Readers of Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit series will be familiar with Heimpi, the Kerr family’s much-loved Housekeeper. A fascinating letter discovered in Judith Kerr’s papers reveals more about Alice Heimpl, as Sarah Lawrance, former Collection and Exhibitions Director at Seven Stories, explains.
Included with the boxes and papers transferred to Seven Stories after Judith Kerr’s death in May 2019 was a worn, green leatherette writing case, with her initials printed in gold on the front. Inside it were nearly a hundred letters, cards and other documents, dating mostly from the late 1940s.
Among these were two letters from Alice Heimpl – or Heimpi as she is known to readers of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. As Nanny/Cook/Housekeeper to the Kerr family in Berlin, it is Heimpi who greets Anna and Max when they come home from school, bakes cakes and cooks meals, mends their socks, and plays games before bedtime.
When the family leave home in a hurry to escape the Nazis, Heimpi stays behind to help pack up the house and – at least to begin with – there is some hope that she will be able to join them in Switzerland, bringing the famous Pink Rabbit with her. However, within a few weeks it becomes clear that the family will never again be able to afford a housekeeper, and so Heimpi never comes. Instead, Anna’s mother – a pianist and composer until they left Germany – struggles to master the arts of cooking and sewing, never very happily or with much success, and this sense of domestic unease becomes a recurring theme through the rest of the book.
In the third of Judith’s semi-autobiographical novels, A Small Person Far Away, Anna – now grown-up – returns to Berlin to see her mother, now working as an interpreter – who is seriously ill in hospital after taking an overdose. As Anna struggles with the emotions of the situation she recalls Heimpi, and wonders what happened to her. The question goes unanswered and Heimpi – so far as the novels are concerned – remains a lost figure from a distant past.
So it was a surprise to find that the real Alice Heimpl had stayed in touch with the Kerr family. The first of the two letters, dated 3 September 1947, is addressed to Judith’s parents. It appears to be the first contact that they have had since the end of the war but Alice refers to a visit she made to London in 1939, to see her sisters in Beckenham, during which she had spent a happy day with ‘meine geliebte Puppie’ as she calls Judith, using her childhood nickname.
Alice’s life in 1947 is very different from the happy days in which she worked for the Kerrs. She describes herself as one of the ‘übrig-geblieben’ (‘left behind’). Having survived the horrors of the war she nevertheless wonders whether it would be better to be lying in peace under the wreckage. She is living in the Russian sector of Berlin (‘Kleine Moskau’) and doing hard labour as a “Trümmerfrau” – a rubble woman – and as a coal worker through the winter. Despite the fact that as a Trümmerfrau she would have received a slightly increased ration she has become very thin: ‘Hinten nichts und vorne nichts, im Magen auch nicht viel, also rein nichts mehr in der Blouse mehr drin!’ (‘Nothing at the back and nothing in front, not much in the stomach either, and nothing more in the blouse either!). The diet (‘Hungerkur’) that she used to go on when she worked for the Kerrs is nothing by comparison!
The second letter, dated 24 March 1948, is addressed to Judith herself. In the meantime, Alice had received a long letter from Judith’s mother, with news of how the family survived the war and what they have been doing since. She is ill and unable to work, so has time to spare and hopes that Judith will be happy to hear from ‘old Heimpi’. Judith must have grown up so much since Alice last saw her that she wonders if she can still address her with the familiar pronoun ‘Du’? Has she managed to visit her sisters in Beckenham? Perhaps she has lost their address? Did Michael receive the birthday card she sent? She writes about the terrible suffering of the refugees from the East who have lost absolutely everything and the black market without which nobody could survive because the rations are so bad. She will return to work ‘in the construction industry’ on 1 April: without the rubble women Berlin will never be rebuilt.
After this, there are no more letters and no hint of whether there was any further contact between Judith and Alice – or what happened to her in the end. According to Judith’s son Matthew Kneale, his mother always spoke of Heimpi with enormous affection; the decision to leave her London visit out of the novels was probably for narrative reasons – leaving her behind in Berlin amplified the sense of acute loss. In the books Heimpi is given her real name – unlike the other main characters – which again suggests that Judith wanted to underline the significance of her part in the family’s life; and the fact that Judith kept the letters safe for all these years is a testament to her value.
Perhaps someone, somewhere has the rest of the story?
Sarah Lawrance was formerly the Collection and Exhibitions Director at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books and is now a freelance curator.
A new edition celebrates the fifty-year anniversary of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, 978-0007274772, HarperCollins Children’s Books.