The School that Escaped the Nazis: The True Sto­ry of the School­teacher Who Defied Hitler

January 4, 2022

Named one of Book Riot’s BEST BIOGRA­PHIES OF 2022

The extra­or­di­nary true sto­ry of a coura­geous school prin­ci­pal who saw the dan­gers of Nazi Ger­many and took dras­tic steps to save those in harm’s way
In 1933, the same year Hitler came to pow­er, school­teacher Anna Essinger saved her small, pro­gres­sive school from Nazi Ger­many. Anna had read Mein Kampf and knew the ter­ri­ble dan­ger that Hitler’s hate-fueled ide­olo­gies posed to her pupils, so she hatched a coura­geous and dar­ing plan: to smug­gle her school to the safe­ty of England.
As the school she estab­lished in Kent, Eng­land, flour­ished despite the many chal­lenges it faced, the news from her home coun­try con­tin­ued to dark­en. Anna watched as Europe slid toward war, with dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences for the Jew­ish chil­dren left behind. In time, Anna would take in orphans who had giv­en up all hope: the sur­vivors of unimag­in­able hor­rors. Anna’s school offered these scarred chil­dren the love and secu­ri­ty they need­ed to rebuild their lives.
Fea­tur­ing mov­ing first­hand tes­ti­mo­ny from sur­viv­ing pupils, and draw­ing from let­ters, diaries, and present-day inter­views, The School that Escaped the Nazis is a dra­mat­ic human tale that offers a unique per­spec­tive on Nazi per­se­cu­tion and the Holo­caust. It is also the sto­ry of one woman’s refusal to allow her belief in a bet­ter world to be over­tak­en by hatred and violence.

Discussion Questions

Deb­o­rah Cad­bury tells the aston­ish­ing and inspir­ing sto­ry of Anna Essinger, the brave head of a pro­gres­sive ele­men­tary school in Ger­many who read Mein Kampf and fore­saw the grave threat that Hitler posed to her, as a Jew, and to the many Jew­ish stu­dents in her school. After Hitler came to pow­er in 1933, she not only orga­nized her own sur­rep­ti­tious escape from Ger­many, but also man­aged to smug­gle sev­en­ty of her young stu­dents out of Ger­many and to re-estab­lish her school in Kent, England

Anna was amaz­ing­ly resource­ful in gain­ing sup­port for her school in Eng­land and over­came obsta­cle after obsta­cle to con­tin­ue edu­cat­ing her stu­dents accord­ing to the pro­gres­sive prin­ci­ples she had long embraced. Over time, Tante Anna” and her staff not only kept the school going under exceed­ing­ly dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances; they also offered a haven for an addi­tion­al influx of Jew­ish refugee chil­dren who, as con­di­tions wors­ened, fled to Eng­land from Nazi Germany.

While this would at first appear to be a book about an unusu­al school that saved child refugees from the Holo­caust, we see it as a unique por­trait of the his­to­ry of the Holo­caust because it is his­to­ry told through the expe­ri­ences of Jew­ish chil­dren. That his­to­ry began in Ger­many with the assaults on stu­dents in Anna’s orig­i­nal school. Then, when Hitler’s efforts expand­ed to mur­der the Jews in the rest of Europe, new waves of stu­dents, many of them orphans, con­tin­ued to reach Anna’s new school in Eng­land. Many of them came from Poland and oth­er coun­tries in East­ern Europe where the chil­dren had been in camps and/​or had sur­vived by hid­ing and pass­ing. As Cad­bury tells their sto­ries, often in their own words, she also car­ries us through the his­tor­i­cal course of the Holo­caust through their eyes. 

Cad­bury is an art­ful sto­ry­teller and her focus on the children’s tes­ti­monies and let­ters makes the book excep­tion­al­ly mov­ing. Through their eyes, we come to under­stand how in spite of all they had been through, the empa­thet­ic envi­ron­ment of the school and the hero­ic work of Tante Anna and her staff helped them to heal and to thrive.