Essinger was born on 15 September 1879 in Ulm, Germany to Fanny and Leopold Essinger, a non-observant Jewish couple. She was the oldest of nine children.
At age 20, Essinger moved to Nashville, Tennessee in the USA to commence her university education. She also began a life-long association with the Quakers after being deeply impressed by their work and ethos. With the help of Quaker funding, she returned to Germany in 1919 with the task to set up public kitchens to provide children with one hot meal a day.
Essinger worked with her sister Klara, who had set up an orphanage in Herrlingen for ‘problem children’ and by 1926, they turned it into a private boarding school called Landschulheim Herrlingen, with Essinger appointed as headmistress.
Essinger is often labelled as a pioneer of progressive education, as she ran the school following the Montessori method of education, with a strong focus on community, mutual respect between teachers and students and a shared sense of responsibility. She was known to enforce strict discipline and was described as ‘stout and stern’, yet she cared deeply for the best interests of the children in her care, who all called her Tante Anna (Aunt Anna).
When Hitler came into power, Essinger quietly boycotted the Nazi Regime. When all buildings were required to fly the Nazi flag for Hitler’s birthday, Essinger took the children on a day trip so that they would not have to see the flag. She quickly realised the dangers posed by the Nazis, and secured permission from the parents of 66 children to relocate the boarding school to South England in 1933. She then transferred control of the boarding school in Germany to Hugo Rosenthal and it became a home for Jewish children.
The new school in England was called Bunce Court and Essinger achieved the respect and support of local authorities once the school was fully established, managing to arrange for the children to stay with English families during the weekends to allow them to acclimatise to British life.
Once WWII began, Essinger was asked to set up a reception camp in Dovercourt which received over 10,000 Jewish-German children arriving on the Kindertransports. She sought out families and homes to take in the refugee children and managed to take some of them into her school. In 1940, the school was forced to evacuate to Shropshire, and they were not able to return to Bunce Court until 1946. Esther closed the school and retired in 1948 once the Jewish refugees had all been placed in hostels or British family homes.
Despite helping thousands of refugees to find safety in the UK, Essinger described the process as a ‘cattle market’ that allowed attractive children to be chosen first. She found running the camp and placing children in homes extremely difficult, and refused to talk about it after the war.
In 1959, on Essinger’s 80th Birthday, Bunce Court alumni planted a grove of trees in Israel in her name. Essinger died in Kent on 30 May, 1960.
In 1990, a secondary school in Ulm was named after her and a plaque was erected in Bunce Court, honouring her contribution to German children and in 2004, Essinger was added to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is very uncommon for someone who became a naturalised British citizen later in life.
This profile was written by Ruby Kwartz.