Posts Tagged Judith Kerr
Every year I try to post about some aspect of the situation faced by those who flee their homes due to violence, famine and persecution, each day during Refugee Week. I emphasise ‘try’ – this year I have been struggling with a bit of writers’ block: I have at least two pieces partially composed in my head but can I get them actually onto the page? Can I heck as like. Still. Whilst the commitment to honour Refugee Week in this way is entirely self-imposed, that doesn’t make it any easier to just say, soz, not in the mood right now, quite the opposite. So I will try.
And to begin, I want to remember some of the people who sum up this year’s theme, ‘You, me and those who came before’, which invites us to explore the lives of refugees – and those who have welcomed them – throughout the generations.
Refugee Week, since 2016, has been inextricably linked in our minds with the murder of Jo Cox, an outspoken advocate for refugees, for kindness and compassion. We remember her assertion that immigration has enhanced our communities, and that we have more in common than that which divides us.
She was murdered because of her values, because of what she said and what she represented. When I heard of her murder, I thought that this must change things, that the toxic rhetoric of the EU Referendum campaign must, surely, be at least reined back. I thought that those who use the language of hate carelessly would be horrified that this language had been turned into brutal action. I was sadly mistaken. All the more reason, however, to remind ourselves of what she said, and what she represented and to assert the values that we share, the things we have in common with each other.
Judith Kerr lived a long and happy life. But she so easily might not have done, had her parents not found a way to escape Nazi Germany (and subsequently France), just in time. Her autobiography is dedicated to “the one and a half million Jewish children who didn’t have my luck, and all the pictures they might have painted”. Her parents saved their children from the horrors that would have faced them had they remained – but both parents were, in her words, ‘destroyed’ by their exile. The children were young enough to adapt, to accept the changes in their lives and to embrace the new possibilities, even before they could understand what their fate might have otherwise been. The parents took on all of the fear, all of the horror, all of the vertigo of exile, and the weight of it all was too much for them. Like so many who have had a narrow escape, they could never shrug off the fear that the hatred they had fled from would catch up with them somehow, at some point, that the escape had been illusory.
Pia Klemp is a 35-year-old ship’s captain from Bonn, Germany, whose ship, the Iuventa, is believed to have saved 14,000 people in total, working closely with the Italian search and rescue services. Klemp herself skippered the boat on two missions, saving up to 3,800 people in distress in just one day. But the political climate has shifted in Italy, as it has elsewhere. Her ship has been seized, she’s been accused of cooperating with human traffickers, and she currently faces 20 years in prison in Italy. In her words, the Italian government’s approach stigmatises refugees, and criminalises solidarity with them.
She is unrepentant.
“There is no way I am going to prison for saving people in distress,” Klemp said. “It is the most ridiculous thing on so may different levels. And I will never accept anything else but acquittal.”https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/15/captain-of-migrant-rescue-ship-says-italy-criminalising-solidarity
You can find out more about what’s happening across the country during Refugee Week here. And if you’re lucky enough to be in Sheffield, don’t miss the Migration Matters Festival, with events and exhibitions happening every day at various venues, between now and Saturday 22 June.
I started this blog in 2012, and when Refugee Week came around that year, I decided to try to publish something every day, either my own writing or a reblog of something interesting I’d found online, about refugees. I’ve done that each year since. It’s a self-imposed challenge that I get anxious about in advance – will I be able to find the time to write, will I find things to write about, will anyone be interested? But once I get started, each year the stories have found me, stories of tragedy and of hope from around the world.
So, this year, I kicked off with an appreciation of Judith Kerr, just because it’s her birthday, and because this year’s theme is #RefugeesContribute. There are other posts brewing. But if you read this and think of a story I should be telling, let me know.
A couple of brief notes, ahead of the next substantial piece:
Michael Grade in the current Radio Times talks about his upcoming Radio 4 programme, where he interviews Kolbassia Haoussou, a refugee from Chad, and now spokesperson for Freedom from Torture. He speaks of his paternal grandparents who left the Ukraine in 1910 and undertook a remarkable, dangerous journey to England, where they built new lives, and where their children, and grandchildren achieved great success . Grade says ‘When I see pictures of boatloads of migrants heading to Europe from North Africa, I think how desperate they must be to risk everything, putting their lives in the hands of the traffickers and their deathtrap boats. I think about how they must be driven to the only option that remotely offers trhe prospect of release from the wars and the militancy and the savagery that goes on in some of these countries. …. So let’s welcome the risk-takers, wherever they may come from. It’s what a bold society does. We have much more to gain than lose’. (Michael Grade, ‘Taking a Chance’, Radio Times 13-19 June 2015).
And yesterday a group of writers, artists and musicians set off on a new pilgrimage, The Refugee Tales will be a unique walk, on paths taken by travellers over the centuries along the North Downs Way from Dover to Crawley via Canterbury, while reflecting on the long and dangerous journeys that many refugees make fleeing war and persecution, seeking a safe place to live. The organisation behind this is the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group
I’ll keep writing. If you like it, share, follow, like, retweet, reblog…
Serendipitously, the start of Refugee Week 2015, with its theme of the contribution that refugees make to the communities in which they make their new homes, coincides with the 92nd birthday of Judith Kerr.
Her books were not part of my own childhood – I was too old by 1968 to enjoy The Tiger Who Came To Tea, and certainly by 1970 when the first Mog book appeared. But I read those books – again and again and again – to my own children. And unlike some books which I read to them again and again and again, which irritated me more with every rendition, it was always a joy to read anything by Kerr.
If pressed, I could probably still recite part of The Tiger, and certainly odd phrases from the Mog series (the cat who ‘forgot she had a catflap’, and who got an egg AND a medal after unwittingly foiling a burglary) have passed into our family language.
Nothing in the world depicted in these delightful stories suggests the circumstances in which Judith Kerr arrived in the UK. They’re not cloyingly cosy – after all, the final Mog book says a final goodbye to that forgetful cat. But one wouldn’t guess that her family had to leave their Berlin home suddenly in 1933, when the Nazis came to power, because her father had been openly critical of the party. He left first, having been tipped off that he was at risk, and her mother and the two children followed not long afterwards, travelling initially to Sweden and then to France, before applying for and being granted British citizenship. They could not have known in 1933 the full extent of the danger that they, as Jews, would have faced had they stayed, and they left France before that country ceased to be a safe haven, but as the war went on, Judith’s parents carried suicide pills with them, in case of a Nazi invasion.
Michael Rosen has suggested that the Tiger, who comes to tea and eats everything in the house, drinks all Daddy’s beer and all the water in the taps, was suggested at some subconscious level by the childhood awareness of an unexplained threat, that your home could be invaded, everything you have could be taken, without warning. That may be, and it’s certainly part of the unsettling charm of the book that we never forget that the Tiger is a tiger, that if not placated with all the food and drink he demands he could be dangerous. But at the same time, the willingness of the family to allow this unexpected visitor to empty their pantry conveys generosity and hospitality, along with imperturbability, rather than fear. It could be that this reflects the way in which parents maintain a calm unflappable air in order not to frighten children too young to understand real danger. But of course the Tiger leaves, of his own accord, and never comes back.
Kerr did write directly about her past, in three autobiographical novels collectively titled ‘Out of the Hitler Time’. She’s very conscious of her own good fortune, not only in that, unlike so many other families, they lost no one, but that they found a safe home and a welcome, and the chance to build new lives.
‘People here were so good to us in the war. It must have been awful for my parents, but when you consider what happened to the others who stayed behind, nothing bad happened to us. We didn’t lose anyone. All our family got out: my grandparents, uncles, aunts, they all got out. Nobody died. We had a terrible time with money, but so did lots of people, and people were very good to us wherever we went.’ (http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/children/illustrators/interviews/104)
Happy birthday Judith Kerr, and thank you.