When asked about her most meaningful accomplishment, Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics, did not typically mention serving in the British government, defeating the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, taming runaway inflation, or toppling the Soviet Union. The woman who reshaped British politics and served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990 often said that her greatest single accomplishment was helping save a young Jewish Austrian girl from the Nazis.
On the morning of the March 12, 1938, the German Wehrmacht crossed the border into Austria. The troops were greeted by cheering Austrians with Nazi salutes, Nazi flags, and flowers. This was officially referred to as the Anschluss, the term used to describe the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. The campaign against the Jews of Austria began immediately after the Anschluss. They were herded through the streets of Vienna; their homes and shops were plundered. Jewish men and women were forced to wash away pro-independence slogans painted on the streets of Vienna. The Nazis dissolved Jewish organizations and institutions, hoping to force Jews to emigrate. Their plan succeeded. By the end of 1941, 130,000 Jews had left Vienna, 30,000 of whom went to the United States. They left behind all of their property, but they were forced to pay the Reich Flight Tax, a tax on all émigrés from Nazi Germany. The majority of the 65,000 Jews who stayed in Vienna eventually became victims of the Holocaust – few more than 2,000 survived.
In 1938, Edith Muhlbauer, a 17-year-old Jewish girl, the daughter of a wealthy Austrian banking family, wrote to Muriel Roberts, Edith’s pen-pal and the future prime minister’s older sister. Edith was terrified. The Nazis had begun rounding up the first of Vienna’s Jews after the Anschluss, and Edith and her family worried they might be next. They were rich and influential, just the type of people the Nazis targeted in their determination to rid the world of its Jewish influence. She concluded her letter with a furtive plea, asking if the Roberts family might help her escape Hitler’s Austria.
Alfred Roberts, the father of Muriel and Margaret, was a grocer in a small town. They lived in a cold-water flat above the grocery with an outhouse; the Roberts did not have the time or the money to bring Edith to their home. So Margaret Roberts, then 12, and her sister Muriel, 17, set about raising funds and persuading the local Rotary Club to help. With the determination that later set her apart from her peers and characterized her tenure as prime minister of Great Britain, Margaret and her sister were successful in raising money and bringing their new friend to the British Isles.
Edith stayed with the Roberts family – as well as more than a dozen other Rotary families – for the next two years, until she joined her relatives in South America. During the months she was in the Roberts’ home, Edith bunked in Margaret’s room and the two became fast friends. Edith Muhlbauer left an impression on the future prime minister.
“She was 17, tall and graceful, evidently from a well-to-do family in Austria,” Thatcher later wrote in her memoir. But the most important thing Margaret learned from Edith was to embrace and assist those who were downtrodden. “She told us what it was like to live as a Jew under an anti-Semitic regime. One thing Edith reported particularly stuck in my mind: The Jews, she said, were being made to scrub the streets!” For Margaret Thatcher, who believed in meaningful work, this was as much a waste as it was an outrage. No human being should ever be treated in this manner.
Margaret Thatcher never forgot the lesson: “Never hesitate to do whatever you can, for you may save a life,” she would tell audiences, after Edith had been located, alive and well, in Brazil. Had the Roberts family not intervened, Edith recalled years later, “I would have been forced to stay in Vienna and they would have killed me and my entire family.”
When Thatcher visited Yad Vashem during a historic first visit to Israel by a British prime minister in 1986, she was visibly shaken as she stood in front of a photo of a German soldier shooting a Jewish mother and child. She exclaimed, “It is so terrible. Everyone should come and see it so that they never forget. I am not quite sure whether the new generation really knows what we are fighting against.” Thatcher spoke up with courage and strength. When she believed in an ideal, like saving a terrified Jew from Austria, she was not afraid to follow through, even if she had to stand up against great odds to do so.