LONDON — On January 21, 1939, Edith Mühlbauer received a letter from a small town in England which would save her life.
The 17-year-old’s life had been a comfortable one. The Mühlbauer family lived on Schubertsgasse in Vienna’s Alsergrund district, an area where many Jewish professionals — doctors, lawyers, businessmen and bankers liked Mühlbauer’s father — had made a home away from the unassimilated Hasidic Jews of the old walled Leopoldstadt ghetto across the Danube.
But all that had changed nearly a year before on March 12, 1938, when the Wehrmacht had crossed the border and, without a shot being fired, occupied Austria. Within days, some 70,000 people — many of them Jews — had been rounded up. Less than a month later, the first convoy departed for Dachau, just across the former German border near Munich. Jewish-owned businesses were subject to a boycott. Jews were made to scrub the streets. Shortly afterwards, the Nuremberg Laws were applied to Austria, Jews were stripped of their citizenship and the doors to many professions barred to them.
Worse was to come on November 9, 1938 — Kristallnacht — as all but one of Vienna’s 42 synagogues were burned to the ground. Mobs attacked and looted shops owned by Jews. The police responded by arresting 8,000 Jews, sending 5,000 of them to Dachau.
For the Mühlbauers and their fellow Jews, the situation was now desperate. At some point during the unfolding tragedy, Mühlbauer wrote to her English penpal, Muriel Roberts, asking if she could come and stay. Muriel passed the letter to her father, Alfred, a grocer who owned two shops. Mühlbauer’s father then wrote directly to Alfred.
Muriel’s sister later recounted the English family’s reaction: “We had neither the time — having to run the shops — nor the money.” However, her father was keen to help. An active member of his local Rotary club, Alfred read out the Mühlbauers’ appeal at the next meeting. His fellow Rotarians agreed to pay Mühlbauer’s travel, to provide her a guinea a week pocket money and to each host the teenager in their homes for a month or so.
Alfred’s letter to Mühlbauer thus contained a permit allowing her to apply for a visa to travel to England. Using her typewriter, she replied immediately: “I thank you very much for sending it. I will never in my whole live forgett [sic] it you.” With a hint at the mixture of pain and relief which must have accompanied the news of their daughters’ impending departure, Mühlbauer wrote: “Even my parents were happy that it is possible now for me to go to England.” She also asked Alfred what his “dear family” might want by way of a present. Would his daughters like a “pocket” — which, confusingly, is the word for handbag in German — and what would Alfred’s “dear wife” like?
While her departure was delayed due to the sheer number of people trying to gain visas to Britain, Mühlbauer was eventually on her way by mid-April 1939. In her luggage, two red handbags: one for Muriel, who was the same age as Mühlbauer, and the other for her 13-year-old sister, Margaret.
Mühlbauer’s arrival in Grantham — a provincial Middle England town about as far from Mitteleuropa as it is possible to imagine — would have a profound effect on Margaret, who, almost 40 years later to the day, would enter No.10 Downing Street as Britain’s first female prime minister.
If not of the violent kind Mühlbauer was leaving behind, anti-Semitism was not uncommon in 1930s Britain. In October 1932, one newspaper reported that “at least nine-tenths of the inhabitants of the British Isles think the worst of a man if they are told that he is a Jew.” Newspaper job advertisements casually discriminated. “No Jewess,” demanded one. “No Jews or men of color” stated another. Jews were barred from sports clubs. Hotels declared “No Jews catered for.” In parliament, anti-Semitic voices were occasionally raised in opposition to immigration by “alien Jews” who were “scurrying” from Germany to Britain.
Nor was antipathy to Nazism as deeply felt and passionate as it would become after the outbreak of war. In May 1934, Roberts’ Rotary club in Grantham received a lecture from Prof. H. Brose of Nottingham University on his recent visit to Germany.
‘A grocer’s daughter would be more likely to have been an anti-Semite than a philo-Semite’
“Everybody was clothed and well fed,” he reported; a reading of “Mein Kampf” showed Hitler to be “extremely straightforward and sincere.”
The club would later hear from a local cinema owner who had also visited Germany. The headline on a report of J.A. Campbell’s talk — “The Great Hitler” — gives an indication of its content. Around the same time, Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, drew a crowd of 1,000 when he visited Grantham as part of a five-month speaking tour. As Charles Dellheim later wrote: “A grocer’s daughter from a classic lower-middle class background… [would] more likely to have been an anti-Semite than a philo-Semite.”
But Alfred Roberts appears to have had a greater aversion to fascism and sympathy for Jews than many others in pre-war Middle England. Deeply religious — he was a regular preacher at the Grantham Wesleyan Methodist chapel — Roberts was also a town councilman.
While his daughter’s upbringing may have been provincial and austere, it was not insular. Roberts encouraged and shared her precocious interest in politics and current affairs, taking young Margaret to “extension lectures” conducted by the University of Nottingham.
Father and daughter visited the library once a week. He encouraged her to read “serious” books, like Douglas Reed’s “Insanity Fair,” a vivid account of the author’s journey through 1930s Germany and central Europe, which provided a graphic picture of the persecution of the Jews.
At her father’s urging, Margaret also read Robert Bruce-Lockhart’s searing critique of appeasement, “Guns or Butter.” And, although Alfred forbade his daughter from reading his copy of “Out of The Night,” in which a German communist wrote of the Nazis’ sadistic violence, Margaret would sneak it out from its hiding place.
Alongside his more conventional reading — the Daily Telegraph, the voice of the conservative middle-classes, and the Methodist Recorder — Roberts also took the mass market, anti-fascist weekly, Picture Post. Edited by a Hungarian Jewish émigré, Stefan Lorant, the magazine meticulously reported the persecution of the Jews and the evils of Nazism, while cheerleading for Winston Churchill, whose anti-appeasement views were confined to the fringes of British politics.
As his daughter later recalled, unlike many conservative-minded Britons, Roberts refused to accept the idea that General Francisco Franco should be supported as a bulwark against the spread of communism.
“We knew just what we thought of dictators,” Thatcher later wrote. Indeed, as her memoirs recorded, one Friday evening young Margaret got into an argument in the queue at the fish and chip shop after a fellow customer praised Hitler for giving Germans back their self respect and — a very British preoccupation — making the trains run on time. “Oh, she’s always debating,” laughed the owner.
Alfred Roberts was thus aware of the plight of Europe’s Jews and prepared to answer a call for help. But, despite his sympathies, Mühlbauer found it difficult to settle into the Roberts’ home. The house the family shared above their shop on North Parade was, Margaret remembered, “very small… [with] no mod cons” (modern conveniences) — a reflection, noted the historian John Campbell, of Roberts’ “parsimony and puritanism” rather than his straitened economic circumstances.
Family life revolved around the shop and church: grace was said before meals, on Sundays the girls attended chapel up to four times, and dancing, games and parties were banned.
“We didn’t have a proper bathroom in those days,” the former prime minister wrote of Mühlbauer’s stay in her memoirs. “She was used to better things.”
Her sister, Muriel, agreed. Mühlbauer was “a nice girl” with a “wonderful wardrobe” indicating that they were “well-breeched in Austria.” The family’s Sunday afternoon strolls in the countryside beyond Grantham did not appeal to Mühlbauer, either. “It’ll ruin my shoes,” Muriel recalled her complaining.
‘We didn’t have a proper bathroom in those days’
While Mühlbauer confided to a friend that she found the Roberts household “repressive,” Alfred worried that the “very grown-up 17-year-old”, as one Grantham contemporary remembered her, might lead his daughters astray. His fears were not unreasonable: Mühlbauer smoked Balkan Sobranie cigarettes, enjoyed a night out, and flirted with local boys. She was “very sophisticated,” suggested a boyfriend she met in the town. Seeing her staring into the street from her bedroom window, Roberts, suggested a family friend, feared that Mühlbauer was behaving “like one of those girls in Amsterdam.”
Mühlbauer probably only have stayed at the Roberts’ home for around a fortnight before moving on to stay with another Grantham family. However, she developed an affection for Roberts. “I often go for a walk to see your dear father Mr. Roberts,” Mühlbauer wrote to Muriel on one occasion.
‘If I would have stayed in Vienna they would have killed me’
Later, of course, the full impact of Roberts’ actions would be recognized by Mühlbauer.
Speaking to a reporter who located her in Brazil after Thatcher had left Downing Street, Mühlbauer said, “If Muriel had said, ‘I am sorry, my father says no,’ I would have stayed in Vienna and they would have killed me.”
These were no idle words. While Mühlbauer’s parents were able to flee after their daughter’s departure, her aunts and uncles were murdered by the Nazis.
“What can one person do?” Thatcher suggested in response. “That is the question that people so often ask. Never hesitate to do whatever you can, for you may save a life.”
It is unlikely that Margaret had ever met a Jew before Mühlbauer. It is not hard to see how she might have viewed her as impossibly glamorous. A contemporary photograph shows an attractive young woman with dark, styled hair, wearing lipstick. In her memoirs, Thatcher described her as “tall, beautiful, well-dressed [and] evidently from a well-to-do-family.”
But it was not simply her sophistication that Thatcher remembered.
“She told us what it was like to live as a Jew under an anti-Semitic regime,” she recounted. “One thing stuck in my mind: the Jews, she said, were being made to scrub the streets.”
Thatcher recalled a feeling of “total shock.”
“You know, you hear of a lot of terrible things, but they never happen to you…” she wrote. “That it could happen in Europe which had known the deepest feelings of religion, which had been the cradle of civilization, which had known every culture. Then I remember someone saying ‘But you know cruelty and culture can go together.’ These things we didn’t just read about. They came right into our house.”
The British Jewish community has had few greater admirers, or Israel closer friends, than Thatcher. For 30 years, she represented Finchley, with its large Jewish population, in parliament.
“My, they were good citizens,” she told a biographer. She had never, she suggested, had a Jew come to one of the constituency advice surgeries in “poverty [or] desperation. They had always been looked after by their own community.”
These words underline the connection between the Methodist values instilled in Thatcher by her father — individual responsibility and self-reliance, the work ethic, the moral obligation to both better oneself and give something back to others — and those she encountered in the synagogues and on the doorsteps of Finchley.
“It has to do with my Methodist upbringing,” she explained to then-Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin of her deep respect not simply for Judaism but what she would call “the Jewish way of life.” “Methodism means method. It means sticking to your guns, dedication, triumph over adversity, reverence for education — the very qualities you Jews have always cherished.”
As Lord David Young, one of six Jews who would later serve in her Cabinet, simply put it: “She was a Judeophile.”
‘Methodism means method. It means sticking to your guns’
Jewish Conservatives — once a rare breed, but, under her leadership, increasingly prominent in the party and the country — would prove critical to her rise. Sir Keith Joseph, the most important Jewish Tory of his generation, and Sir Alfred Sherman, a youthful Communist and later an ardent evangelist for the free market, acted as her praetorian guard during the long march to Downing Street and the architects of what later became known as “Thatcherism.”
While Christian leaders demurred at her attempt to link her political project to her religious beliefs, she found an ally in the Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits. “Oh how I wish our own church leaders would take a leaf out of your own chief rabbi’s book,” she suggested to Begin as she lauded his “inspiring commitment to the old-fashioned virtues.”
As prime minister, Thatcher did not always see eye to eye with Begin or Yitzhak Shamir, but her commitment to Israel — an oasis of democracy, in her eyes — was never in doubt. It was symbolized by her visit to the Jewish state in 1986 — the first ever by a sitting prime minister.
These associations soon caught the attention of the media.
“Judaism,” one newspaper approvingly declared in 1986, had become “the new creed of Thatcherite Britain,” while another political commentator pronounced the Prime Minister “in some senses, an honorary Jew herself.”
Cynics, of course, pointed to the “Finchley factor” and Thatcher’s reliance on the “Jewish vote.” But the roots of her lifelong abhorrence of anti-Semitism, which later morphed into an admiration for Jews and Jewish values, ran much deeper than that. Instead, the seeds were planted with the arrival of a glamorous young refugee from Austria in Grantham on the eve of the outbreak of war.
This essay is a condensed excerpt from Robert Philpot’s book “Margaret Thatcher The Honorary Jew: How Britain’s Jews Helped Shape the Iron Lady and Her Beliefs,” which will hit the shelves on June 29.
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