The British should be flattered that so many refugees and immigrants want to settle in the UK. That is the view of one of the country’s best-loved children’s authors, seven decades after she herself found refuge from the Nazis in London.
Speaking in the week that tougher rules on immigrants were included in the Queen’s Speech, Judith Kerr noted the growing public mood against new arrivals, but said: “It’s nothing to do with immigration, just to do with the number of people who all have to go somewhere, and it’s rather flattering that they all want to come here.”
She insisted that immigrants should not be deterred from coming to Britain but that they would do well to follow the example of the Jews who arrived in the 1930s and learn English and adopt British customs as quickly as possible.
Mrs Kerr is famous for her two classic works for children — The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog the cat series, — and for When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, the fictionalised memoir of her Jewish family’s escape from Berlin to Switzerland, France and finally Britain. The book is considered a good way of introducing children to the events of the Holocaust.
The writer turns 90 at the start of next month and to mark the event, publisher Harper Collins is releasing Judith Kerr’s Creatures, a book bringing together her biography and hundreds of her illustrations, including early drawings that formed the basis of The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Mog.
Mrs Kerr was made an OBE last year, an honour she welcomed, “because I came here as a refugee and to put it simply, it’s very nice to know that nobody regrets having let me in.
“I keep coming across Jewish refugees [who got similar honours], and I’m terribly pleased because it means that we did good.”
The author quickly became fluent in English when she arrived in London and is adamant that all immigrants should learn the language.
She said: “You should learn it as fast as you can and you should abide by what is normal in the country, even if it is different from what you are used to, because it’s only polite.
“The people who came here in the 1930s were ready to follow the rules as it were. My father used to say: ‘We are guests in this country’ which is a good attitude.”
The new book chronicles the period from the Kerr family’s frantic departure from Germany in 1933 to her time as a BBC employee and her marriage to screenwriter Nigel Kneale in the early ’50s. It is, she says a chance to “put right” a previous depiction of her father, Alfred.
In the Bombs on Aunt Daisy trilogy, “Papa” is portrayed as inactive, even passive, a representation Mrs Kerr now knows to be untrue, having discovered his private papers.
“I’ve found out a lot of things since I wrote the book about my father, which worried me, because I totally misrepresented him. I thought I must write about what really happened.”
One letter she found was Alfred Kerr’s plea to Albert Einstein in 1936. “My father said: ‘There’s going to be a war in Europe, I must get my children out’. So he knew then what was at stake,” said Mrs Kerr.
She puts her continued popularity as a writer down to “luck”, although she wishes people would remember her for more than Tiger. “It’s the first thing I ever did and I worked terribly hard to get better,” she said.