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Jan 2003 Journal

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'The Pope’s daughter’ (profile of Judith Kerr)

Like Caesar’s Gaul, refugee lives tend to divide into three parts: the old country, uprooting and war, and the new beginning. This tripartite division underlies Judith Kerr’s autobiography in novel form, the first – and best-known – part of which is entitled When Hitler Stole White Rabbit.

Judith grew up in bourgeois comfort in interwar Berlin where her father helped shape the intellectual climate. As drama critic of the prestigious Berliner Tageblatt, Alfred Kerr acted as supreme arbiter of literary taste, a role that earned him the epithet Kulturpapst (cultural Pope) of Germany. (And just as medieval Roman pontiffs excommunicated the Counter-Popes of Avignon, so Herr Kerr feuded acrimoniously with Vienna’s Kulturpapst, Karl Kraus.)

In 1932 the eight-year old Judith witnessed a champagne-lubricated event in the Kerr apartment: Gerhart Hauptmann, the greatest German playwright since Goethe, was drinking Bruderschaft with her father. A year later the playwright was cravenly collaborating with the newly installed Hitler regime, while the drama critic – whose name stood on a Nazi death list – had escaped to Switzerland, where his family soon joined him. From Switzerland the Kerrs moved to France where they subsisted on financial help from relatives. Here Judith and her brother Michael quickly learned the language. The father, however, was unable to obtain work, and the family’s hopes focused on Britain.

In 1936 they came to London, where the elderly Alfred Kerr, who never mastered English entirely, found earning a living no easier than in Paris. He did, however, receive the impressive sum of £1,000 from Alexander Korda for a film script about Napoleon’s mother which remained on the drawing board. Some of that money was spent on enrolling Michael at Aldenham, a minor public school, where he soon gained scholarships that eventually took him to Cambridge and on to a brilliant career as a judge (see obituary, AJR Journal, July 2002).

The rest of the Kerr family, meanwhile, spent the next few years ensconced in a Bloomsbury boarding house where all the residents were émigrés from Europe. Judith had a chequered education, part of it at a snobby boarding school which she hated.

The advent of war brought several changes. The BBC enlarged its German service and Alfred hoped for permanent employment there – but found his path blocked by a devotee of Karl Kraus who wouldn’t let a mere world war get in the way of a literary feud. Michael was interned on the Isle of Man; when his parents read Michael Foot’s enthusiastic review of the anti-Nazi film Mortal Storm in the Evening Standard, they wrote to him pointing out that Britain was currently keeping anti-Nazis like their son behind barbed wire. Michael Foot presumably showed the letter to his editor, Frank Owen, who took the case up with a minister – and a few days later Michael was released. The Bloomsbury boarding house was bombed and the bulk of the residents went en bloc to Putney. Judith left school and trained as a steno-typist. Unable to purchase a typewriter straight out, she received a loan from Bloomsbury House which she repaid at five shillings a week out of her wages. In the evenings she attended art classes at Regent Street Polytechnic.

Postwar Judith obtained a London County Council scholarship, enabling her to combine full-time study of art with work in a textile design studio. She boosted her income by spells of art teaching at schools – and sold her first paintings. In 1948 the British Control Commission sent Alfred Kerr to Hamburg to report on the state of theatre in the British Zone of Occupation. On entering the auditorium of the Thalia Theatre, he was recognised and given a standing ovation. This emotional experience, coming after 15 years of humiliation and nagging financial worry, was too much for Alfred Kerr and he suffered a fatal stroke at his hotel the following night.

In the early 1950s Judith met her future husband, Tom Kneale, over lunch at the Lime Grove studio of BBC TV. He was a writer of short stories and TV and film scripts who made his name with the Quatermass series for television (which spawned several cinematic spin-offs). Later in that decade Judith worked as a bilingual script reader for the BBC. In the late 1950s she became a mother twice over; then, as the children took up less of her time, she started writing – and illustrating – books for their age group. (Her ‘Mog’ series of children’s books has now reached 16.)

The 1970s saw the launch of the above-mentioned trilogy spearheaded by When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (which, in translated form, gained the German Youth Book Prize). The trilogy has since been re-issued and its second volume – The Other Way Round – renamed Bombs on Aunt Dainty.

And now for the embarras de richesse: Judith’s and Tom’s son Matthew Kneale is also a writer. His novel English Passengers which, incidentally, features the mid-nineteenth century genocide of Tasmania’s Aborigines, gained the Whitbread Prize two years ago. What’s more, Alfred Kerr’s writings have been re-issued in Germany and reached best-seller status!
Richard Grunberger

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