(Editor’s note: “Retro Reviews,” is a yearlong series in which Chronicle Correspondent Hilary Daninhirsch will review Jewish-themed books that have been out of print for decades, or perhaps remain in print but are difficult to find [except in your public library]. Some titles may be recognizable; others may be obscure. But if they appear here, then you can bet they still have something to offer the Jewish reader.)
Forty years after its original publication, Judith Kerr’s autobiographical middle-grade novel, “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,” has stood the test of time as one of the first books for children with the Holocaust simmering in the background.
The book, though, really isn’t about surviving the Holocaust; rather, it’s about belonging and finding your place in the world.
The book opens in 1933 in Germany when Anna is about 9 and her older brother Max is about 11; the story is told from Anna’s perspective.
The patriarch of this German-Jewish family is a well-known writer. He learns that because of his outspokenness against the Nazis, he and his family are likely in danger. Fortunately, while the Jews are still able to travel, the family escapes to Switzerland. After a time, they move to France, and then at the book’s end, they move once again, to England.
The family is not particularly religious; in fact, they celebrate Christmas and the kids don’t seem to have much of an awareness of their traditions, but they know they are Jewish.
A revealing conversation in the beginning of the book between Anna and her friend, Elsbeth, highlights this. The girls are walking past an election poster of Adolf Hitler and, in their childlike innocence, are wondering what he’s all about:
“He wants everybody to vote for him in the elections and then he’s going to stop the Jews,” said Elsbeth. “Do you think he’s going to stop Rachel Lowenstein?”
“Nobody can stop Rachel Lowenstein,” said Anna. “She’s form captain. Perhaps he’ll stop me. I’m Jewish, too.”
“I am! My father was talking to us about it only last week. He said we were Jews and no matter what happened my brother and I must never forget it.”
Later, when the children and their parents are hurriedly packing for their escape to Switzerland, Anna and Max are forced to leave some beloved toys at home, including Anna’s stuffed pink rabbit, a toy she has owned since before she could remember. Anna ends up choosing a newer stuffed animal to take along with her but later regrets it. Learning that the Nazis have been confiscating the Jews’ possessions, she and Max imagine Hitler playing with the toys that they had to leave behind, including Anna’s pink rabbit.
The story follows Anna and her brother as they are immersed in new cultures. To their dismay and confusion, they experience anti-Semitism in Switzerland when a visiting family’s children are prohibited from playing with them. In France, they struggle to learn the language and cope with a surly Austrian housemaid.
Anna’s father offers sage advice while helping his daughter adjust to yet another new country as the family prepares to move to England. When Anna tells her Papa about her insecurities with starting over, she asks:
“But it won’t be the same — we won’t belong. Do you think we’ll ever really belong anywhere?”
“I suppose not,” said Papa. “Not the way people belong who have lived in one place all their lives. But we’ll belong a little in lots of places, and I think that may be just as good.”
This modern classic about the end of innocence and belonging is a captivating story. There are some darker moments, such as the suicide of a peripheral character, but on the whole, it is entirely appropriate for late elementary through middle school age children. The book was reissued in 2009.
Judith Kerr still lives in England and has written (and illustrated) other books for children, including the “Mog” series. Kerr won the German Youth literature prize (Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis) for “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.”