In May 1926, Anna Essinger opened a progressive mixed boarding school in Ulm, Germany. When Hitler came to power in 1933, she realized that the new regime was opposed to everything she stood for and, writes Deborah Cadbury, “decided to move her entire establishment, lock, stock and barrel, out of of Germany, right under the noses of the Nazi authorities”.
So Essinger set out with “an advance party of six teachers and six senior boys and girls to make preparations in England for the arrival of the others.” Sixty-five children would follow two weeks later. To ensure secrecy, each of the three separate “masquerad[ed] as day trippers on a picnic with a member of staff.
Thus was born the Bunce Court School. It was inevitably a very “Germanic” institution – most of the teachers and pupils were German and, despite constant exhortations to “speak English!”, some had strong accents – yet it operated in rural Kent and then in the Shropshire through the Second World War. Many of the staff, eager to escape Nazi Germany, were grossly overqualified: the coppersmith had been a director at the Deutsches Theater, while the math teacher was a distinguished astronomer. And there was also a noticeable emphasis on traditional Germanic high culture. (The music teacher almost had a fit when the students suggested a Gilbert and Sullivan performance.)
The initial intake was supplemented by a few English pupils but also by children arriving on the Kindertransport and then by an even more traumatized group who had survived concentration camps or a hidden life in central Europe controlled by the Nazis. One boy described by Cadbury, for example, “refused vegetables because they reminded him of the grass he had to eat to survive”.
Running the school was a constant challenge, as Essinger faced polio outbreaks, erratic electricity, inadequate heating, an official order to leave the original Kent location on three days’ notice and snowstorms interrupting food delivery. She had always believed that education should be aimed at developing practical and academic skills, but in England a continuing lack of funds forced pupils to tackle tasks such as gardening, carpentry and feeding chickens. . Local communities were not always friendly to the Germans within them, school inspectors enforced rules with unimaginative rigor, and by 1940 all foreign-born staff and pupils over the age of 16 were interned as ” enemy foreigners”.
Yet when the school closed in 1948, it could boast of remarkable achievements. He had helped children who had been through almost unimaginable horrors to build new lives. The 900 alumni included painter Frank Auerbach; designer and provocateur Gerard Hoffnung; immunologist Leslie Brent, whose work with Peter Medawar earned him a Nobel Prize; and Richard Sonnenfeldt, the chief interpreter for the American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. So what was the secret to his success?
My mother attended Bunce Court and I once did a radio documentary about the last school reunion, so I myself interviewed many of the same people and heard some, but not all, of the stories cited here. Cadbury has constructed a vivid and compelling narrative, though the deeply compassionate but narrow and rather stern Essinger in appearance never really comes to life as an individual. Many attempts to describe the “spirit of Bunce Court” are also somewhat vague and idealizing, but perhaps most striking is a former student’s suggestion that the school was driven by “a complex amalgamation of humanism, Quaker faith, liberal values and Judaism, brought together by the spirit of a woman whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to serve children”. Another, who came from an English school where she had just learned the Tudors and Stuarts, marveled at a teaching style that was “more like a conversation” and asked her to write essays on questions of urgent news such as “American isolation and imperialism”.
Cadbury also explores some of the techniques adopted at Bunce Court in an attempt to reach the most traumatized students. On one memorable occasion, gym teacher Hans Meyer was confronted by a boy who, it reads, ‘responded to his inner turmoil by flying into frenzied rages’. When Meyer tried to restrain him “with a firm but loving embrace”, he spat in his face. So the teacher said, “Go ahead, spit.” Let it all out. The boy just continued to spit, before bursting into “uncontrollable tears”.
Much of this book is compelling and moving, but there is something unsatisfying about its structure. The second half alternates chapters largely about the school itself with tales of how some of the students were persecuted by the Nazis before reaching Bunce Court. This material is often horrifying, but it inevitably packs an emotional punch that rather overshadows Essinger’s otherwise heroic accomplishments.