WORLD WAR IIBeacons of Hope: Art and Remembering after WWII
“It wasn’t very sad, but rather very interesting. For my parents it was terribly sad, but not for us.”
Judith Kerr is a British writer who managed to escape Berlin on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Her family first moved to Switzerland, before relocating shortly afterwards to Paris, and then eventually settling in the UK. Her father, Alfred Kerr, was an avid critic of the Nazi party and their ideology. He was also a writer, whose books were burned after he and his family left Germany¹. Judith Kerr became a famous children’s book author. She also explored more difficult narratives, drawing on her own experiences in a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels, Out of the Hitler Time: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away.
Kerr’s books offer insight into the experience of being a German-Jewish child, yet the characters of her books never explicitly mention the context of Nazi Germany. This omission could be attributed to the fact that the characters of the book (based on Kerr and her younger brother) are children.
It is plausible that the adults in the story would avoid discussing the unspeakable atrocities that the Nazis were inflicting upon Jews and opponents in front of the children. Throughout her stories, from the manner in which Anna (Kerr’s character version) describes her family and the relationship between her parents, it is possible to infer that Kerr’s stories are about surviving under extreme circumstances. Kerr’s memories of Nazi Germany changed as she grew older and started her own family. After several years living in the UK, Kerr was able to return to her former home in Berlin, which had become home to another family. She stated that “It was a different world”². In another interview in London she said that her books were about “remembering [her] parents as much as a childhood”³.
While visiting her former family house in Berlin, one of the children of the family living there expressed that it must have been terribly sad to have lived through that time. Kerr responded that, “it wasn’t very sad, but rather very interesting. For my parents it was terribly sad, but not for us”⁴. This demonstrates that children are often able to survive horrible situations provided there are adults who are able to protect them and they can shine a new light on even the most traumatizing events. Children’s perspectives are crucial because they provide a different insight on how large-scale events affect individuals.
Frank Auerbach was born in Berlin. Through the Kindertransport he was able to escape Germany and settle in the UK in 1939. He grew up to become a renowned painter. The Kindertransport provided several Jewish children the possibility of escaping Nazi persecution. In When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit the narrator states, “all famous people had had an awful time. One of them had a drunk father. Another had a stammer […] they all had what was called a difficult childhood. Clearly you had to have one if you wanted to become famous”⁵.
Many of the children that survived due to the Kindertransport went on to choose careers in the arts as adults, including Susan Einzig (book illustrator), Eva Hesse (artist), David Hurst (actor), Walter Kaufmann (author), Michael Roemer (film director) and many others. Perhaps being forced to flee their own countries and survive a war led many to seek refuge in the arts. The war had an immense impact on Auerbach’s paintings, as they “captured the cultural weariness and melancholia of the time brought on by the devastations of the war”⁶.
“It seems to me madness to wake up in the morning and do something other than paint, considering that one may not wake up the following morning.”
Remembering the Kindertransport
In 2018, Kindertransport survivors and their relatives decided to pay tribute to the scheme that saved thousands of children by helping them escape the Nazi regime. Those who participated in the event cycled from Berlin in Germany all the way to London in the UK, culminating in a ceremony at the “Kindertransport-The Arrival” statue, which depicts the young refugees. The ride was organised by the World Jewish Relief to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the arrival of the first transport in the UK⁷.
The horrors of WWII have reverberated throughout the century, and those who experienced the war firsthand have been unable to fully recover. However, as the decades passed, and the children who survived have grown up, it is possible to see how hope can also be transferred from generation to generation. Hope connects past and present and it becomes a source of remembering.
Judith Kerr wrote books perhaps as a way to cope with her past and also, as she put it, to remember her parents⁸. While the younger generations have used the cycling experience to connect with their relatives who survived the war due to the transport. The cycling tribute was an opportunity to reflect on and hope for a future in which children will not have to be evacuated from their homes: a world where conflicts can be resolved peacefully.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Alfred Kerr”. Holocaust Encyclopedia. 22 June 2020.; Judith Kerr revisits her childhood home in Berlin. 00:01:50-00:02:56. BBC News. 25 November 2013.; Judith Kerr and Michael Foreman in Conversation. 00:25:00-00:26:00. Jewish Museum. YouTube, 10 October 2018.; Judith Kerr revisits her childhood home in Berlin 00:25:00-00:26:00.; Kerr, Judith. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. London: Collins, 1971. p 31.; The Art Story. ‘Frank Auerbach’. 18 June 2020.; The Guardian. ‘A victory ride’: cyclists to retrace Holocaust evacuees’ journey for 80th anniversary. 14 June 2018., Judith Kerr and Michael Foreman in Conversation. 00:25:00-00:26:00.
Figure 1: Judith Kerr © Regina Schmeken
Figure 2: Self-Portrait by Frank Auerbach © Frank Auerbach, courtesy Marlborough Fine Art
Figure 3: “Children of the Kindertransport” at Liverpool Station, London © Wikimedia Commons
“Judith Kerr and Michael Foreman in Conversation”. Jewish Museum London. YouTube, 10 October 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTUP_7B-zhI&t=1893s (last accessed 21 June 2020); “Judith Kerr revisits her childhood home in Berlin”. BBC News. 25 November 2013. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/magazine-25088364/judith-kerr-revisits-her-childhood-home-in-berlin (last accessed 21 June 2020); Kerr, Judith. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. London: Collins, 1971.
Mitchell, Judy. “Children of the Holocaust.” The English Journal 69.7 (1980): 14-18; The Art Story. “Frank Auerbach”. 18 June 2020. URL: https://www.theartstory.org/artist/auerbach-frank/; The Guardian. “A victory ride: cyclists to retrace Holocaust evacuees’ journey for 80th anniversary”. 14.06.2018. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/14/a-victory-ride-cyclists-to-retrace-holocaust-evacuees-journey-for-80th-anniversary; Trumpener, Katie. “The Children’s War.” In The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century British and American War Literature, edited by Piette Adam and Rawlinson Mark, 498-507. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Alfred Kerr”. Holocaust Encyclopedia. 22 June 2020.