Germany crossed the border and occupied Austria on March 12, 1938, and shortly thereafter applied the Nuremberg Laws to the Jewish population. The situation worsened on Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938, when mobs attacked Jews around the country and looted their shops. All but one of Vienna’s 42 synagogues were burned to the ground and 8,000 Jews were arrested and 5,000 sent to Dachau.
The Mühlbauer family lived on Schubertsgasse in Vienna’s Alsergrund district, an area where many Jewish professionals lived. Edith Mühlbauer was 17 at the time of the Anschluss and, as the plight of Jews in Austria became more precarious, she wrote to her English pen pal, Muriel Roberts, asking if she could come and stay. Muriel’s family didn’t have the money to host Edith, but they wanted to help, so her father asked members of his Rotary club for money to bring the teenager to England. The Rotarians agreed to pay for Edith’s travel, to provide her pocket money and to each host her in their homes for a month or so.
Edith arrived at the Roberts home in Grantham, England in April 1939. She brought two red handbags as gifts, one for Muriel, who was the same age as Mühlbauer, and the other for her 13-year-old sister, Margaret, the future Prime Minister of England.
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). “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.”
Muriel said Mühlbauer was “a nice girl” with a “wonderful wardrobe” who didn’t want to go on family strolls in the countryside because Edith said, “It’ll ruin my shoes.”
Edith found the Roberts’ puritanical lifestyle that revolved around work and the church “repressive,” while Muriel’s father worried that the worldlier Austrian girl might lead his daughters astray.
In his book, Margaret Thatcher The Honorary Jew: How Britain’s Jews Helped Shape the Iron Lady and Her Beliefs, Robert Philpot wrote:
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.”
Thatcher was shocked to hear Edith talk about “what it was like to live as a Jew under an anti-Semitic regime…. One thing stuck in my mind: The Jews, she said, were being made to scrub the streets.”
A reporter tracked Edith down in Brazil after Thatcher had left Downing Street. Edith acknowledged, “If Muriel had said, ‘I am sorry, my father says no,’ I would have stayed in Vienna and they would have killed me.”
Her aunts and uncles were murdered by the Nazis. The story of her time in England did not mention the fate of her parents.
When people ask, “What can one person do?” Thatcher responded, “That is the question that people so often ask. Never hesitate to do whatever you can, for you may save a life.”
Philpot attributes Thatcher’s experience hosting Edith and later representing the town of Finchley, with its large Jewish population, for 30 years as influencing her attitude toward Jews and Israel.
“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.”
Philpot quotes Lord David Young, one of six Jews who served in her Cabinet, who called her a “Judeophile.”
Philpott observes, “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.”
Sources: Robert Philpot, “How Margaret Thatcher’s family sheltered an Austrian Jew during the Holocaust,” (June 29, 2017);
Robert Philpot, Margaret Thatcher The Honorary Jew: How Britain’s Jews Helped Shape the Iron Lady and Her Beliefs, Biteback Publishing, (June 29, 2017).