Remembering Dr. Leonore Goldschmidt

Buildings are vessels of history and Folkestone is a town rich in historical buildings. On the corner of Earls Ave and Shorncliffe Road stands a handsome brick and stone-dressed residence, once the summer home of the Boddam Whetham family. Since the late 19th century, however, it has served as an academic institution.

In 1895, the building was Athelstan College for the ‘daughters of gentlemen’, advertising to its Commonwealth clients in the Trinidad and Tobago Mirror. In the 1960s it was Folkestone Technical College and in the 1980s it became the Adult Education Centre. Today it is home to Earlscliffe, a residential Sixth Form school, providing a full A level curriculum to overseas students.

Alongside a strict academic programme, students at Earlscliffe learn life skills such as communication, critical thinking and community service. The school’s six boarding houses have live-in staff who provide practical and pastoral support. In 2023 Earlscliffe was given a five star rating in Fortune 500’s guide to the world’s leading boarding schools.

Overseas students who choose to study in England are faced with a different set of challenges to their native-speaking counterparts. They must learn to communicate in a language that may not be their own and adapt to life in a country in which they did not grow up. They are separated from their families and far away from all that is familiar to them. The benefits of a good education, however, are considered to be worth any personal challenges they may encounter.

Haven For Refugees

Overseas students were also encountering a new life in Earlscliffe’s Shorncliffe Road building 85 years ago when, for a brief period at the start of WWII, it  housed the Dr Leonore Goldschmidt Schule for Jewish refugees. In 1939, as Hitler’s armies advanced across Europe, enrolments at Athelstan College on Shorncliffe Road had slowed to a trickle. It was Canon Hyla Holden, a Folkestone vicar, who offered the Headmistress, Miss Godfrey, a possible solution.

Holden had heard of the plight of Dr Goldschmidt, a German Jewish teacher seeking to escape Berlin with her students. Since Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), coordinated actions of anti-semitic violence across German territories on 8 and 9 November 1938, the British government had been supporting the evacuation of Jewish children from Nazi Germany via the Kindertransport. Miss Godfrey agreed, with the proviso that her one remaining pupil, whose parents were in India, could join Dr Goldschmidt’s charges.

Four years earlier, Goldschmidt had been dismissed from her position at a Berlin public school and told that in future she could teach no more than five non-Jewish students at a time. In the summer of 1934, her cousin, Alexander Zweig and his wife, were murdered on  The Night of the Long Knives. As the couple had no children, Leonore and her husband received a substantial inheritance which, to honour the memory of the Zweigs, they used to open a private Jewish boarding school. As the political situation grew increasingly dangerous, Jewish children enrolled in ever greater numbers at the four-storey house with its orchard garden in a leafy suburb of Berlin.

Goldschmidt always remained one step ahead of the Nazis. She realised that she needed to prepare the children for new lives outside Germany and so she employed native English speakers and registered her school as an official examination centre for the University of Cambridge. Her hope was that this would facilitate Jewish emigration to the US and UK. “Education,” said Goldschmidt, “is our highest good and sometimes it can even serve as a survival tool.”

Escaping Nazi Germany

In July 1939 the Goldschmidt family emigrated to England. Initially settling in a boarding house in Sandgate, Leonore took over Athelstan College on 1 September 1939. Three days later, the UK was at war with Germany and the borders were closed. Some German Jewish children had escaped via the Kindertransport programme. Now, via the UK branch of the Jewish aid organisation the B’nai B’rith, they started to arrive at the new Goldschmidt school in Folkestone.

“My memory of the first few weeks is of liberation” recalls Otto Fendrich, a former student. “We were trusted to go out by ourselves, to keep any pocket money we had and our letters were not censored. The accommodation and the food were also much better. The general atmosphere was very congenial, and although there certainly was discipline, it was not obtrusive or draconian. Dr. Goldschmidt, as headmistress, was clearly in charge of every aspect of the school and more than capable of laying the law down when necessary (and it quite often was necessary) but even at the height of the storm one was aware of an undercurrent of affection and humour”.

The teaching was also of a high standard. The students studied Shakespeare, George Eliot and Sheridan with their teacher, Miss Smith from Elham. As more refugees arrived, the school expanded across the road to Earlscliffe House.

Contact with the children’s families in Germany had become almost impossible. Providing a sense of community, therefore, was crucial. Birthdays were celebrated and, in the evenings, they played games, sang songs and read aloud in German. Encouraged by a new-found stability the Goldschmidts unpacked the silver, the carpets and the grand piano and rented rooms to the Workers Educational Association.

In May 1940, following Germany’s invasion of Holland, the British government announced the internment of all B-Class male aliens over the age of 16. Ernst, Leonore’s husband, was detained and she and her students were evacuated to South Wales, from where she worked tirelessly to ensure that they were able to sit the school certificate examinations that summer.

After the war, Dr. Goldschmidt continued her teaching career in England. She died in London in 1983 at the age of 85.

The Leonore Room at 29 Shorncliffe Road is dedicated to Dr. Goldschmidt’s memory. And on Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2023, Earlscliffe named their newest residence Goldschmidt House in recognition of her courage and determination.

Originally published in ‘Folkestone Foghorn’, Spring 2024