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Muriel's War

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Muriel's War
An American Heiress in the Nazi Resistance
By Sheila Isenberg
Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
ISBN: 978-0230615656

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - October 22, 2012

Muriel Gardiner (1901 1985) was an anomaly among the countless men and women who joined the Resistance during World War II. Not only was she an American, but she was also a woman who grew up with wealth and privilege, and, through inheritance, she was a multi-millionaire by the time she graduated college. Not exactly the type of person that you would think would forgo the pleasures of the wealthy and put her own life at risk simply to fight against an evil that, technically, was not in the beginning threatening her directly. Raised in Chicago, Gardiner eventually found her way to Vienna, Austria. In 1934, long before the drum beat of war was recognized by many around the world, Gardiner joined an anti-Fascist underground. By 1938, when German troops began massing on the Austrian border, she was a skilled underground agent who had already saved countless lives, and her cover was already well established. When the Nazis invaded she knew she would be in danger. Yet, rather than flee like most of the other members in her organization who were wanted by the Nazis, she stayed. After all, why would the Nazis suspect a rich American medical student of doing anything untoward? To be on the safe side, however, she had the sense to send her seven-year-old child to safety in Switzerland. Her real work was just about to begin . . .

In Muriel's War: An American Heiress in the Nazi Resistance, Sheila Isenberg recounts the lives and deeds of this remarkable woman. This book details Gardiner's family history and childhood, and Isenberg gives the reader a solid feel for the environment that Gardiner grew up in, how and why she rebelled against the structures of her wealthy background. Isenberg also details the formative years that Gardiner spent studying at Oxford University, and she examines Gardiner's philosophical and political development, as well as her introduction to psychoanalysis and to Dr. Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis was to take up a great deal of her time, and would eventually lead her to becoming a psychoanalyst.

Building upon this foundation, Isenberg gets to the meat of this story, Gardiner's wartime activities. For me, this was by far the most interesting part of the book. Making up the bulk of the book, Gardiner's wartime experience details the numerous people that she helped flee from the Nazis, Isenberg also details the very real danger that Gardiner was in, not only as a member of the Austrian underground but also because she had a Jewish grandfather, making her Jewish in the eyes of the Nazis and therefore slated for death if she ever fell into their hands. Isenberg also details Gardiner's flight from Vienna to Paris, were she continued with her resistance work and helping, especially after the war, with the huge influx of refugees that poured into France. This work concludes with a brief section detailing Gardiner's life after the war, and brings the reader full circle, by concluding with Gardiner's death in 1985.

Muriel's War: An American Heiress in the Nazi Resistance provides an interesting glimpse into the life of an American woman who literally put her life on the line to help others. This biography is rich in detail and historical facts and it provides a look at the war from a viewpoint not often seen. It also introduces readers to a remarkable woman whose efforts during the war have not, in the past, been well documented.

In writing this book Isenberg relied upon many primary sources, as well as extensive interviews that she conducted with Gardiner's friends and colleagues. This book is geared toward general readers. Muriel's War is also ideal as a supplemental text in classes dealing with the Holocaust. The book includes extensive endnotes and a detailed bibliography that will serve as a guide for anyone seeking to examine Muriel Gardiner's life in greater detail.

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Secret Agent: The True Story of the Covert War Against Hitler, by David Stafford.
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