Book Review: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

hitlerFirst published on 19th April, 2009 in The Star

IT’S funny how one sometimes avoids reading a book for no reason other than it’s not yet the right time to read it. I know other avid readers will know what I’m talking about. It’s what keeps one buying books although dozens sit unread on one’s shelves.

I’m forever in pursuit of the perfect read – the trouble is I keep recognising potential perfect reads, future perfect reads. It’s impossible to tell which book will keep me riveted on any given day until it actually does.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (Puffin Books, 192 pages, ISBN: 978-0142414088) by Judith Kerr is a book that I have “avoided” for years. I love Kerr’s picture books, but somehow never felt inclined to pick the book up. I didn’t even see it as a “potential” good read. Goodness, was I wrong!

I received Pink Rabbit in the post a couple of weeks ago and, just like that, knew that the right time to read it had come. As I was going to be travelling for a few days, I packed it to read on the trip, and once I started reading I could not put it down.

The book is about Anna, a little girl who lives in Berlin with her parents and brother, Max. It’s the 1930s and the elections are around the corner. Hitler’s party might win, and if it does, it will probably make things very difficult for Germany’s Jewish community. Anna’s father is Jewish, and so it is decided that he should go to Switzerland where he will be safe. If the Nazi party wins the elections, the rest of the family will follow.

This is not the family’s only move. They go on to Paris and then, finally, to England. The book is a fictionalised account of Judith Kerr’s experiences and the title refers to the soft toy Kerr/Anna decided to leave behind when her family moved to Switzerland, thinking she would return someday to her home in Berlin. In fact, the house and all its possessions were confiscated shortly after the family left Germany, a price was put on her father’s head and his books were publicly burned.

Alfred Kerr was  famous in Germany – a theatre critic, broadcaster, and librettist whose friends included Albert Einstein and Richard Strauss. In the book, Anna muses how it is unusual for families to have more than one famous member, but of course Kerr is famous and beloved to those who love children’s literature. Her first book wasThe Tiger Who Came to Tea which celebrated its 40th anniversary in print last year. Kerr is also the writer and illustrator of the picture books about Mog, the cat. I was delighted to find an incarnation of Mog in Pink Rabbit – Anna meets a cat who rides in a basket on the train to Zurich and its owner calls it a mogger. “What’s a mogger?” asks Anna and the cat sticks its head out of the basket and miaws, “Meeee.”

It’s one of many amusing episodes in Pink Rabbit, a story that is set during a very grim period in history. However, as things are described from the viewpoint of a 10-year-old, we experience only what she does – her simple pleasures (picnics and turning cartwheels) and frustrations (attending a French school without being able to speak a word of the language). Anna does not, of course, fully understand the implications of Nazi rule in Germany. Furthermore the family are safely away from that country so their difficulties are not a matter of life-and-death. Still, sadness does touch them in the form of news of friends left behind. And Anna overhears grown-up conversations that she doesn’t comprehend but disturb her terribly. Nevertheless, as she points out several times in the book, nothing really matters so long as the family are together.

The love and support she receives from her parents and sibling, as well as new friends and neighbours help Anna cope with the challenges in her new life. It is only near the end of Pink Rabbit, when Anna faces the prospect of being separated from her parents, that she panicks and declares that she is frightened. Asked what she is frightened of, Anna declares, “That I might really feel like (a refugee).” Until then, it had simply been a big adventure, with Anna focussing on new experiences and encounters. At worst, life was tedious but never dangerous.

Pink Rabbit ends with the family’s arrival in wet and cold England, and Anna’s story is continued in two other less famous books – Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit serves as a piece in the jigsaw of children’s books that, together, form a picture of life faced by children in various communities and countries during the Nazi occupation. Here’s a short list of some of the other books in this jigsaw …

The Cats in Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse
Illustrated by Wendy Watson

The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

The Lily Cupboard: A Story of the Holocaust by Shulamith Levey Oppenheim
Illustrated by Ronald Himler

The Shadow Children by Steven Schnur

Number the Stars 
by Lois Lowry

Once by Morris Gleitzman

Then by Morris Gleitzman

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Hitler’s Canary by Sandi Toksvig

And check out this post at Keith Schoch’s blog Teach with Picture Books for more recommendations.

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