Heiress to heroine

When Muriel Gardinger met revolutionary socialist Joe Buttinger, the dangerous world of the anti-Nazi resistance became her life.

Muriel 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Muriel 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
By Sheila Isenberg
Palgrave MacMillan
239 pages; $28
Muriel Gardiner, Holocaust rescue activist? To anyone who knew Gardiner as the teenage heiress to a Chicago meatpacking fortune, or as an American tourist who enjoyed Austrian night life, or as an unassuming medical student at the University of Vienna, the notion that she would risk her life to save Jews and other victims of Nazism would surely have seemed fanciful.
But as fascist assaults on Jews, socialists and labor activists engulfed her beloved Vienna in 1933-1934, Gardiner was drawn to the anti-Nazi underground. Her apartment was soon transformed into a refuge for radicals on the run, and her life would be transformed forever. In Muriel’s War, Sheila Isenberg ably tells the story of this unlikely heroine.
In early 1935, Gardiner sheltered, and soon fell in love with, the fugitive militant Joe Buttinger, leader of the outlawed Revolutionary Socialists. The dangerous world of the anti-Nazi resistance now became the centerpiece of her life. Her home turned into a beehive of Revolutionary Socialist activity. Her ample bank account became a source of funding for their work. Her American citizenship and connections facilitated the acquisition of false documents to help smuggle Jews and others out of Austria.
In the midst of this turmoil, Gardiner was still able to periodically revisit the world of leisure and luxury in which she had been raised. “To escape the unremitting pressure of living a secret life,” she and Joe spent the summer of 1935 vacationing in London, the French countryside and the Swiss Alps. Later that year, Isenberg reports, “she and Joe spent Christmas week relaxing on the small Yugoslavian island of Hvar in the Adriatic Sea.”
After such diversions, it must have been an unsettling experience for these fugitive revolutionaries to return to the Vienna apartment which attracted Joe mainly because “he could always jump out a window to the street since the apartment was on the second floor.” But return they did, again and again, and Muriel even managed to keep up her medical studies (major: psychiatry) despite the political and social chaos that raged around them.
The Anschluss, Hitler’s annexation of Austria in March 1938, changed everything. It was, first of all, something of an awakening for Muriel: Her faith that the Austrian masses would oppose Nazism was shaken by the realization that most Austrians welcomed the new regime. She was also shocked to discover “that Austrian anti-Semitism was more virulent than she ever could have imagined.”
Her friend G.E.R. Gedye, a correspondent for The New York Times, summed it up when he reported that in the days following the Anschluss, “heartless, grinning, soberly dressed crowds” in the streets of Vienna were “fighting one another to get closer to the elevating spectacle of an ashen faced Jewish surgeon on hands and knees before half-a-dozen-young hooligans with swastika armlets and dog-whips...”
Austria under Nazi rule was unbearably dangerous for a Revolutionary Socialist, so it is not surprising that Joe heeded Muriel’s plea that he leave the country. But “in light of her vulnerability,” Isenberg writes, “Muriel’s abandonment by Joe is hard to understand.” Muriel was Joe’s wife in all but name. Yet not only did he not insist she leave with him, he appointed her the new head of their movement and identified her as such to numerous activists who had not previously known her, thus ruining her cover as an innocent American abroad. As a psychiatrist, Muriel probably had a thought or two about Joe’s behavior, in this as well as other aspects of their life together.
After the Anschluss, her work focused less on sheltering political dissidents and more on trying to get them out of Austria. One was Sergius Pankejeff, the patient whom Freud famously called “the Wolf- Man,” for whom she wangled a British visa through her connection to Princess Marie Bonaparte, a relative of Napoleon’s. At the British consulate, Muriel had another shock: she could not believe her ears when she heard a consular official making anti- Semitic remarks.
Gardiner signed numerous affidavits of support for Austrian Jews seeking to immigrate to the US, but before long, the American consul-general in Vienna refused to accept any more from her, on the grounds that she “had already given too many.” Trying to wend their way through America’s immigration requirements involved “countless frustrating experiences,” Isenberg notes, “including bureaucratic rigamarole of an exasperating nature.”
Gardiner hung on in Vienna as long as she could, finally fleeing in the summer of 1938 to France, where she and Joe were reunited. There they resumed their underground activities, with Muriel at one point even undertaking a hazardous undercover mission back to Austria. In the autumn of 1939, they left for the US aboard the S.S. Manhattan, the last American ocean liner to leave Europe until war’s end.
Readjusting to life in America was not easy in the face of news reports from Europe about the intensifying persecution of the Jews. Muriel wrote checks for numerous refugee relief efforts, but for her, writing checks was never enough. With the fall of France in June 1940, thousands of Jewish and antifascist refugees – including many of Muriel’s and Joe’s old comrades – fled to the southern part of the country.
Gardiner and other refugee advocates, with support from Eleanor Roosevelt, created the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) for the purpose of facilitating the escape of prominent intellectuals and artists from France. President Franklin D. Roosevelt reluctantly agreed to allot visas for them only after Eleanor reportedly threatened that refugees would fill a ship and “sail up and down the eastern coast of the United States” until the administration was shamed into granting them haven.
The ERC enlisted journalist Varian Fry to travel to Marseilles in late 1940. Fry, together with US vice-consul Hiram Bingham IV and others, smuggled an estimated 2,000 refugees over the Pyrenees into Spain and Portugal and then to the US. His rescue mission (chronicled by Isenberg in an earlier book, A Hero of Our Own) came to an end in 1941 when the Roosevelt administration, responding to German complaints, canceled Fry’s passport. The US was not yet at war with Hitler and FDR did not want refugee activists complicating matters.
Throughout the war years, Muriel and Joe continued laboring to aid Europe’s downtrodden in any way they could, signing affidavits, providing financial aid, even opening their Manhattan apartment to newcomers. Living part of each week on an estate in New Jersey, “there were times when they would arrive [at the New York City residence] and find the place so packed with refugees that they had to stay in a hotel.”
Gardiner never sought public recognition of her remarkable achievements. In a sad twist, however, someone else appropriated her story and profited from it. Julia, a hit 1977 movie starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda, was based on an essay by Lillian Hellman that clearly utilized the major details of Gardiner’s life, although in Hellman’s version, it was Hellman, not “Julia,” who was depicted as the real heroine.
(This outrage prompted author Mary McCarthy’s famous remark about Hellman, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”) With Muriel’s War, Sheila Isenberg has performed an act of historic justice, at long last giving Muriel Gardiner the credit she deserves for her acts of courage and selflessness.

The writer is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.