Re­vealed: the wartime school that saved lives

Ger­man-jewish chil­dren evaded the clutches of the Nazis when their teacher de­cided to move their lessons — to Kent

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features - BY ANTHEA GERRIE

WHEN ERIC Bourne’s fam­ily fled Ger­many the year Hitler came to power, the nine-year-old never imag­ined he was about to em­bark on the hap­pi­est years of his life. “I just re­mem­ber an in­ter­view with this very large lady in a sub­urb of Ber­lin, and by Oc­to­ber 1933 I was at school in Kent with 60 other Jewish chil­dren from Ger­many.”

Bourne, now 87, is one of the fond alumni of Bunce Court, a school started against all the odds by a pre­scient teacher who re­alised Ger­many un­der Nazi rule was no longer a fit place to ed­u­cate chil­dren.

Acting with as­ton­ish­ing speed, Anna Essinger con­tacted par­ents of her Jewish pupils for per­mis­sion to take them from her pro­gres­sive school near Ulm on a “school trip” abroad from which they would never re­turn.

Three new ad­mis­sions were al­ready wait­ing when they ar­rived in Dover. Nine-year-old Peter Meyer (later to be­come fa­mous as the film-maker Peter Mor­ley) had ar­rived days ahead of the school it­self with his el­der brother and sis­ter.

“We had been sent to Eng­land when our par­ents sep­a­rated in 1933,” he ex­plains. “We were stand­ing on the quay­side wait­ing for them on Oc­to­ber 5 and went off with them in green chara­bancs to start a whole new life.”

Essinger, a Jew who de­vel­oped Quaker sym­pa­thies, rented and later bought a manor house near Faver­sham in Kent, where she in­stalled sev­eral of her teach­ers from Ger­many and took in English chil­dren to help make ends meet.

“She liked hav­ing kids who spoke English with­out an ac­cent and whose par­ents could be counted on to pay the fees,” ex­plains Martin Lubowski, who like many sub­se­quent pupils ar­rived dur­ing the war.

Speak­ing Ger­man in class was banned even be­fore English-born pupils started join­ing the rolls. “I credit our nurs­ery teacher, who taught us per­fect English, for the fact I speak with­out any ac­cent,” says Bourne.

“I still re­mem­ber a few of us young­sters hud­dling in a field full of ex­cite­ment at hav­ing learnt what we thought was our first English swear­word — ‘shut up’!”

The im­pov­er­ished school, where pupils had to wash pots and pans, clean the loos and help re­pair fur­ni­ture be­tween their stud­ies, nev­er­the­less pro­duced many dis­tin­gushed grad­u­ates. They in­clude the artist Frank Auer­bach, hu­mourist Ger­ard Hoff­nung, Hel­mut Son­nen­feldt, who be­came an ad­viser to Henry Kissinger, and im­mu­nol­o­gist Les­lie Brent.

Pro­fes­sor Brent con­sid­ers him­self the least likely to have suc­ceeded, given that the school es­chewed science teach­ing be­cause they couldn’t af­ford lab­o­ra­to­ries. “But in spite of that, an as­ton­ish­ing num­ber of us went on to be­come doc­tors and sci­en­tists, and I put that down to a re­ally solid early ed­u­ca­tion,” he says.

Any­one who won­ders how a woman with a troop of refugee chil­dren with lim­ited means set up school abroad with­out miss­ing a beat un­der­es­ti­mates Essinger, he adds. “TA, as she was al­ways known — it was short for Tante Anna — was a truly for­mi­da­ble woman. She was very stout, stern and not that good with chil­dren, but she had their wel­fare ab­so­lutely at heart.”

Essinger, the el­dest of nine chil­dren, stud­ied at Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties, where she be­came im­pressed by Quaker philoso­phies. She opened a school in ru­ral Her­rlin­gen in Ger­many, in 1926, with two of her sis­ters, be­liev­ing tran­quil sur­round­ings were the best set­ting for learn­ing. Avoid­ing ac­tual teach­ing in favour of or­gan­i­sa­tion, she em­braced a lib­eral ed­u­ca­tional path known as Re­formped­a­gogic, in which pupils were con­sid­ered to be equal and com­mu­nity spirit was fos­tered above all.

While exam re­sults were al­ways ex­cel­lent, Bourne con­sid­ers it a mir­a­cle he passed his School Cer­tifi­cate. “I had to sit it with five other pupils in 1940, six weeks af­ter the school was evac­u­ated to Shrop­shire, and we lost a fort­night’s ed­u­ca­tion help­ing with all the load­ing and un­load­ing.”

Brent, who ar­rived later on the first Kin­der­trans­port of 1938, en­joyed the ben­e­fit of some of the finest teach­ing. The school ben­e­fited hugely, he says, when in­terned Ger­mans were re­leased pro­vid­ing they agreed to work at one ad­dress for the re­main­der of the war. “So we got an as­tronomer who taught maths, a theatre di­rec­tor who was em­ployed as a stoker but pro­duced some ex­cel­lent plays, and a gar­dener who treated us to some won­der­ful piano recitals.”

The teach­ers who came from Ger­many with Essinger were ide­al­ists who were happy to teach “for peanuts”, re­mem­bers Bourne, who went on to be­come an in­spec­tor for the In­ner Lon­don Ed­u­a­tion Au­thor­ity. But he laments the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of the food when the cook, the sin­gle mem­ber of do­mes­tic staff em­ployed, was in­terned. “Even dur­ing ra­tioning she made us ex­cel­lent meals — won­der­ful dishes we were fa­mil­iar with, like streuselkuchen (a tra­di­tional cake),” he says.

The fact the school closed in 1948 af­ter re­lo­cat­ing back to Bunce Court in Faver­sham is be­lieved by some alumni to be due to the fact that Tante Anna, in spite of be­ing nearly blind, felt un­able to hand the reins over com­pletely to her suc­ces­sor.

But de­spite the fact most pupils spent less than 10 years in the class­rooms, such was their af­fec­tion for the place, they could not stop go­ing back. “I re­turned at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity,” re­mem­bers Brent, who left “when money ran out for me af­ter School Cer­tifi­cate — our fees were paid by the Refugee Com­mit­tee.”

“I feel I am walk­ing on holy ground when­ever I visit Bunce Court,” adds Lubowski, who points out that re­unions con­tin­ued to take place for 55 years af­ter the school closed its doors.

He does not re­gret miss­ing his bar­mitz­vah, along with his twin brother Gun­ther, in a school which held a po­lit­i­cal evening ev­ery week but re­garded re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion as just an­other cur­ricu­lum sub­ject.

“Which is not to say Anna did not call us in to dis­cuss our bar­mitz­vahs, but we agreed to post­pone it for a year, and let sleep­ing dogs lie when she for­got to re­mind us about it.”

Lubowski’s fam­ily per­ished in the camps, like so many of the par­ents who trusted Essinger to give their chil­dren a safe and pro­duc­tive start in life. Many turned their backs on re­li­gion, though not their cul­tural af­fil­i­a­tions. Lubowski, a fer­vent Zion­ist, spent years on a kib­butz and in the Is­raeli army, while Brent later de­cided to make his birth sur­name, Baruch, his of­fi­cial mid­dle name.

Mor­ley, whose very first film was a doc­u­men­tary he made about the school, says it was the ethos of Bunce Court which made it a sub­sti­tute home for the many chil­dren who lost their fam­i­lies. “Anna Essinger cre­ated a place in which teach­ers and pupils truly be­came one. We all looked af­ter each other, and that cre­ated an enor­mously happy feel­ing of be­long­ing.”

Essinger died at Bunce Court, where she stayed on un­til her death in 1960, with no idea that she would be com­mem­o­rated one day in Ger­many. Her story is told in the mu­seum at Her­rlin­gen, where her school was seized by the Nazis in 1934 and given to Field Mar­shal Rom­mel as a coun­try home.

Bunce Court: alumni in­clude artist Frank Auer­bach and Hel­mut Son­nen­feldt, who be­came an ad­viser to Henry Kissinger

Pupils Eric Bourne ( sitting on sill) and Peter Mor­ley ( bot­tom)

Head­teacherAn­naEssinger

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