A Johannesburg Jumper: The Eric Muller Story

Arthur Apfel congratulating Eric Muller at the 1950 South African Championships. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

The son of Helene (Ruzicka) and Dr. Isidor Muller, Eric Ludwig Muller was born in Vienna, Austria on November 7, 1922. He was the youngest of three children and his older siblings, Kurt and Elisabeth, were fraternal twins. His father was an engineer with business interests in South Africa. In his youth, he attended a boys school called the K. K. Staatsrealschule, which in 1935 was renamed the Robert Hamerling-Realgymnasium. 

When Eric was thirteen, he and his mother emigrated to South Africa aboard the Giulio Cesare,  following his father who emigrated separately aboard the Giulio Cesare's sister ship Duilio. Their decision to relocate was a fateful and timely one. The following year, The Aliens 1 Act of 1937 was enacted by the South African government. This Act put into place an Immigrants Selection Board, which screened each immigrant from outside of the British Empire. The Act was enacted with the goal of reducing Jewish immigration to the country. 

Between 1933 and 1939, over five thousand Jews emigrated from Austria and Germany to South Africa, hoping to escape the anti-Semitic wave in Europe... and Eric and his mother were two of them. Had they stayed in Vienna, they very well could have lost their home and possessions before losing their lives in Nazi concentration camps. Eric's siblings names weren't among ship manifests so it is unclear what their fates were during the War. The fact that the Arolsen Archives - International Center on Nazi Persecution lists numerous Kurt and Elisabeth Muller's isn't encouraging, to say the least.

Prior to World War II, Eric was educated at Jeppe High School in Johannesburg. In 1937, less than a year after he arrived in the city, an ice rink was set up during The Empire Exhibition, funded by a gold mining company. Afterwards, the setup was moved to Springfield under the name the Wembley Ice Rink. It was at this rink that Eric began pursuing the art of figure skating. This was the same year the South African Ice Skating Association (SAISA) was formed. 

Eric and Arthur Apfel were among the country's first serious figure skaters. In those early days, there was little professional instruction, so amateur skaters like Eric and Arthur had to help each other when training for the first SAISA figure and dance tests, which were modelled after the tests of Great Britain's National Skating Association. Their progress would have greatly depended on trial and error, reading books and the advice of foreign skaters that visited Johannesburg.

During the War, the skating club at Wembley Ice Rink's membership swiftly dropped from four hundred to two hundred. Ice dancing contests (the country's first competitions) ceased and the number of shows and tests taken declined drastically. Forced to hang up his skates, Eric joined the South African Corps of Signals, a branch of the South African Army. He did radar research work and was on active service on several coastal radar stations in the Special Signal Services division. He was fortunate enough to be able to keep up his education through the War, and earned an engineering degree from the University of the Witwatersrand in March of 1944.

After the War ended, Eric dusted off his blades and resumed skating at the Wembley Ice Rink in Johannesburg. Inspired by the success of his friend Arthur Apfel, who won the bronze medal at the 1947 World Championships in Stockholm, Eric entered the South African Championships the following year and took first place. He went on to win another three National titles in 1949, 1950 and 1951. All of these events were open to both men and women. He also won an open free skating competition at the Johannesburg rink in 1950 and the 1950 and 1951 National ice dance titles. At the free skating competition in 1950, he defeated Travers Penrose, one of the country's most dominant skaters in future years. When Eric won the 1950 South African title, he was the only skater in the competition to do a Lutz, loop and Salchow jump. Arthur Apfel remarked in a short write-up in "Skating World" magazine, "Muller skated with his usual accuracy in the figures and performed some fine high jumps in the free." 

The fact that both Arthur and Eric, two of South Africa's first elite skaters, were Jewish is certainly an interesting historical note - especially so considering that during wartime in South Africa, many Jewish immigrants to the country were treated quite poorly. One of the country's political parties had enacted the The Aliens 1 Act of 1937, while another argued that it was too lenient. A great many Afrikaners people openly espoused pro-Nazi views. For two Jewish athletes to emerge victorious in the post-War years was indeed significant.

Eric set aside his skates at the age of twenty-eight after winning his final two National titles in 1951. He and his wife Lily had three children, but one of their sons sadly passed away. He acted as director of the engineering company his father had founded, which had nearly three dozen property holdings, and worked as an associate building contractor with The South African Institute Of Electrical Engineering.  He was extremely active in the Johannesburg community, serving on nearly thirty suburban committees, including the Johannesburg Emergency Campaign. He served as a Chairman of King David Schools and as a council member of the South African Board of Jewish Education, and was an active member of the Linksfield-Senderwood Hebrew Congregation. In his spare time, he enjoyed playing the piano, coin collecting and tennis. 

Elliot Wolf, the long-time principal of King David High School Linksfield recalled, "I remember Mr. Muller very well, as an executive on council of the SABJE and as a parent. He was a remarkably good-looking man with European charm! He was a great architect and was in fact responsible for designing many of the buildings of the King David Schools. I still cherish vivid memories of him as he supervised the building operation on the school premises. I knew nothing of his figure skating talent."

In the seventies, Eric relocated to Beverly Hills, California. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1985 and passed away in Los Angeles on April 19, 2006 at the age of eighty-three. His gravestone reads, "A man of vision, courage, wisdom and humor."

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