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Walter Block – Anna Essinger and Bunce Court School

After the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 I, then aged 10, was no longer allowed to attend the village school in Wangen by lake Constance in Germany. The school ban plus the ever-increasing other measures of persecution of Jews prompted my mother, who was a lone parent, to make arrangements for me to go to England in January 1939 with the help of the Kindertransport scheme in which Quakers had a helping role.

My Kindertransport left from Munich by train. My mother obeyed the edict that parents were not allowed to see off their children at the station. So this made the departure very bleak for me, particularly as some parents ignored the edict and were at the station.

We breathed a sigh of relief when we crossed the German border into Holland and were welcome with warm milke and white rolls by Dutch nuns. The overnight crossing from Hook of Holland to Harwich was my first experience of a journey by sea, and it was rough. On landing at Harwich we were taken to nearby Dovercourt holiday camp. The weather was bitterly cold and the chalets were not equipped for winter. We slept with all our clothes on plus hot water bottles which cheerful helpers supplied.

During the next few days some children were selected to go to hostels and individual families. I was fortunate that my uncle had arranged for me to go to a remarkable refugee school, Bunce Court. A distant relative who lived in London had agreed to pay the first year’s fees.

My mother who finally got a permit to come to Britain arrived in England in late August 1939, some three weeks before war broke out. Her permit was given on the condition that she worked as a live-in domestic servant. She then was able to pay my school fees and although these were comparatively modest they absorbed the bulk of her earnings. She experienced very unpleasant behaviour from various of her employers. However, when she worked as a cook in a large house for a stockbroker’s family in Godalming the local Quakers arranged weekly get-togethers for refugees. My mother always spoke warmly of this as providing some welcome warm human contact in contrast to her employer’s cool and distant attitude.

The head of Bunce Court School, Anna Essinger, was a remarkable woman. Before the First World War she had studied in America but returned to Germany at the end of the war to take part in a relief programme sponsored by American Quakers for needy German children. She then founded a progressive boarding school in 1926. When Hitler came to power in 1933 she realised early on that there was no future for her and the children many of whom, like her, were Jewish. She re-founded the school in Kent accompanied by some 70 pupils. A committee of Quakers and others helped Anna Essinger to rent and subsequently buy Bunce Court, a large country house with extensive grounds.

In 1939, when so many refugee children arrived in the UK, she organised an emergency programme to accept as many children as possible with the help of the Jewish Refugee Committee and Quaker sources, even when no fees could be paid.

Bunce Court was a home for all the children but particularly for those whose parents perished in the concentration camps. It was a stimulating community where children received not only a good academic education but in the absence of domestic staff participated fully with clearning, cooking, growing vegetables, repairing furniture, converting stables into dormitories and more. Art, music and drama played a large part in the integrated life of the whole school community.

The school gave me a sound foundation for my working and family life and I am forever mindful and thankful that the actions of concerned individuals and organisations including Quakers made it possible for so many of us ‘Kinder’ to survive to lead constructive lives and give something back to our host country.

Walter Block