Judith Kerr: ‘The British were so friendly to us as refugees’

Judith Kerr on her extraordinary life: living through the Blitz, the Nazis' hatred for her father – and the inspiration for her famous book, The Tiger Who Came To Tea

We came to London when I was a teenager, three years before the war. We learned English quickly and, at that point, my brother and I still felt we were having an adventure. We felt we’d had a very good childhood, much better than if there had been no Hitler and we’d just stayed in Germany. It was so interesting. We went to Switzerland, then Paris, then London. If you arrive in a country and can’t understand what anyone is saying, then a year later you are speaking their language, that gives you a tremendous boost. I loved being in Paris, it was wonderful. It’s a huge credit to my parents that we felt that way. They were always very positive in front of us.

The Second World War broke out a few weeks after my 16th birthday. On my 17th birthday the Germans marched into Paris, and then came the Blitz in London, which is where we were living. My main preoccupation at that point was a conviction that I wouldn’t live to be 18. Everyone expected the invasion of Britain and we knew my father [Alfred Kerr, a prominent German-Jewish arts critic] was on a Nazi blacklist. They’d put a price on his head. We all felt if the Nazis got into Britain that would be it for us.

My main preoccupation at that point was a conviction that I wouldn’t live to be 18

The Blitz was pretty tough. We lived in Bloomsbury, which got it bad because the enemy planes went for the stations. But we never experienced any hostility as German refugees. People were most generous, extraordinarily so. No one ever said anything nasty to us. There were three types of aliens: enemy aliens who were the Germans and Italians; friendly aliens, like the French and Poles; and people like my family, who were German but known to be very anti-Hitler. We were friendly enemy aliens.

All the way through the war, I was always drawing. Eventually the Blitz quietened down, and I started going to evening art classes. I began to realise that this was what I wanted to do. It was a great help. It gave me something to live for.

Judith Kerr and tiger

I was very shy. And always worrying dreadfully what people thought of me, and whether I had said or done the wrong thing. If I could talk to that teenage girl now I’d tell her to hang on in there, it’s going to be alright. And don’t worry so much what other people think about you. Though that would be empty advice because I still worry now. My husband was a very keen photographer and we would look through pictures he’d taken of our lives together – we were married for 52 years. The child-ren said how nice I looked when I was young and I thought I looked nice too. I wish I’d known then. I didn’t think I was good looking. I spent the whole time thinking, oh dear, this isn’t right.

My husband [scriptwriter Nigel Kneale] changed my life. He was a writer – he wrote the Quatermass serials. When I met him he was working for the BBC, just doing any old job, writing for children’s shows, adapting plays for television. He taught me a lot about writing and encouraged me all the time. I struggled when I tried to write When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, the book about my childhood. I found it so hard to do. I said to him, this is no good. I can’t do it. He read what I’d written, which was a terrible mess, in pen and pencil, with things scrubbed out and scribbled in, and he said, no, this is good. You must finish it – but you can’t just write about moving around all those countries. Hitler has to be on the first page. In the end, I got him on the second page.

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It was very good that they published The Tiger Who Came to Tea. It was a success but I had no idea it would pass through the generations the way it has. It was the first thing I ever did, just a bedtime story I made up for my daughter. I saw her little face, wanting to be entertained, so I just put in everything she liked. We’d seen tigers in the zoo but we didn’t talk about how dangerous they were. We just thought they were incredibly beautiful, with that incredible deep orange. My daughter wanted to stroke them. So the thought of one coming to your house – wouldn’t that be lovely? And she was crazy about the idea of going to a café unexpectedly, at night, in the dark, so I put that in too. People have looked for metaphors but no, it was a real tiger.

The teenage me would be in total, total amazement if you told her about her success in the future. All I ever hoped for then was some way of being able to pay the rent while being a painter. I thought maybe I could get a job as a ticket  clippie on a bus, and get a very early shift so that I could paint the rest
of the time.

All I ever hoped for was some way of being able to pay the rent while being a painter

I was very close to my father, who died in 1948, and I still have conversations in my head with him. Someone has just written a new biography of him and there was a lot that was new to me. I didn’t know just how bad it was for my parents. There’s a letter in that book in which my father says, fortunately the children haven’t realised what the real situation is. We just knew they didn’t have much money. We didn’t know they were terrified for their lives. My father was so loathed by the Nazis. When they came to power, no one was allowed to pay him any money. Suddenly we had nothing. All our belongings were confiscated. We moved to Switzerland because he hoped to write for a big Swiss newspaper he’d written for before but they were very worried about antagonising the Germans. So they refused to have anything to do with him. I didn’t know any of this. But it did make me feel proud when  I understood.

If I could go back and relive any time it would be when my husband and I were first married. We’d finally got a tiny council flat just behind Kensington Church Street – it was difficult to find anywhere in the 1950s because everywhere had been bombed and they were in the process of rebuilding. I remember going out for a walk in Kensington Gardens one Sunday and suddenly just realising this wasn’t a special occasion. We could do this any Sunday. And it was wonderful.

The Tiger Who Came To Tea