As a young girl, Shraddhapuspa escaped Nazi persecution at the start of the war. She went on to be an idealistic head teacher in East London, a tireless community worker and a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order. Kusalasara writes about an extraordinary life
At Shraddhapuspa’s flat, where she lives alone, there is a flowerbed which I inexpertly tend. We have built it up from bare earth, she and I, during the weekly visits I have been making since 2009. Although the planting is haphazard (my doing) I am pleased with it, especially the vast climbing rose that hangs over the back door. I prune it twice a year. Just see those blooms! When we lived together a few years ago in a women’s community in Bethnal Green, Shraddhapuspa was an assiduous gardener and grew both vegetables and flowers. More recently she has set up a community food garden on the estate where she lives. Cabbages and Bengali gourds, parsley and fire-hot chillies jostle together in raised beds.
Today, however, we are not gardening, but sitting down to record an account of Shraddhapuspa’s life. Shraddhapuspa is eighty-five now, and frail, but while her eyesight and her hearing are seriously diminished, her mind is clear and active. She starts talking about her childhood. Her speech is unhesitant and straightforward, her accent distinctly London. No trace of Austrian remains.
Shraddhapuspa, then Susy, left Vienna with her parents in 1939, aged nine. Previous to that she had lived the protected, well-to-do life of the assimilated Jew. Her father owned a jeweller’s shop, she went to school and they went on holidays and Sunday outings to the mountains. There were friends, relatives, even Christmas. Her parents weren’t practising Jews – they thought of themselves as Viennese – and her mother was a Theosophist. ‘But that didn’t make any difference to us, says Shraddhapuspa. ‘I had to stop going to school because my primary school didn’t accept Jewish children any more. I was probably about eight. We had to sew a yellow star on my coat and if I went out in the street I had to wear this yellow star.’ She also recalls looking out of her window and seeing the Nazis goose-step past. ‘So I had an idea of what was going on, but not very clear.’
And being this little eight-year-old, I decided I would put an advert in the paper to tell the Nazis that what they were doing wasn’t fair and would they please stop
Her parents were protective and didn’t discuss much in front of Shraddhapuspa. But she saw and felt the injustice of what was happening. ‘And being this little eight-year-old, I decided I would put an advert in the paper to tell the Jewish people to get together and tell the Nazis that what they were doing wasn’t fair and would they please stop. I was indignant, I don’t remember feeling afraid. I was put out. It wasn’t right, what was going on.’ This anecdote is famous amongst her friends: the mixture of optimism and pragmatism, along with a strong moral sense, is delightfully recognisable.
The train Shraddhapuspa’s family took out of Austria was the last that Jews were allowed to board; the train behind got turned back. On the journey, Nazi soldiers examined their possessions and checked the hems of their clothes for hidden bank notes and stashed jewels. The family were off to England via Holland, where they boarded a boat. She later heard that that was the last boat that Jewish refugees could take from Holland. When they arrived at the train station in London, there were children everywhere – the evacuations had started. The next day, war was declared. Shraddhapuspa’s family would never have their own home again.
England’s doors were closed to immigrants at that time, and only through sponsorship could the family settle here. And in the end it was her mother’s Theosophist connections that secured it for them. Theosophy is perhaps an unexpected ingredient in Shraddhapuspa’s upbringing. An esoteric set of beliefs combining mystical elements from many religions, it searches for a unified, divine truth and although it gained popularity in the last century in Europe, especially among the middle classes, it was never part of the mainstream. I probe a little to find out more about this influence. Her mother’s beliefs were talked about at home, it turns out, and as a child Shraddhapuspa was taught, and believed in, reincarnation – the Hindu idea that the self survives death and is reborn into a new body. When she was newly arrived in England she was knocked down by a car. At that moment the thoughts that came to her were of curiosity and interest: ‘I wonder who I will be reborn as.’ In other words, she felt no fear. But in her teenage years, she rejected her mother’s religion as ‘a load of rubbish’ and became a humanist and a rationalist. It was as a young adult, on a climbing trip, that she would realise the significance of this shift. She looked down some of Snowdon’s more precipitous slopes and realised how much she had relinquished her belief in reincarnation. Now there was fear.
After school Shraddhapuspa went into teaching. During her training she naturally fell in with others who were interested in more radical and progressive educational ideas. (Later, she and her husband would set up and run a school based on similar principles.) She wanted to change the world and thought that the best approach would be to have some input into children’s lives and the way they grow up.
I ask where she thinks her idealism came from. It would be easy to put it down to her experiences of being a refugee in a strange country, her family’s slide from affluence into poverty and dependence, the war and its aftermath. ‘But it must be a little bit of just the way I am,’ she says. ‘Think of that little girl deciding to put an advert in the paper to get the Jews together. That tendency must have been there.’ As well as this pragmatic responsiveness to the world and its needs, there is a more reflective side to her character. As a schoolgirl in Austria, she puzzled over whether the universe went on forever – or could there be an end to it? ‘I remember being completely overwhelmed by looking out of the window, seeing the sun shining on a lot of dew and cobwebs – I have the picture in my mind. So I always had the feeling for there being something else in life.’
At the London Buddhist Arts Centre, where I work, we share an office with the Globe Community Project (GCP), a charity run by a group of Buddhists, including Shraddhapuspa, to promote community cohesion in the local area. One day, unprompted, Shafia, who works for GCP, starts talking about Shraddhapuspa. Shafia has known her since she was a pupil at Sir William Burrough Primary School, where Shraddhapuspa, then Ms Powlesland, was headmistress. Although, as Shafia points out, ‘she wasn’t a teacher, she was a friend.’ At that time Tower Hamlets was mainly populated by white people; Asians, mostly from Bangladesh, were only just starting to arrive in large numbers. Shafia tells of being spat on while on a school outing and is still impressed by the calm way Shraddhapuspa got the children home, quelling a strong urge in the boys to retaliate. She took a personal interest in the families and their particular circumstances, too. (Testimony to her close connections with her pupils are the various visits she has made to Bangladesh itself. The last was just a few years ago: picture a frail, white-haired woman on the back of a motorbike, bouncing down a rough path to a village on her way to a wedding.)
Shafia knows she was by no means the only child Shraddhapuspa helped – ‘There were so many stories, ours was just one.’ Another story, which stands out for different reasons, is that of Ed Husain. Born and brought up in a Bangladeshi Muslim family in the East End, Husain also attended Sir William Burrough School. He has described the ‘little world of goodness and kindness’ that Shraddhapuspa was trying to create. When he left this ‘little world’ behind, on moving to secondary school, he rejected the benign spiritual influence of his immigrant family and adopted a fervent, politicised fanatacism. This new world offered an intellectual identity and respect from his peers. He spent five years under the influence of fundamentalist groups, and from his Islamist viewpoint saw ‘everyone along religious lines, and all non-Muslims as inferior to us.’ On witnessing the violence that came with an Islamist ideology, however, he eventually renounced his fundamentalism. He would later describe the period in his book The Islamist. Husain went on to co-found the Quilliam Foundation, which works against extremism, and is now a senior advisor at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. In his book, he recalls the atmosphere of friendship and protection that Shraddhapuspa and other teachers at that school offered. ‘I remember going to Ms Powlesland’s house to pick cherries in her garden,’ he writes. ‘She loved her pupils so much that even her social life revolved around us.’ The humane environment of the school gave Husain a lifetime’s lesson: ‘Later in life, when I doubted my affinity with Britain, those memories came flooding back.’
Although she was teaching in a mainstream school, her radical approach continued, going beyond the conventional limits of her profession
Seeing the struggles of the Bangladeshi families, Shraddhapuspa realised that they needed more help. ‘It was impossible not to do anything.’ She pauses. ‘For me, anyway.’ Some families near to the school were living in homeless accommodation, one room per family, with prostitutes and drug dealers in the same building. The women were scared to leave their rooms. Shraddhapuspa and the Chair of Governors managed to get the place closed down but housing was still a major problem. Shraddhapuspa and a few dedicated others set up the Limehouse Project in response. Properties were bought and services provided to help families – particularly women, who were the most vulnerable and often the least educated – to begin to make a life for themselves here. While I am wary, like Shraddhapuspa, of drawing easy conclusions as to our motivations in life, the fact of her being a refugee here herself – ‘this whole business of coming to England, being the odd girl out when I was at school, with slightly halting English and strange clothes’ – can’t be ignored. Although she was teaching in a mainstream school, her radical approach continued, going beyond the conventional limits of her profession. She talks about her particular feeling for the first Buddhist precept, which enjoins us to perform ‘deeds of loving kindness’. I reflect that in order to fulfil this precept, one needs to have a radical approach.
Shraddhapuspa’s efforts were officially recognised in 2009 when she was awarded an MBE for ‘services to black and ethnic minority people in East London’. But she is self-effacing. She points out that all the way along she was aware of significant shortcomings in herself, and never felt a huge sense of satisfaction. Looking back, she attributes a lot of what she feels were her mistakes to a lack of perspective, a perspective that Buddhism would have been able to give her. She came to Buddhism relatively late, in her mid-sixties. She emphasises that it is not negative to think that the Dharma would have been valuable before that: ‘That is not a regret so much as an appreciation.’ The first thing she did after joining the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2003 was to start the Wednesday daytime class at the LBC. Sensitive as she is to the need for inclusivity, she wanted a class that helped parents and people who couldn’t attend in the evening to have access to teaching on meditation and Buddhism. The class has a creche run by volunteers to enable parents to come along. She is proud of this contribution to the Sangha, and more than ten years later she still attends every week.
Looking at my friend perched on her sofa, I wonder what her preoccupations are, with eighty-five years of life behind her, and who knows how many more to come. She is still an active trustee with two charities and is of course committed to the food garden on the estate. But what of her inner life?
‘I am sometimes quite aware that I am almost bound not to live much longer. It doesn’t fill me with fear, that thought. At its best, there is a sense of the preciousness of the life that I have still got. I don’t have that cutting edge that I used to have but I am still involved in having what I hope are useful effects in the world and I am much more patient than I used to be, not so willful, not so determined to get my own way! I do spend a lot of time of not doing anything particularly. I love to see the sun. I can’t see very well but I can see if it is sunny, I can see green. There is a new silver birch in the garden, I can’t see it properly but I can see it moving. That still inspires me, opens me up.’ ■