Ruth Danson in the bluebell woods of Bunce Court School
This lovely photo, from the AJR Refugee Voices Archive, shows Ruth Danson, third from left, and her friends Ursel, Hanni Salomon, Erika Loebl, Dudu, Lore Feibuss in the Bluebell Wood, Bunce Court School, in 1939. Ruth says: “Beautiful Bunce Court. Oh it was beautiful there!”
Ruth came to Britain with her parents from Breslau to escape Nazi persecution in 1939. Shortly afterwards her parents were interned and Ruth was sent to Bunce Court School in Otterden, Kent. This was a pioneering school founded by Anna Essinger and two of her sisters in the Swabian town of Herrlingen in 1926. It began as an adjunct to the children’s home founded by Essinger’s sister Klara in 1912. In 1925, as her own children and many of the children in care came of school age, she got the idea to turn the orphanage into a boarding school. Landschulheim Herrlingen opened on 1 May 1926 as a private boarding school with 18 children ranging in age from 6 to 12. Anna Essinger became head of the school and her sister Paula, a trained nurse, became the school nurse and its housekeeper.
Landschulheim Herrlingen was non-denominational, accepting children from any faith, and coeducational. Having been influenced by progressive education in the United States, Essinger ran the school accordingly. The primary grades were taught using the Montessori method. Teachers were to set an example in “learning, laughing, loving and living” and the motto for the school was “Boys and girls learn to be inquisitive, curious and independent and to find things out themselves. All work is to encourage critical thinking.” Individual work was encouraged. There was no testing of skills or attainment
After Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party seized power in January 1933, and with antisemitism on the rise, the school became increasingly Jewish, as some parents bowed to pressure to boycott Jewish institutions and Jewish parents found it increasingly difficult to find placement for their children. In April 1933, when all public buildings were ordered to fly the Nazi flag and swastika, Essinger planned a day-long outing for her school, leaving the flag to fly over an empty building, a symbolic gesture, according to a nephew. Afterwards, Essinger and the school were denounced and the school came under Nazi scrutiny with a recommendation to install a school inspector at the school. In May 1933, Essinger was informed that her oldest pupils would not be allowed to take the tests for the abitur, the school-leaving certificate needed to pursue a university education, and most non-Jewish parents withdrew their children from the school.
Essinger realised that Germany was no longer a hospitable place for her school and sought to relocate it in a more secure environment abroad. She first sought a new location in Switzerland, then in the Netherlands and finally, in England, where she found an old manor house dating from 1547 in Otterden, near Faversham in Kent. The house is called Bunce Court, after the family that owned the property in the 17th century. Essinger raised funds in England, primarily from Quakers, initially to rent and later, to purchase Bunce Court. She informed the parents of her desire to move the school to England and received permission to take 65 children with her. The children all went home for summer vacation, not knowing they were leaving Landschulheim Herrlingen for the last time.
Essinger and her students arrived in the UK in summer 1933. English people were unaware of what was taking place in Germany and did not understand why Essinger and the school had left Germany. The new school was makeshift and finances meagre, causing the English education inspectors to be initially unfavourable toward the school. Within a year or two, however, enough improvements had been made that they came to realise the school was viable and unique. In October 1937, there were 68 pupils enrolled at Bunce Court, 41 were boys and 27 were girls. Of the 68, all but three were boarders and all but 12 were foreign-born. By this time, the school had won the respect of the authorities. After three days spent visiting Bunce Court in 1937, inspectors from the British government’s Ministry of Education reported their amazement “at what could be achieved in teaching with limited facilities” and that they were “convinced it was the personality, enthusiasm and interest of teachers rather than their teaching ‘apparatus’ that made the school work competently”.
Bunce Court was home, so that even after finishing their education, some pupils would stay on for a number of months, living at the school while working elsewhere, their wages largely going for their upkeep. After Kristallnacht, the United Kingdom agreed to accept 10,000 German children in Kindertransports and Bunce Court took in as many of the refugees as possible. These included Ruth and her friends, and other interviewees from AJR Refugee Voices, including immunologist Leslie Brent, who shared this photo of the school ca 1948:
Bunce Court became a haven for German and Austrian refugees in Britain during and after the war. For many children now without families it became their family and their home, a place to stay during holidays even after their graduation. Well-known alumni include the painter Frank Auerbach. The last children to come to Bunce Court were orphaned Nazi concentration camp survivors who no longer knew what normal life was like. One such boy was Sidney Finkel, born Sevek Finkelstein in Poland, who survived the Piotrkow ghetto, deportation to a slave labour camp, separation from his family and imprisonment at Czestochowa, Buchenwald and Theresienstadt concentration camps. He arrived in England in August 1945 at the age of 14 and, along with 10 other Polish boys, was sent to Bunce Court. Traumatised, he and the others were treated with love and care. In his 2006 memoir, Sevek and the Holocaust: The Boy Who Refused to Die, he said his two years at Bunce Court “turned me back into a human being.”
Ruth graduated from Bunce Court and returned to London to be with her parents. You can read more about her here.
Much of the text of this story was adapted from Bunce Court’s Wikipedia entry.
Hidden Treasures: Celebrating the documents, photos and artefacts in British archives that tell the story of Jews in Britain