When author Judith Kerr passed away on 22 May 2019, there was an outpouring of accolades, obituaries and memories in print, online and across social media. I confess that while her picture book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and her semi-autobiographical novel, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, were vaguely familiar to me, I’d never read them, nor the more than 30 other books she’s had published over a career spanning half a century.
When I dug deeper, I discovered a life as extraordinary off the page as on it.
Anne Judith Kerr was born in Berlin on 14 June 1923. While her father, Alfred Kerr, had grown up in a ‘normal Jewish household’ he ‘didn’t believe in God’, and taught Judith, by aged 5, to say, ‘I am a free thinker’ when other children asked why she didn’t attend RE at school. 
The Difference a Day Makes
Alfred was a drama critic, who spoke out against the Nazis in both his written and broadcasting work. After being warned about possible consequences if the Nazis came to power, he left the country two days before the 1933 elections. The rest of the family – Judith, her brother Michael and their mother, fled Germany the following night. The day after Hitler won, authorities arrived at their house to confiscate their passports.
Judith Kerr was nine when her family found themselves living as refugees in France. Back in Germany, her father’s books had all been burned by Goebbels (although they have since been reprinted), and he now had great difficulty in finding publishers for his ongoing work.
Acts of Kindness
That was until, director Alexander Korda bought one of his scripts.
‘That saved our lives, because otherwise the Nazis would have caught us when they invaded France. I don’t think Korda had any intention of making the film; he did it as act of kindness,’ Judith wrote earlier this year. 
This kindness enabled the family to move to London in 1936. Judith and her brother, who had already learned German and French, would now have to learn English.
In talking about her refugee experience, she has acknowledged that it was not such a traumatic experience for her and her brother: ‘Because our parents had protected us from the dangerous reality of our situation, we loved the experience of being refugees.’ 
It wasn’t so easy for her parents, however. With little money on which to survive, they lived in cheap hotels for years. Her father found ongoing difficulty in finding anyone to publish his work. Instead, her mother found whatever menial work she could find in order to help the family scrape by. But it took its toll on her. At one point she contemplated suicide, even planning to take her children with her, although this was something Judith didn’t find out until many years later.
Judith was, however, aware of her parents’ financial struggles. This motivated her to leave school at 16, and train as a stenographer. She found a job working in a ‘bombed-out hospital’ for a woman helping the war effort. 
Judith’s brother Michael was studying at Cambridge University when war broke out, was arrested as an ‘enemy alien’ and interned briefly on the Isle of Man. He was released thanks to another kindness, this time politician Michael Foot who passed on a letter to the Home Secretary. Michael Kerr eventually enlisted in the RAF.
After the War
After the war, the whole family became British citizens. And Judith felt a ‘great sense of gratitude’ towards England for the rest of her life. In writing about Kerr’s life, Frank Cottrell Boyce says that ‘she was so proud of having been a refugee and so ready to thank the Britain that took her family in.’ 
In 1945, Judith won a scholarship to study art at the Central School of Art, something she had always loved and pursued. She later worked for the BBC as a script writer and editor, and it was there she met and married screenwriter Nigel Kneale.
Her father, Alfred Kerr, returned to Germany only once, in 1948 to attend a performance of Romeo and Juliet. He was given a standing ovation, an indication of how well-known he was in his home country, despite his struggle for recognition outside it. But some time afterwards, he suffered a stroke, and his wife helped him end his life by smuggling in pills.
‘The following morning, around his body, his bed was covered in notes,’ Judith recalled in late 2018. ‘He wrote until the very last second’. 
Inspiration to Write
Her father was her first inspiration to write. Later her husband, who died in 2006 after 52 years of marriage, encouraged her to write down her first stories.
Her first book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, was created for her daughter, Tacy, and was published in 1968. Since then, she has entertained many, many children (and their parents) with stories of crocodiles under the bed, a forgetful and accident-prone cat, and a monkey at risk of missing the Ark. Her young adult novels, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Bombs for Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away, were written to help her own children understand her experience as a child refugee and growing up in war-torn Britain.
Judith Kerr continued writing and illustrating until shortly before her death. By then, she had sold 4 million copies of her books, with Tiger who came to Tea alone selling its millionth copy in 2018. Her penultimate book, Mummy Time, was published in September that year, and she was named illustrator of the year early in May 2019.
She died, aged 95, in the home she’d bought with her husband in 1962. She had been booked to appear at a festival the week after her death, to speak about The Curse of the School Rabbit, which has been published just this month (July).
According to a statement by Ann-Janine Murtagh, Executive Publisher, HarperCollins Children’s Books, Judith’s ‘incisive wit and dry humour made her both excellent company and a joy to publish. She embraced life as one great big adventure and lived every day to the full.’ 
When I think of Judith Kerr’s long life and literary career, I can’t help but remember Anne Frank. Both were young Jewish girls who escaped Nazi Germany with their families – but that’s where the similarities in their stories end.
While Judith’s family remained safe from the Gestapo, Anne and her family were betrayed by an anonymous source. Anne and her sister died of typhus shortly before their concentration camp was liberated by the British Army in April 1945. In contrast, Judith Kerr’s family survived the war, in the relative safety of Britain (at risk from German bombs but free from persecution by the Nazis). Judith would go on to marry, have children and live a full life, which included publishing 35+ books. Anne Frank’s legacy was a single volume, albeit an enduring one.
When asked if she’d read Anne Frank’s diary in 2015, Judith replied:
“Of course I did. That made a massive impact on me … Anne Frank was incredible… it is so sad to think what she might have done if she’d been able to grow up.’ 
Listen to Judith Kerr read
You can listen to Judith Kerr reading an extract from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, via the Guardian Children’s Books Podcast.
References and Further Reading:
 Tim Adams, ‘Judith Kerr: ‘I like this generation of teenagers. They seem kind and idealistic’, The Guardian, 16 December 2018.
 Nancy Banks-Smith, ‘Judith Kerr was both sweetness and steel – and I’ll miss her’, The Guardian, 23 May 2019.
 Eleanor Byrne, ‘Why Judith Kerr’s Beloved Books for Children Must be Read with her Autobiographies’, The Conversation, 28 May 2019.
 Frank Cottrell Boyce ‘Judith Kerr was not scared to confront death in her stories. But she helped us savour the joy of life’, The Guardian, 26 May 2019.
 Emily Drabble and Guardian family members, ‘Judith Kerr: I wasn’t scared enough. That’s how I nearly gave us away’, The Guardian, 18 February 2015.
 HarperCollins Publishers UK, statement about Judith Kerr’s death, Facebook, 23 May 2019.
 Judith Kerr, ‘Judith Kerr on being a child refugee and discovering the kindness of strangers’, Harper’s Bazaar, 23 M‘
 Judith Kerr reads from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’, The Guardian.ay 2019.
 ‘Obituary: Judith Kerr‘, BBC, 23 May 2019.
 Jane Wheatley, ‘Judith Kerr: a life less ordinary’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 November 2014.