Anneliese Schimmelpfennig, founder of Anneliese Schools: A belief, hard-earned, in things that endure

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photographs by Mary Hurlbut

There are few long-time Laguna residents who haven’t heard of Anneliese Schimmelpfennig. Or, at the very least, heard of her magical Anneliese Schools, which will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. But her backstory is something most people may not know. She grew up in Germany, under the fog of war, enduring hardships even the strongest adults would find difficult to bear. Her childhood – both heartbreaking and heartwarming – motivates every aspect of her teaching and the philosophy behind her schools.

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Anneliese Schimmelpfennig, a woman with a kind heart after a difficult childhood

Born into a world at war

Anneliese knows what it means to suffer. Two weeks after her birth in 1939, the world went to war. Her father, a German officer in the military, was sent to a Russian gulag in Siberia. He would be gone for twelve years. Some of those years, no one knew if he was dead or alive. 

Her mother in Tussling (Tüßling), a small village in Bavaria near the Austrian border, began taking in refugees. Eleven people moved into their modest home, sharing what little food and space they could find. 

Then, in 1943, Anneliese’s mother made the brave and dangerous decision to harbor three Jewish people (and a cat) in their attic. They stayed for 18 months. “The cat couldn’t even say ‘meow,’” Anneliese says. 

Anneliese brought them whatever food she could – blueberries, oak nuts, apples, potatoes – still not old enough to fully appreciate the risk. When the Americans arrived in 1945, their guests began screaming. “Just screaming,” Anneliese says. “I didn’t understand. But now I know they thought they were caught.”

Growing up in the shadow of the camps

A concentration camp stood nearby in Mühldorf, less than five miles from Anneliese’s small village of Tussling. Mühldorf was a satellite camp of Dachau. As a young girl, Anneliese would steal apples and sneak them under the fence for the prisoners. When caught by the guards, she would act deaf or disoriented. “You had to be very smart,” she says. “It doesn’t help to be an intellectual if you don’t know life.”

 Reading people, and situations, is something she came to rely on very early.

“I saw the people going into the camp. I still remember the sound of the trains that brought them in, all those people looking out at me.” 

Liberated at last

In 1945, the war ended. Anneliese recalls Americans arriving in helicopters, bringing her bubblegum and white bread, delicacies she’d never known. “The Americans were really nice to children,” she says. “Some were only 19 years old, children themselves, and cried when they saw us.” They brought milk powder, and opened the restaurants to give out things to eat. 

“I thought then,” Anneliese says, “I will go to America and teach children to be peaceful. Always talk things out. I’ll teach them not to be nasty and crying and wimpy.”

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Anneliese creates magical and inspiring spaces, a contrast to her own upbringing

Her father’s own fight

At some point, Anneliese’s father escaped and walked his way to the Volga River. He made it, inexplicably, from Siberia to the Black Sea before he was caught, returned to the gulag, and given an additional five-year sentence for his crime. 

Anneliese speculates that the reason he wasn’t shot on the spot was because he had taught himself Russian, and the Russians took note. He would sing and dance for the officers, keeping them entertained. And so, against all odds, they let him live.

“This is why I teach the children so many languages,” Anneliese says. “Even if you only know the basics, and how to say a few things without an accent, it can save your life.” 

Her father’s happiest nights in captivity, he said, were spent in the pigpens. The guards would sometimes throw him in, forcing him to eat with the pigs. Little did they realize he considered this a treat. Pigs were fed potatoes and bits of meat, far better fare than his usual diet of stale bread. 

At night, the Russians drank vodka, ate bread spread with pig fat, got drunk and decided which German they would shoot that night. But he confused them by speaking Russian, and they liked him enough to keep him alive.

Anneliese was twelve the first time she met her father. By the time he came home, he was emotionally and physically spent. He didn’t speak for three days. His feet wrapped only in newspaper, his body starving and skinny. “He taught me to always have hope,” she says. “Even if he had such a sad life, he was never grouchy.”

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Anneliese’s father taught her optimism in the face of adversity

Battle of the books

As a child, Anneliese wasn’t allowed to read. Her mother burned books. She also didn’t allow Anneliese to attend high school, reasoning that school brought no money to the family. Worse yet, imagination and mental escape were dangerous. “Books opened a different world to you, and she didn’t want that,” Anneliese says. The same was true for toys, which also evoked ideas. Practical skills, like mathematics, were the only things of value in a country that had to build itself anew. “I made math problems in the dirt with a stick.”

This austere upbringing shaped the way Anneliese approached teaching, in both the elements she chose to retain and in those she adamantly rejected. “I don’t baby them,” she says. “It’s not good for them.”

 Anneliese considers herself strict with the children. Love, combined with self-discipline, is her governing philosophy. “It’s very hard on me to see children so spoiled here, and not appreciating what they have. They should be happy for every single thing.”

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Anneliese creates the childhood she never had for the children.

An enchanting education

The atmosphere of the Anneliese Schools is magical. And that magic is intentional. Antique furniture and Persian rugs, plenty of plants, art objects and paintings – the spaces look more museum than school. It’s a place out of time, more European than American, free from technology and full of natural beauty. Each campus is nestled in a magical environ around Laguna – the beauty of the beach, the serenity of the canyon, the history of Manzanita Drive.

Anneliese insists on a certain rigor and, within that rigor, she gives the children a lot of room for self-expression. Wooden toys, organic foods, eco-gardening, mud play, an emphasis on multilingualism are all non-negotiable elements of her philosophy. Children are given a wide range of responsibilities, and a deep sense of trust and love.

She also emphasizes etiquette, stressing respect for elders, animals, and each other. And she tries to protect the children from a culture of consumption. “It’s difficult for me here because things get wasted. At restaurants, things get wasted. It’s very hard to see.” This is the reason for the wooden toys. Anneliese believes in things that endure, and rejects buying the latest, greatest gadgets. Simple, basic wooden toys that stimulate a child’s imagination, this is something she believes in.

Around all her properties, you’ll encounter a lot of animals: goats, llamas, pigs, swans, chickens, rabbits, peacocks and a dog named Odie. The animals are both therapeutic and stimulating, and they provide children with another way to communicate with the natural world.

“People always ask when they come from a different school, ‘Is this a hippy school?’” Anneliese laughs. “It’s not. It’s a little freer. Children can make some decisions.” But as you can see, she tells me, she’s not a hippy.

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Anneliese in her Manzanita property with her dog, Odie.

A love (and need) for language

Language is, indeed, an integral part of the Anneliese School’s curriculum. Five native speakers teach Spanish, French, German, Italian and Japanese one day a week. Mathematics is taught primarily in German, as it makes more sense to the students. 

Anneliese speaks three or four languages herself. “English is my worst language,” she says. “It was forbidden in school, the language of the enemy.” It was a language she wouldn’t acquire until she came to the United States at 27 years old.

An optimistic outlook

Anneliese wants to leave her students with a sense of optimism and endurance. Her advice: be independent and take a little risk. “Always be kind and optimistic,” she says. “Negativity destroys you. Don’t ever give up.”

Never has a woman had to practice so much of what she preaches. Anneliese embodies that spirit of optimism and determination. And she will leave that legacy to generations of lucky children.