Judith Kerr and the Challenges of Holocaust Education

November 5, 2021   •   By Melissa Uchiyama

IT IS EASY to engage young readers with a tiger who comes to one’s home, gobbles up all the biscuits, and laps water from the tap. It is another thing to voice the harrowing story of a girl fleeing Nazi Berlin as Hitler comes to power, leaving behind her stuffed doll and every other token of security. Readers around the world may know Judith Kerr for her writing of and illustrations for the 17-book Mog series (1970–2015), or for The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968), which has been wildly popular for more than 50 years and translated into several languages, including Hebrew and Japanese.

Readers may not know Kerr as a German-born Jew who fled Berlin in the ’30s, with her father — Alfred Kerr, an esteemed critic and author who spoke freely against the Nazis — heading first to Prague. His books were among those burned in subsequent purges, and Joseph Goebbels himself was quoted as wanting to shoot him. Kerr wrote about her family’s journey in a semi-autobiographical trilogy entitled Out of the Hitler Time (1971–’78), the first volume of which, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, features a young Kerr on the cover.

Many books about the Holocaust have since been written from the perspective of kids dealing with the historical trauma. But prior to the publication of Kerr’s trilogy, there were not many texts that young readers, specifically, could relate to. Of course, there was the beloved diary of Anne Frank, the original Dutch version published in 1947, with French and English translations following by 1952. More stories from different perspectives, ages, and countries continued to appear, but the timing of Kerr’s trilogy was right. It filled a need, and the decision to publish it was a pioneer move by HarperCollins UK. Kerr herself was a champion of Holocaust education for families, schools, and kids.

Kerr passed away on May 22, 2019. I recently spoke with her son, Matthew Kneale, currently residing in Rome, a Whitbread Book of the Year winner and prolific author whose books have been translated into 15 languages. We spoke of his mother’s work and of his own perspective as a writer. It was young Matthew who inspired his mother to write her Holocaust-themed trilogy. Having just watched The Sound of Music (1965), he stood up and announced, “Well, now we know how Mum felt in the war.” Kerr is said to have begun the work of recounting the complexity of her actual feelings soon after.

Kneale told me that his mother’s books had a strong reception in the United Kingdom, but even more so in Germany. “They provided a not-too-brutal-way of looking at what happened,” he said. “That, and it is a very charming book in its own right. I think that was the key to it, and particularly in Germany, where they were having a real difficulty working out how to look at what had happened. It won the Jugen Prize [the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis for youth literature] there and I think it was exactly what they were looking for — [a way] to introduce younger people to exactly what had gone on there, without it being so heavy that the message would be lost in some way.”

The series has been integral to how Germany has approached Holocaust education for children, and two film versions of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit have played around the world. Kerr’s heroine, the smart and spunky Anna, is very relatable, and the complexity of her story allows for open discussion of difficult emotional issues.

Kerr’s artistry is such that she could sneak in optimism without shame. Perhaps this is the buffer that keeps young people engaged with her story of a young girl, fascinated by languages, by Paris, by learning French, even when she and her family were refugees. Of course, the tensions and fears were real, too. As Kneale says: “She was adamant that it was never a frightening time; her parents really protected her. Her brother claimed they were more aware of what was going on and certainly, it’s quite clear that it started relatively upbeat, but things got worse and worse, and they were very lucky to make it to England. I think there was an awareness [in her] that this was a struggle. And there must have been fear of what the Nazis might do to her father in part, even at a distance, because they did pursue one or two people abroad and he was exactly the sort of person they would have gone for.”

In a balance of curiosity and growing fear, young readers experience comic moments and the calming presence of Anna’s father. Yet they also catch snippets of adult conversations that lodge painfully deep. Kerr trusted that her readers would understand the symbolic meaning of a famous professor who has been made to live in a doghouse at the gates of a concentration camp, fed only dog food and made to bark, driven completely mad by the dehumanizing acts he was forced to witness and commit.

In 2021, when a mere nine countries and 19 US states are mandated to teach the Holocaust, it may be too tall an order for any single narrative or memoir to fill the gap. This is especially true given the resistance among some educators and educational leaders. In 2018, the principal of Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, William Latson, allowed students to opt out of lessons in Holocaust history mandated by the state because “not everyone believes the Holocaust happened” and because, as an educator, he had the role to be “politically neutral,” despite Florida being one of the 19 states requiring Holocaust Education per the 1994 Holocaust Education Bill. Adding to that, Palm Beach County, where the city is located, is nearly 16 percent Jewish. When the matter became a media controversy, Latson was eventually fired.

New Jersey became the first state to explicitly teach about the Holocaust. Connecticut, Rhode Island, Kentucky, and Texas only legislated their Holocaust Education in 2018. How do state legislatures, district boards, and schools themselves ensure that it is being taught (and being taught well)?

The Anti-Defamation League works to provide materials and training to teachers. The Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, do the same, featuring videos of survivors from various nations and an abundance of relevant texts in their virtual libraries. When you walk into the Holocaust Museum in Washington, you receive a mockup passport of a real person who was murdered or miraculously survived. A wealth of resources exists, but a state must deem the subject critical enough to warrant its mandate.

Certainly, Kerr’s evergreen books would provide a valuable introduction for students to this traumatic subject. They distill complex historical events into tense scenes, as when nine-year-old Anna is forced to leave her Berlin home. We are with her in the train station, as her mother knots up her bag and wrings her hands in worry. We are with her as the perpetual new girl in school, as her family moves from country to country, scrambling to outrun Hitler. We are with her as she overhears two children complain to their parents about “the Jewish kids.”

Most kids will never meet a Holocaust survivor. They are thus dependent on what their state or country decides they should know regarding the Holocaust, not to mention the larger issue of antisemitism. A human story can reach past politics and make a human connection. But what if kids are living in a state or country where Holocaust education isn’t mandated? What if teachers, perhaps deterred by administrators like Latson, are fearful of wading into a topic that feels inflammatory or challenging, or too historically distant for today’s kids to emotionally grasp?

Kerr’s trilogy makes the connection for young readers. It continues to be relevant 50 years after publication, as a resource for young people and families to understand and experience history, including its ugliest corners. It remains available even as educational leaders fail to provide adequate resources. In a divisive climate, where teaching the Holocaust and its enduring legacy of antisemitism can be a challenge, first-person narratives and semi-autobiographical works like Out of the Hitler Time may be the best hope. Kerr’s father knew this: anyone who’s seen their own books burned knows the power of truthful words.

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Melissa Uchiyama is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Tokyo. Follow her on Twitter at @melibelletokyo.

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Featured image: "Kerr at the 2016 Berlin International Literature Festival" by Christoph Rieger is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been desaturated.