A young Susy Powlesland in 1936

Goodbye Susy Powlesland MBE, a Holocaust survivor who spent her life making our community better

Susy Powlesland, a Holocaust survivor and local activist awarded an MBE for her services to the marginalised communities in Tower Hamlets, passed away earlier this week on Wednesday 13 May. She is survived by her children Helen, Stephen, Frank, foster son Ayen and their grandchildren.

Born in Vienna in 1930, she escaped Nazi-occupied Austria aged nine on the last train allowed out of the country, before settling in Tower Hamlets. 

Powlesland was a community champion extraordinaire, who received a MBE  in 2009 for her services to the black and ethnic minority communities of East London. She will be remembered by many for her legacy of community service, including her decades of work as a headteacher.

She was known for going above and beyond to support newly immigrated Bangladeshi children in a racially hostile environment. 

One of her pupils, Ed Husain, went on to feature her in his Orwell Prize-nominated 2008 book, The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left

‘The teachers would often visit my parents and I remember going to Ms Powlesland’s house to pick cherries in her garden. She loved her pupils so much that even her social life revolved around us,’ he writes. Husain also remembers how she, and other teachers would hold their hands as members of Neo-Nazi gangs would shout abuse at them. 

She was involved in many community projects right up until her passing – many of these groups she helped establish in her seventy years of service here in Tower Hamlets. 

Her work includes the Limehouse Project, which supports racially and socio-economically marginalised peoples, and in 2012 she helped run a community garden on her estate (Victoria Park Estate) which she helped found in 2012 – when she was in her 80s. 

Powlesland was a Buddhist was ordained in 2003 and took on a Buddhist name, Sraddhapushpa.

She was also Chair of the Globe Community Project, a charity working towards community support and cohesion based in Bethnal Green. She remained Chair until her passing.

A survivor and fighter until the very end, she contracted and survived coronavirus; however she was left in a weakened state and passed away at St. Joseph’s Hospice earlier this week on Wednesday.

You can watch a video tribute to Susy Powlesland here.

Susie Powlesland, being ordained as a Buddhist Monk in France
Susy being ordained as a Buddhist
Susie Powlesland standing in the community garden she founded on the Victoria Park Estate
The community garden Susy set up in her 80s
Susie Powlesland with baby Helen
Susy Powlesland with baby Helen
Susie Powlesland, washing up with friends
Susy Powlesland, in 1943, washing up with friends
At her teaching training digs, Susie Powlesland in 1942
At her teaching training digs, Susy Powlesland in 1942

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3 thoughts on “Goodbye Susy Powlesland MBE, a Holocaust survivor who spent her life making our community better

  • Her influence on my life was that she founded Kirkdale School, which I went to from 1973 to 1976.

    I credit my time there for giving me a very healthy scepticism of any authority and a way of thinking about the world that does not accept preconceived ideas as being true. It was a superb environment in which young people could learn to think freely about things instead of being trained into following conventional norms.

    Almost half a centaury later, I still feel the ethos of Kirkdale in me. I am so glad that I have it!

  • Suzy was definitely the best head teacher I ever had! My brothers and I attended Kirkdale 1973/74, where Suzy (and John) had created a wonderful environment in which kids could just be themselves. This had a huge positive (and lasting) impact upon our lives. I am grateful to have known Suzy, even if only briefly.


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