Margaret Thatcher's proudest moment was saving an Austrian Jew
When Margaret Thatcher passed away today, the tributes began pouring in from all over the world. Mrs. Thatcher was Britain’s first female prime minister, serving for 11 years starting in 1979. Known as the Iron Lady, she was a strong Conservative who changed England’s perspective on its economic and political life.
Despite her many impressive accomplishments, including fighting the Soviet communist regime, Thatcher said that her proudest moment was when she saved a Jewish teenager from Austria during the Holocaust.
In 1938, Edith Muhlbauer, a 17-year-old Jewish girl, sent a letter to Muriel Roberts, Edith’s pen pal and the older sister of Margaret Thatcher, asking if the Roberts family could help her escape from Austria. The Nazis had started rounding up Jews from Vienna and Edith knew it was just a matter of time before she would be among them.
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, then 12 and Muriel, 17, decided to try raising money and asking the local Rotary club to help. They succeeded in bringing Edith to England where she stayed with several Rotary families, including the Roberts for the next two years before joining relatives in South America.
Edith slept in Margaret’s room and Thatcher later wrote in her memoir: “She was tall, beautiful, evidently from a well to do family. But most important, 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.”
In 1995, after Edith had been located in Brazil, she told audiences, “Never hesitate to do whatever you can for you may save a life.”
Edith is now a Jewish grandmother in Sao Paolo who says that she owes her life and the life of her children and grandchildren to Margaret Thatcher’s 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 continued to be a loyal friend to the Jews as she fought the British support for the Arab boycott of Israel, protested on behalf of Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet Union and chose several Jewish leaders to be part of her cabinet. Thatcher admired the hard work and self-reliance of the British Jewish community and frequently turned to England’s late chief rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits for spiritual back up. She even elevated Rabbi Jakobovits to the House of the Lords and he later became known as “Thatcher’s rabbi.”
Thatcher also made the following statement about Israel’s security: “Israel must never be expected to jeopardize her security; if she was ever foolish enough to do so and then suffered for it, the backlash against both honest brokers and Palestinians would be immense - ‘land for peace’ must also bring peace.”
Thatcher spoke up with such courage and strength because as she described herself, “This lady is not for turning.” When she believed in an ideal, whether it was transforming the British economy or saving a terrified Jew from Austria, she was not afraid to follow through, even if she had to stand up against popular opinions to do so.
There were so many reasons why twelve year old Margaret and her sister could have thrown up their hands in despair and stuffed Edith’s letter into a drawer in their tiny, freezing apartment. They had no money, no power and no idea how they would be able to rescue this terrified girl that they had never met. But they believed that they could and should do everything that they can to help. They knew even then that there was room in the world for great leaders, even if they were only twelve years old and living above a small town grocery store with no hot water.
We pay tribute to Margaret Thatcher for her friendship and work with the Jewish people. For her wise words and inspiring courage. And for teaching us, that above all else, the greatest achievement in life is sometimes not one that earns you a trophy or money or even a powerful position. Sometimes it’s the quiet, determined accomplishments that no one hears about until years later.