Upon finishing a German education, Anna
Essinger of Ulm went to America, became a qualified teacher
and lectured at Madison's University of Wisconsin, where she
also ran a student hostel. After the first world war she returned
to Germany with a Quaker-sponsored Kinderspeisung program and
opened Sozialen-Frauenschulen-community-focused schools for
women - near Stuttgart.
In 1911 her sister and her general-practitioner
brother-in-law had established a children's hostel in Herrlingen,
a Swabian village near Ulm; wishing to found a boarding school
for those children, Essinger joined them. With the help of two
other sisters, she opened the school in 1926 with 18 pupils.
In 1927 an Education Ministry report described her as "extremely
competent" and said she taught in a "very skillful, fresh and
stimulating way, exploiting the material with a dedicated precision
linked with resolute practice".
Essinger's progressive school thrived
until 1933. A Jew, Essinger received notice after Hitler's ascendancy
to power that her first pupils - who were then the age for it
- would not be allowed to sit the Abitur, the German state school-leaving
examination. Furthermore, for the Führer's birthday in April
1933 it was announced that the Nazi swastika was to be flown
over all schools: Essinger obeyed the order but sent the children
on a day-long outing. A nephew later recalled: "A flag flying
over an empty building could signify so much, and that is what
my aunt intended".
Recognizing that her school had no future
in the New Germany, in summer 1933 Essinger - then 54 - took
13 of her pupils to England and re-opened the school in Bunce
Court, a country estate at Otterden in Kent. Having been denied
a chance at the Abitur in their own country, the pupils sat
the London Matriculation and nine passed - three with distinction!
With help from two sisters, Essinger proceeded to develop a
school which closely reflected her dynamic personality.
According to one Kent historian, Anna
Essinger was the - then - English idea of a typical German headmistress,
short, stout, with very thick spectacles, a brisk and efficient
manner, 'homely' [in the British sense of the word] and very
kind to the children, but a strict disciplinarian to teaching
staff and pupils.
Autumn 1933 found another 65 pupils
and their teachers fleeing Nazi Germany via three separate routes
so to avoid official notice. Along with these new arrivals came
much work. Part of the school's curriculum was practical work
and in the following two months pupils had plenty of that, as
they had to work in the house and garden.
A Committee of Friends organized to
assist the school and erected a big wooden dormitory in the
grounds for twenty senior boys. Even so, the children suffered
from crowded living conditions that first winter. Some contracted
diphtheria or scarlet fever; one boy died in November from polio,
causing further anxiety in following months whether others might
develop it, so Bunce Court was put into isolation for weeks.
Provisions were left at the gates and short meetings with parents
were restricted to the open air.
Although at first rough, conditions
at the school eventually improved and a state of normality took
shape. As the situation in Germany deteriorated, the school
increasingly became home to Jewish youth sent abroad by worried
parents; the children's unsettled lives and Essinger's progressive
pedagogy created an atmosphere of community-based scholasticism.
Still, even in such a self-contained,
thriving environment, events beyond the garden gate impacted
everyday life, as the school body included Jewish refugee children
first from Germany, then annexed Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia,
followed by children from Poland and Hungry. As a group, they
lived in "new-found security as 'citizens of the United Europe
of the future'". Some were almost ill with homesickness and
the older children anxious for parents, brothers and sisters
left in Germany. A Quaker worker told...of parents' agony of
mind who could only choose one of several children to go to
England for safe education and which to select - the most brilliant,
most fit, or one most vulnerable and unlikely to survive?
In Kristallnacht's wake Essinger helped
Jewish families leave Nazi Germany. She had two new dormitories
built at Bunce Court and even billeted children with local families.
Eventually the need became to be so great that she and the staff
barely could respond to it, for as conditions worsened in Germany
and the number of refugee children swelled, demand on the school's
resources grew. The school's council advised against taking
children without definite financial arrangements, though the
school "always had up to a dozen children" without them. Many
children were taken "on good faith", in the hope that parents
would pay when they could or themselves escaped. Another problem
involved locating British teachers able to deal with emotional
needs of Jewish children taken from parents, homes and native
country. At that time... Britain was still a peaceful, secure
country and few realised what was really happening in Germany
and were thus unable to comprehend why Anna [brought the] children
out of Nazi Germany.
Sometimes, though, "problems" at the
school consisted not of spacial or health or psychological limitations
- but lingual ones. The official language at the school had
to be English in deference to the children's futures, but German
remained the de facto lingua franca - a state which caused struggles
as well as smiles. In an attempt to enforce the use of English,
new British teachers were told they must not learn any German
for a year - but they usually did, as the unofficial language
of the school was still German for a considerable time. One
of the teachers, however, devised a way of reminding the children
of the rule of only English at meal times by hanging a miniature
Union Jack over the dining-room mantel; at the sound of a German
word the teacher pressed a button connected to a light bulb,
which illuminated the flag and buzzed a bell. Another daily
event that also took place at meal times was a brief "touching
of hands" around the table. This was intended to unite the whole
body of the school for a short time before meals - "a sort of
silent, non-religious grace-before-meals". Furthermore, there
was no school uniform, as anything which reminded staff or pupils
of "uniformed Nazi Germany was anathema".
Indeed, at least for them personally,
Nazi Germany was behind the young exiles-necessitating them
to adapt to a new country and culture. To that end Essinger
emphasized participation in groups with foci beyond the front
lawn. The school welcomed guest speakers from the League of
Nations Union - for example - and from the Workers' Education
Association. From the latter came a local mail carrier one cold,
rainy night to "face what seemed an endless sea of children's
faces". Describing himself as a "bundle of nerves", he "was
nearly overcome with stage fright", but managed to get through
his "party piece".
On a larger scale, as soon as the school
had become firmly established its contacts with the local community
increased and "its fame spread further afield". The staff decided
in summer 1934 to hold an Open Day in the last week of July.
During it the children performed the Aristophanes play "Peace"
- with the stately manor house as background - and made all
of the costumes and props. Some 250 visitors came to see the
school and the play -among them Lord Samuel, who in a address
welcomed the children to England. Due to this exposure children
were invited to stay with host families for holidays. Open Days
were held every year up to and after the war.
The war, however, would disturb more
than merely the amicable Open Day. As of September 1939 the
owner of the estate fretted how the war might mean the appropriation
of Bunce Court and end her income from it, so the Committee
of Friends organized for Essinger to purchase the property from
her. Then, the following May, with the advance of the Wehrmacht
into France all German male staff and pupils over 16 landed
in "enemy-alien" internment camps - soon followed by the school's
cook and girls over 16.
In June 1940 military authorities issued
the school three days' notice to leave the premises, as it had
been declared a Defence Area: the army had requisitioned Bunce
Court. After intense pleas the government reconsidered - granting
a week's notice to move an entire school! Not surprisingly,
a suitable replacement could not be found, so the school body
split - with the smaller part joining another school and the
larger part moving to empty Trench Hall in Shropshire, where
the school stayed until the war's end.
After "much effort" the school re-opened
at Bunce Court in June 1946. Immediately after the war it accepted
a number of children and young people who had been prisoners
in Nazi concentration camps or had similar wartime backgrounds.
This, among the underlying and unavoidable fact that eventually
there would be no more Continental children coming from Europe...
Possibly it was at this stage that Anna Essinger felt the original
purpose of the school in England was no longer relevant; another
may have been that [at almost 70] she was now elderly and considered
her work done.
Bunce Court school closed in 1948 -
having served some 900 pupils. Indeed a unique place, it belonged
to a specific time. It's rich legacy, however, survived in the
form of Continental children assimilated into "British" adults
who made important contributions to their adopted homeland.
Not only Bunch Courtians, however, went on to lead lives marked