Judith Kerr was, for me, one of those iconic public figures who I somehow believed to be immortal. Sort of like the Queen. One should not feel surprised by the passing of a 95 year-old lady, but yet I was caught off guard. Barely a week ago, I read the interview she gave in The Guardian. Now she is gone. Her book The Tiger Who Came To Tea was one of the first books that I can ever remember being read to me. The adventures of the hapless Mog cropped up throughout my childhood. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit remains the best book that I have ever found for explaining the Holocaust to children, chronicling events from the child’s eye-level while still putting across the trauma. There are passages that stick in the mind even now.
Judith Kerr took her work so seriously, starting into writing picture books to help her children learn to read. She tried to use as few words as possible, she wanted to make sure that the words should not be repeating anything that her illustrations had made obvious. Because of that, her books are a fantastic partnership between word and image. When Mog’s family repeat confidently that Mog loves babies, the aghast expression on the cat’s face is what tells the reader that this is not so. With the rise and rise of celebrities churning out children’s books in the search of a quick pay-day, Kerr’s artistry shines out all the brighter.
As with Baroness Mary Warnock, who died in March this year, I mourn the passing of a generation who represented a more optimistic view of the British nation and a more civilised level of discourse. It’s perhaps ironic that I should think that given that Judith Kerr was German by birth. I relistened to her Desert Island Discs interview this week and found it hugely moving. She had such pride in the British nation and her experience as a refugee. The interview was recorded in 2010, so I can only feel sorrow for the turn the country took in her latter years.
Still, most poignant of all were her thoughts on the Holocaust. She admitted that in the immediate aftermath of the war, she and her family tried to think little of it but over time, she had come to think of those one and a half million children who ‘didn’t get out, as I did in the nick of time […] I’ve had such a happy and fulfilled life and they’d have given anything to have had just a few days of it. I hope I’ve not wasted any of it: I try to get the good out of every bit of it because I know they would have done if they’d had the chance.‘
For all the sorrow we may feel about Judith Kerr’s passing, as someone pointed out on Twitter, to escape the Nazis, build a happy life and family in a new country, create books that are beloved by generations of children and adults alike, and to still be giving interviews and attending ‘parties in great frocks well into your 90s’, is a truly well-lived life. Rather than grief, I think the emotion most appropriate here is gratitude, gratitude for her life, that she got to live it in spite of Hitler and that she lived it quite so well. Judith Kerr was an exceptional woman and always remarkably matter-of-fact in the face of death. She wrote Goodbye Mog, a book that shocked the nation in admitting to children that life does not last forever. Kerr admitted at the time that it was part of her coming to terms with her own mortality, wanting to say ‘Remember me, remember me. But do get on with your lives’. I look forward to sharing Kerr’s books with my own little Astronaut. For Kerr, I think that this would be the best kind of immortality and the only one that she wanted. Forever to be missed, never to be forgotten.