Since she could first remember, Tacy Kneale has had a keen awareness of being the child of a Jewish refugee.
But to know exactly what is feels like to be one was only an understanding that really came after her mother, Judith Kerr, sat down one day and penned a book about her own childhood experiences during the Second World War.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which also features Judith’s original illustrations, has sold more than three million copies worldwide since it was first published 50 years ago.
Now, in celebration of its special milestone anniversary this month, HarperCollins is republishing a hardback version, while Tacy has lent her vocal skills to the first audiobook edition of this special tale.
Tacy, a trained actress and artist who has worked on the animatronics for the Harry Potter films, tells me she was thrilled to be involved with helping bring her mother’s “beautifully written” story to a new generation.
Based on Judith’s early life and her family’s escape from Nazi Germany when she was only nine, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is told from the perspective of a little girl named Anna, who is too busy with schoolwork and tobogganing to listen to talk of Hitler.
But, one day, she and her brother are rushed out of Germany in alarming secrecy, away from everything they know, to embark on an extraordinary journey to a new life.
According to the oft-repeated story, Judith – who died aged 95 in 2019 – was inspired to write the book after taking her children – Tacy and her brother Matthew – to see The Sound of Music.
“That’s absolutely true,” relates Tacy, who was around 13 at the time When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit came out. “Obviously we knew the basic facts, such as fleeing Germany to escape the Nazis and going to Switzerland and France, but I think mum said we didn’t want to hear too much detail. We didn’t really know exactly what it was like, you know, what it felt like.
“We went to see The Sound of Music and my brother said afterwards, ‘Well now we know exactly what it was like for mummy!’ That was the moment, I think, when she was galvanised into writing her book.”
One of the reasons, perhaps, for the book’s subsequent success was the fact that, in 1971, there was nothing quite like it.
“The main knowledge one had of the war was Anne Frank,” agrees Tacy. “That, of course, was a very different story, or all the war films, which were told through the point of a view of the army and air forces, not a little girl.”
The other reason is the fact that Judith’s work could be read and appreciated on different levels by both children and adults.
For Tacy, reading it now five decades on feels like a completely separate experience to the one she had when she first encountered the book.
“As a child, apart from having the strange thing of it being about my own mother, it also read like an adventure. Anna and my mum were almost like
two separate creatures for me.
“But when you read it as an adult, you think about what the parents must have been going through. My grandfather [Alfred Kerr, an influential German theatre critic and essayist] had such a huge, important life in Germany and he was bilingual. To then come here, when he was relatively elderly, and have his language taken from him, his everything essentially taken away from him, must have been horrendous.
“My grandmother [composer and pianist Julia Kerr] was highly practical, a sort of bundle of energy, but again came here and was reduced to doing things she had no idea how to do.”
Judith recalled how her parents largely shielded her and her brother, Michael, from their difficulties, so much so that she often commented: “They made us feel like it was an adventure”. It was only in her late forties, while writing When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, that Judith discovered the truth.
“My mother found out they were a lot closer to the edge than she knew,” reveals Tacy. “There’s a massive archive in Berlin containing documents about my grandfather and she found letters there written in desperation.
He had to sell everything. It was much worse than she realised.”
While depicting Anna on an “adventure” of sorts, the book is also unafraid to shy away from the more tragic elements of history, including the death of Uncle Julius at the hands of the Nazis.
“I think if she had left that out, it wouldn’t have been true,” reflects Tacy. “You can’t whitewash things like that.”
Although written five decades ago, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit endures in the canon of children’s literature, largely because the story remains relevant today.
Tacy agrees: “Before she died, I remember mum saying how she had heard about some particularly horrendous journey for a group of refugees who were hiding in a lorry. It was horrific and they managed to get here anyway, in terrifying circumstances – and my mum just shook her head
and said, ‘I wonder which of them will now write their Pink Rabbit?’”
It was a poignant moment, one that especially resonated with Tacy because, as she acknowledges, her family too were refugees. “If they hadn’t been lucky, I wouldn’t exist,” she says.
Now, a whole new generation can enjoy Judith’s story for the first time through the audiobook – and touchingly, Tacy – the inspiration behind her mother’s other well-known work, The Tiger Who Came To Tea – admits she ‘felt’ her mother with her as she recorded the story.
“I did slightly feel she was appearing over my shoulder as usual and saying, ‘Are you sure? Maybe you should do that bit again?’” she laughs.
“It’s a beautifully written story. When you read something aloud, that’s when you discover if something is well written or not. So long as I read what she wrote, it absolutely worked.”
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (50th anniversary edition) by Judith Kerr is published by HarperCollins in hardback (£12.99) and audiobook (£9.99) on 30 September
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