The lady with a tiger's heart
Her enchanting books have charmed generations of British children. But the remarkable true story of Judith Kerr’s own childhood, and her escape from Nazi Germany, is no fairytale
For more than four decades, the charming and innocent tale of a greedy tiger who gatecrashes a suburban home and gobbles up all the family’s food has enchanted generations of children. But this summer, The Tiger Who Came To Tea will also return to the West End for another run of the hugely successful stage version of Judith Kerr’s award-winning book.
‘Magical’ and ‘simple’ are just two of the oft-repeated adjectives used to describe the captivating tale. And yet the real-life story of how its author came to live in Britain and start writing could not be further removed from the quintessentially secure, British upbringing her books embody.
The daughter of a German socialist critic and broadcaster, known for his fierce opposition to the Nazis, Judith and her family were forced to flee their native Berlin as Hitler rose to power in 1933. Exiled in Switzerland, Alfred Kerr found himself unable to work to support his young family, so they then fled to France, where they had relatives, before finally securing passage to Britain in 1936.
The death threats, poverty and uncertainty the family endured, left Judith’s mother depressed. And in a cruel twist of fate, Alfred suffered a debilitating stroke at age 80 and took his own life. Just a fraction of these events might have blighted the existence of a less-resilient child, yet Judith considers herself ‘rather fortunate’.
‘My father had a talent for happiness. Even when things were really bad, he found things to enjoy and I think I have some of that, too. It goes with loving to draw; you really look at things around you and get a kick out of just being in the world.’
Kerr, now 89, admits that it was only when she became a mother herself and started to recount the events of her life for a trilogy, based on her own experiences, that she saw her parents’ struggles in a new light.
‘Suddenly I wondered what I would have done if I’d had to get two children out of the country. My mother was awfully good about it, never worrying us. And when I found old correspondence of my father’s I realised how hard he had been fighting to get work, when I had viewed him as laid-back because he never spoke about it.’
With her cat, Katinka, playing at her feet, Kerr settles down in the kitchen of her welcoming home in Barnes to tell the story of her extraordinary life. She says the fact that she has lived in the same house for 50 years, was married for 40 years, and has had the same publisher since 1968, are the only obvious antidotes to the peripatetic nature of her early years.
With the same unnerving gift of seeing the world through a child’s eyes she explains what it was like to live through such troubled times.
‘As far as I was concerned, I was having a normal, comfortable childhood. The only difference was that my father was famous. People would come up and say they enjoyed a broadcast or ask what he was working on.
‘He had a weekly radio programme and a car used to come to collect him. We didn’t have one, so that was exciting, but it wasn’t till many years later my mother told us what a terrifying time it had been. One of the men was an armed bodyguard, because my father’s life was under threat. It was a live weekly broadcast so everyone knew he would have to leave the house at a certain time to get to the studio.
‘The danger was so great he once wrote my mother a farewell letter, because he did not believe he would see her again.’ When the Nazi infiltration of the police took hold, Alfred Kerr decided he would have to move his family out of Germany. He fled as soon as he received a tip-off from a police officer that his passport was about to be seized. Shortly afterwards, his wife Judith, and son Michael, followed, boarding an early-morning milk train out of Stuttgart (that they thought would attract less attention) bound for Zurich.
Judith, then nine, almost gave the family away at the border when the passport inspector left the family’s carriage and she said to her mother, ‘There you are, nothing happened,’ before being silenced by a glare.
But things did not improve for the family in Zurich as the Swiss were unwilling to risk upsetting their Nazi neighbours by employing one of their most vociferous detractors. So they moved to France and Judith went to a French school. ‘As far as I was concerned, life continued to be fine. My parents didn’t talk about things in front of us and I thought it was fun moving to different countries.’
Even learning a new language didn’t upset Judith and she says it probably contributed to her love of words. ‘Once you’ve learned a new language, it’s a huge boost to your confidence. And once you’ve done it at age 10, it’s easier to do it again.’
Finally, in 1936, after film director Alexander Korda agreed to buy one of her father’s scripts, the family moved to Britain. But her father’s career remained stalled – Judith believes that Korda bought the script as an act of kindness to fund the family’s trip.
‘My mother had once had an English governess and had been brought up hearing tales of lords and ladies and castles, and although that world still existed, it wasn’t the world we occupied and my mother was very disappointed. The Kerrs found dayto- day living very expensive in London so three American ladies clubbed together to send Judith to boarding school, which she hated; she left at 16 and concentrated on her first love, art.
It was while teaching at a technical college that she met husband Nigel Kneale, the writer known as Tom, who was working nearby at the BBC. The couple had two children and when they were both at school, Kerr began to write the first of a series of highly acclaimed children’s books.
When Tom died in 2006 she wrote My Henry, a poignant account of a little old lady who goes on secret adventures with her dead husband. She feels his loss keenly but with the same optimism that helped her overcome the early obstacles in her life, and to the delight of young readers, she re-mains as enthusiastic about her work as ever.
Sharp-witted, engaging, and humorous company, Kerr has now focused her writing and illustrating skills on the subject of grandmothers. With two grandchildren of her own (the offspring of author son Matthew) she has just written The Great Granny Gang about a group of silverhaired, mischievous old ladies.
Like most of her other work, it is hard not to view the endearing tale of adorable grannies up to no good as at least a little autobiographical.
The Tiger Who Came To Tea is at the Lyric Theatre, 4 July to 2 September: 020-7492 1532, www.boxoffice.co.uk
The Great Granny Gang by Judith Kerr will be published on 27 September by HarperCollins, price £10.55.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"It is not always she who appears most kindly in her interest who is the safe sharer of sacred (maybe sorrowful) secrets! Charming manners do not always connote sincerity of heart!”The Lady. In Confidence. 4th April, 1918