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Oct 2007 Journal

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The legacy of Anna Essinger

The last few years have seen a remarkable revival of Anna Essinger’s reputation as an educationalist and headmistress of avant-garde co-educational boarding schools for (mainly) Jewish children in Ulm and Kent. As early as 1933, she transferred her school in Herrlingen, near Ulm, to Bunce Court, a manor house on the Kent North Downs. When the Kindertransports arrived, she expanded her school, which became home to hundreds of refugee children, although there was always a minority whose parents valued her progressive educational ideas. In 1940 she was forced to leave what had become a military zone and she transferred the school to Trench Hall, in Shropshire. After the war, she returned the school to Bunce Court but was obliged to close it for financial and other reasons in 1948.

In Ulm hers is a household name. Two schools now bear her name and plaques are affixed to the house of her birth and the buildings that housed her school in Herrlingen. Recently the 125th anniversary of her birth was celebrated in style, in the same year in which Ulm celebrated Albert Einstein’s equivalent birthday! Recently, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography published an entry about her, at least one doctoral thesis has been written in Germany about her, and there have been Bunce Court reunions. This year saw events in Trench Hall and at Bunce Court.

Trench Hall, now known as the Woodlands (Special) School, provides teaching and care for some 37 adolescent children from Shropshire. Its head became aware of the Bunce Court connection and, stimulated by Bunce Court archivist Martin Lubowski, embraced the idea that a plaque be affixed to the main building to mark its connection with Anna Essinger’s school. A plaque was duly unveiled on 24 May in the presence of a dozen OBCs and wives, teachers and governors of the school, and present-day pupils and local people. BBC Midlands made a programme encapsulating the history of the Kindertransports and Anna Essinger’s schools. Robin Wilson, the school head, made an introductory speech; I spoke about what the school had meant to its pupils; and Martin Lubowski described how the idea of the plaque was brought to fruition. Although the building was much the same, there had been many changes. Yet somehow the spirit of Bunce Court seemed to live on. The final, elegant touch was the presentation of certificates with photographs of the school to OBCs present.

The Bunce Court event on 19 July involved the return of the school bell and the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to it. The bell had spent the last 27 years outside the home of OBC Ernst Weinberg in California! The main Bunce Court building had been subdivided years earlier into four dwellings and the couple occupying the middle section (Julia and George Miller) had embraced Ernst’s suggestion that the bell be returned to its original home. We were given a warm welcome by Julia Miller; Graham Galer, another resident, recounted the history of the old building; Hans Meyer, a former teacher, described the now symbolic significance of the bell; and Ernst Weinberg related how he had restored the bell it to its old home. Two teachers from the Anna Essinger-Schulen in Ulm presented us with a photographic record of her former buildings in and near Ulm, and tours of the virtually unrecognisable large estate, which now sports five town houses with magnificent lawns and flower beds and tennis courts, were undertaken by the more able-bodied. A suitably nostalgic occasion.

Leslie Baruch Brent

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