Kerr had free time again and began to write. In 1968, she published her first picture book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, a story she had made up with her daughter Tacy, who, after visits to the zoo, was particularly fond of tigers.
Over the years she went on to create her 17-volume series about Mog the cat as picture books for beginning readers. The stories were originally based on experiences with her real cat, Mog, or the cats that followed later. She had not intended to write a series, but she found it easier to write about the same cat in the same family, rather than to come up with a new cat in a new family each time. The books have different formats she experimented with over the years; for example, some volumes appeared as cardboard picture books for very young children. The author and illustrator decided not to use more than 350 words in her picture books. Moreover, she never wanted to write anything in the text that the children could also see in the pictures; they were to have an incentive to learn to read.
The first volume, Mog the Forgetful Cat, was published in 1970. Goodbye Mog, where the cat dies, was last volume and was published in 2002. In the German version the forgetful Mog was a tomcat (“Kater”)—slightly problematic given that in a later volume “he” had kittens (Mog's Kittens).
THE NOVELS - OUT OF THE HITLER TIME
Her children were nine and twelve when Judith Kerr told them about her own childhood and considered writing a book about it. Out of this reflection came When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit in 1971, followed by the German edition entitled Als Hitler das rosa Kaninchen stahl in 1973. This autobiographical novel tells the story of Anna, fleeing Germany with her family because of her Jewish father, who is a journalist, and arriving in London after stops in Switzerland and Paris.
The title refers to the pink rabbit that Anna had left behind in Berlin and that had long been her playmate. Forced to choose just one stuffed animal to take, she had decided in favor of the fluffy new puppy. She later called this decision a bad mistake.
Kerr had not actually planned a sequel as she did not want to write more about the past. It was to be just the story of her family; she was not interested in politics or historical events.
This book became an international bestseller and is now a long seller. Kerr received the German Youth Literature Prize for it in 1974. It has been required reading in schools for most children in Germany since then. In 2019, the novel was made into a film by Caroline Link.
But Kerr knew that being a refugee involved not just fun and cheerfulness, but the destruction of lives, and so she wanted to write about that as well. The result was the follow-up volume The Other Way Round (later titled Bombs on Aunt Daisy) in 1975, in which she tells the story of Anna's family during wartime. The German version was published in the same year under the title Warten bis der Frieden kommt (Waiting for Peace). It tells the story of Anna’s family in London during the war and of her role as enemy alien and German Jew. A third volume, A Small Person Far Away, followed in 1978; it appeared in German as Eine Art Familientreffen in 1979, and tell of Anna’s life in England after the war. All three volumes were translated by Annemarie Böll.
The special feature of the second volume in particular is the thematization of war, emigration, National Socialism and the Holocaust, all topics that had hardly been mentioned in youth literature until then.
Referring in her autobiography primarily to this volume of the Pink Rabbit trilogy, Kerr was later to say that it was only after reading old letters from her father that she realized that portraying her father as “quite inactive” had been wrong and that he had always continued to struggle to get his texts accepted.
In 1974 Kerr was to receive the German Youth Literature award and went to Germany, where she had previously been only three times after the war for family affairs and had always asked herself what role those she met had played in the atrocities of the past.
But the Youth Literature award was a joyous reason for her to go to Germany; it changed everything for her. She experienced a new generation there that had nothing to do with the atrocities, but was deeply affected. The prize resulted in frequent invitations to schools.
In 1992 Judith Kerr went to the opening of the elementary school named after her in Berlin, a public European School with German and French as languages.
In 2013, the first public bilingual elementary school with the languages German and English was named after the author and illustrator in London.
Judith Kerr faced a painful loss when her husband Tom Kneale, with whom she had been together for 54 years, died in 2006. For a year she was unable to work, finding it hard to be alone. With him she had talked a lot; without him she returned to observing as an illustrator.
Along with a group of widows, she then discovered things for herself that she had not been able to do for a long time, like going to the movies.
In 2008, her book The Tiger Who Came to Tea was adapted into a play with music, and became a great success.
New books were also written: My Henry (2011) and The Great Granny Gang (2012).
Her original manuscripts have been archived since 2009 in Seven Stories at the National Centre of Children's Books in Newcastle. An exhibition of her works, where children could also have tea with a tiger, took place there in 2009 as well. In 2011 this exhibition was on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood in London, and in 2015 at the Jewish Museum in London.
In Germany an exhibition was held in 2013 at the Burg Wissem Picture Book Museum in the city of Troisdorf. It was entitled The Pink Rabbit, Mog and the Others. The Picture World of Judith Kerr.
She dedicated her memoir Creatures. A Celebration of Her Life and Work in 2013 to the one and a half million Jewish children with all their unpainted pictures who were not as lucky as she was.
(Text from 2019; trans. Ramona Fararo, 2023)
1949: 1st prize Ideal Home Exhibition
1974: German Youth Literature Prize for Als Hitler das rosa Kaninchen stahl (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit)
2006: J. M. Barrie Award
2012: Officer of the Order of British Empire (OBE) for her commitment to literature and Holocaust education
2016: Book Trust Life Achievement Award
2018: Illustrator of the Year, British Book Awards
For additional information please consult the German version.
Author: Doris Hermanns
It has been an amazingly full and happy life, and it could so easily have been different. If my parents hadn't had the foresight, if this country hadn't given us protection, and if I hadn't gone to the BBC canteen for lunch sixty-six years ago ...
(From: Judith Kerr: Creatures. A Celebration of Her Life and Work.)
Of course, she feels English and not German. “The English saved my life, after all, and I'll never forget that. I'm terribly fond of them…just because of the mere fact that they are so incredibly tolerant.”
(From: Renée Zucker: Du musst glücklich werden!)
Literature & Sources
Books by Judith Kerr:
The Tiger Who Came to Tea. (1968)
Mog the Forgetful Cat. (1970)
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. (1971)
When Willy Went to the Wedding. (1972)
The Other Way Round. (Bombs on Aunt Dainty) (1975)
Mog’s Christmas. (1976)
A Small Person Far Away. (1978)
Mog and the Baby. (1980)
Mog in the Dark. (1984).
Mog and Me. (1984)
Mog’s Family of Cats. (1985) g
Mog’s Amazing Birthday Caper. (1986)
Mog and Bunny. (1988)
Mog and Barnaby. (1991)
How Mrs Monkey Missed the Ark. (1992)
Mog on Fox Night. The Adventures of Mog. (1993)
Mog’s Little Kittens. (1994)
Mog and the Granny. (1994)
Mog and the V.E.T. (1996)
Birdie Halleluyah! (1998)
Mog’s Bad Thing. (2000)
The Other Goose. (2001)
Goodbye Mog! (2002)
Goose in a Hole. (2005)
Twinkles, Arthur and Puss. (2007)
One Night at the Zoo. (2009)
My Henry. (2011)
The Great Granny Gang. (2012)
Creatures. A Celebration of Her Life and Work. (2013)
Mister Cleghorn’s Seal. (2015)
Katinka’s Tale. (2017)
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