London (AFP) – Acting on a tip-off from an anonymous police officer, Judith Kerr escaped from the Nazis as a little girl.
Now, as she prepares to celebrate her 95th birthday, the celebrated British children’s author thinks back to the phone-call that saved her life.
It was February 1933 when the policeman called Judith Kerr’s father, Alfred Kerr, a prominent theatre critic and playwright opposed to Nazism.
“My father was ill in bed with flu and this man rang up and said: ‘They are trying to take away your passport, you must get out immediately,’” she said.
“I never knew his name and always wondered what happened to him but he saved our lives.”
Alfred Kerr immediately realised the gravity of the situation and took the first train to Switzerland, where his wife and two children joined him a few days later.
By then, it was just one day before the Nazis took power.
The family finally arrived in London when Kerr was nine years old.
Kerr told the story in an autobiographical novel entitled “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit”, a book that has been on German schoolchildren’s curriculum for years.
Two primary schools now bear the author’s name, one in Berlin not far from the Grunewald district where the Kerr family lived, and the other in London.
Kerr credits the success of the book with being “published at a time when the Germans hadn’t really managed to talk to their children about the past”.
Kerr said she found the recent resurgence of the far-right “worrying”.
“You know, I have done all that. But I don’t think at the moment it is anything like as bad as it once was,” she said.
She said she also did not think Brexit was a good idea, adding: “Then we’ve got Trump. It’s not a good time really”.
– ‘A tiger would be quite nice’ –
The author and illustrator is perhaps best known for her best-selling book “The Tiger Who Came to Tea”, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
The story chronicles Sophie and her mother, having tea in the kitchen when the doorbell rings. In steps a huge tiger who devours all the food and drink before never being seen again.
Since its publication in 1968, the tale has been read by generations of kids and sold five million copies around the world.
“It was a bedtime story I made up for my daughter who was then three,” said the nonagenarian, with curly grey hair and a mischievous smile, in the living room of her south west London home where she raised two children.
Kerr recounted how her husband, screenwriter Nigel Kneale, was away at the time, leaving his wife and daughter “bored” without him.
“We both wished somebody would come and I thought a tiger would be quite nice,” she said, recalling they had admired their beauty on visits to the zoo.
The book features the same yellow and white cupboards in the kitchen on the ground floor of Kerr’s big, bright family home where she has lived since the 1960s.
Aged 94, Kerr continues to work, dozens of coloured pencils laid out in her studio on the second floor of her house overlooking a big park.
Her next book, “Mummy Time”, will be published in the autumn by HarperCollins, which also reissued “The Tiger Who Came To Tea” this year.
Her family, seeking refuge in Switzerland, had learned that the Nazis had descended on their home the day after their electoral victory to demand their passports.
“Here I am, 86 years later,” she said. “And all that time is because of that man who rang my father.” A man whose name she never knew.