Cover image of "The School that Escaped the Nazis," a book that tells the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of children

Amazon lists 4,000 books about the Holocaust. Half are nonfiction, such as Elie Wiesel’s Night and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. The rest include such bestselling novels as The Book Thief and The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Of course, some of the innumerable memoirs and novels relate the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of children. But I’ve never come across a book that more poignantly tells the tale from their perspective than Deborah Cadbury’s The School That Escaped the Nazis.

A haven for Jewish refugee children

Cadbury’s book relates the history of a remarkable progressive school founded in Germany in 1926 under the name Landschulheim Herrlingen. Once the Nazis came to power in 1933, the fiercely determined cofounder, Anna Essinger (1879-1960), stealthily moved the staff and students to a manor called Bunce Court in Kent on the southern coast of England. There it became a haven for hundreds of Jewish children fleeing the Third Reich. The school remained in operation until 1949.

“A school in a perpetual state of near bankruptcy”

One alumnus of the school described the experience years later. “‘Bunce Court,’ he wrote, ‘was a complex amalgam of humanism, the Quaker faith, liberal values and Judaism, brought together by the mind of a woman whose one purpose in life seemed to be to serve children,’ he wrote. But what made this truly exceptional, he continued, ‘was that all this happened while Bunce Court ‘was in a perpetual state of near bankruptcy.'” I have since learned that one of the most prominent of the wealthy English families who subsidized the school, staving off collapse again and again, was the author’s own relatives—the Cadbury family that had built its fortune on chocolate.

The School that Escaped the Nazis: The True Story of the Schoolteacher Who Defied Hitler by Deborah Cadbury (2022) 456 pages ★★★★★

Photo of alumni of Bunce Court School, the school attended by children who survived the Holocaust
Former Bunce Court students at the June 2018 unveiling of a plaque from The Association of Jewish Refugees honoring headmistress Anna Essinger. Image: Association of Jewish Refugees via Forward

The Holocaust through the eyes of children

Cadbury tells the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of the children who experienced it firsthand. The School That Escaped the Nazis encompasses all twelve years of the Third Reich. The upsurge in antisemitism when Hitler rose to power. The Nuremberg Laws. Anschluss. Kristallnacht. Sudetenland. The invasion of Poland. The extermination camps at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Belzec. And the advance of Soviet and Western troops into Germany. It’s a deeply affecting account told with great skill and compassion. We see the children as they looked on, sobbing or paralyzed with fear and incomprehension as fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles were dragged off to concentration camps or simply shot on the street. These are scenes you’re unlikely to forget.

The children share their experience

Cadbury combined archival research in the records of the schools and its alumni with interviews of the few surviving Bunce Court graduates. Her account draws most heavily on the experiences of eight children from all walks of life. They were born in wealth or poverty, Orthodox Judaism or assimilated families, in cities, towns, or villages. Some hid for years in cramped spaces. Others were shipped “to the East,” including the most notorious of the death camps. One lived on the run in the countryside, rarely more than a few steps ahead of the Gestapo. One by one as the years dragged on, they made their way to Bunce Court, through the Kindertransports or other organized efforts or through family connections. But one and all arrived in England with horrific scenes seared into memory. For most, recovery from the trauma took many years.

My special interest in this book

I was not closely related to anyone who perished in the Holocaust, although I was told when young that many distant cousins and other relatives on both sides of my family died in the camps. However, one of the eight children spotlighted in Cadbury’s book is my friend Anna Rabkin, who was repeatedly reelected from 1979 to 1994 as the City Auditor of Berkeley, California. Anna is the author of a moving memoir, From Kraków to Berkeley: Coming Out of Hiding, which I reviewed in 2018.

As I told Anna a few days ago, I had never dared ask her directly about her time during the war. I knew she’d lived through it from the age of three when Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded her native Poland. I feared reawakening unwelcome memories. She smiled when I said this. Anna has since shared her reminiscences in more than four hours of oral history with the Berkeley Historical Society. The videos are available through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is difficult for me to reconcile the terror-stricken little Polish girl who hid from the Nazi Officers’ Club next door with the brilliant writer I know today in Berkeley. She has lived here for sixty years, and we have been friends for nearly fifty.

About the author

Photo of Deborah Cadbury, author of this book which tells the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of children
Deborah Cadbury. Image: BBC

As Wikipedia notes, “Deborah Cadbury is a British author, historian and television producer with the BBC.” She has authored 10 books and produced a dozen films. Cadbury is a graduate of Sussex University and Linacre College, Oxford. She has two sons and lives in London.

For more reading

You may want to check out Anna Rabkin’s excellent memoir, From Kraków to Berkeley (“Survival is sweet revenge”: The odyssey of a Holocaust survivor).

I’ve also reviewed an excellent earlier book by Deborah Cadbury, Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World’s Greatest Chocolate Makers (In Chocolate Wars, what’s gone wrong with business).

An article in the Smithsonian Magazine covers much of the same ground as Cadbury’s book: “The Schoolteacher Who Saved Her Students From the Nazis.”

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