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Tributes to Boarding school head Anna Essinger who saved Jewish children from persecution

By KentOnline reporter

by Lesley Bellew

Former Jewish pupils who were shepherded to Maidstone to escape the Nazi regime have reunited to pay tribute to the woman who saved them from persecution.

Boarding school head Anna Essinger masterminded the ferrying of children to Kent during the 1930s and 1940s when the German government decreed no Jewish pupils could sit the Arbitur - the high school leaving certificate.

She had rebelled previously, in 1933, when every school in Germany was ordered to fly the swastika flag on Adolf Hitler’s birthday.

Anna Essinger saved many Jewish children
Anna Essinger saved many Jewish children

Essinger responded by arranging an all-day outing for pupils so that the flag, raised by a caretaker, flew over an empty school.

As a non-practising Jew who had links with the Quakers, she then contacted all parents and called on her circle of influential friends to help find an alternative school in Europe.

Bunce Court, a manor house hidden on the North Downs in the village of Otterden, near Lenham, became the preferred option and ultimately offered refuge to hundreds of children.

Some 85 years on from when they first arrived, her grateful alumni - now all in their 90s - have gathered once again at the school for the unveiling of a plaque in her honour.

Pupil Leslie Brent, circled, on a train to Kent
Pupil Leslie Brent, circled, on a train to Kent

Frank Auerbach was a pupil at Bunce Court from 1939 to 1947 and would even return for the summer holidays after finishing school, painting pictures and “doing a bit of practical work”.

He has since become one of the UK’s greatest painters.

He said: “Bunce Court was my home. I consider myself fortunate to have been one of the children in that unique community.

“I was scared of Anna Essinger, in a respectful way, but I may have been a fairly nervous child.

Children at Bunce Court during wartime
Children at Bunce Court during wartime

“She was as strong a character as Margaret Thatcher, though with different ideals and in a different situation.

“It was at Bunce Court I realised elaborate possessions, treats and, to a large extent, status and money, were not essential to a rich life.

“I cannot imagine a better home.”

Those sentiments were also echoed by Leslie Brent, who was one of the first 10,000 kindertransport refugees to arrive in the UK, and had first bumped into Essinger while playing ping-pong.

Former pupils reunited at the school to unveil a plaque and pay tribute to ‘Tante Anna’, who helped them escape the Nazi regime during the war
Former pupils reunited at the school to unveil a plaque and pay tribute to ‘Tante Anna’, who helped them escape the Nazi regime during the war

He said: “She knew who I was and asked ‘would you like to come to my school?’

“I stammered ‘yes please’ and that was it, my life took a new direction.

"That event affected my survival, my development and career very profoundly.

“Bunce Court became a fixed point of reference for me. I felt loved and that is so important for any child.

Former Bunce Court pupil Gabriele Foti
Former Bunce Court pupil Gabriele Foti

“I am grateful to the staff for dealing so discreetly with the loss of my family, burdened as they must have been with their own loss of loved ones.

“The school taught me to form critical opinion and stand on my own two feet.”

The plaque in memory of ‘Tante Anna’, meaning Aunt Anna, as she was known by the students in her care, reads: “Founder and headmistress at Bunce Court School, who gave a home and a sound education to hundreds of refugee children, mainly Jewish, during that time.

“Remembered with affection by so many for her great foresight, progressive educational endeavour, wisdom and compassion.”

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