I first met Judith Kerr, one of Britain’s most cherished children’s authors and illustrators, at her son Matthew Kneale’s apartment in the Jewish Ghetto in Rome in the mid 2000s. Over wine we discussed geopolitical winds of change, American farm life (she was immensely curious about my upbringing in rural America) and, for reasons I don’t quite remember, bikini waxing. It would be the first of many stimulating conversations I had with her over the years, each one a sort of full-immersion into the mind of a creative genius. Every time I saw Grandma Judy, as she was known to all of us in Rome whose children were friends with her two grandchildren, we caught up on politics, my family’s farm, and whatever pop cultural trend was topping the news. But the thing I will remember most about her is the way, when she approved of something, whether it was wine or politics, it was simply “rather wonderful.”
The last time I saw her was in Rome, maybe a year before she died. She was concerned about the direction of far-right politics in Europe because she knew first-hand how wrong things can go. Kerr was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1923. She and her Jewish parents fled in 1933 after Kerr’s father, German-Jewish journalist and theater critic, Alfred Kerr, had openly criticized the Nazi regime. They were rightfully concerned about their safety.
The journey of these Jewish refugees, via Switzerland, Paris and ultimately London, inspired her 1971 semi-autobiographical book, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which recounts her painful difficulty in choosing only one toy to take with her on their journey. It wasn’t what she took that she remembered, but the pink rabbit she left behind she worried about. She surmised Hitler and his goons had stolen it. A few years before she died, she traveled to Germany to accept a recognition award. Her pink rabbit, just as she suspected, was not there waiting.
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