BBC Manchester Radio
You can listen to the full broadcast here: http://www.jewishhour.co.uk/#!listen-again/c13vu
Transcript of the interview between the presenter, Basil Herwald (BH), and Beth Alexander (BA)
BH : First tonight, Beth Alexander is a Mancunian who lives in Vienna with a big problem. You were 22, met a young Austrian in Paris, you had just done your finals at Cambridge University and you got married
BA: That’s right
BH : and I think it’s fair to say the marriage was not successful.
BA: No, I went there a very young, naive and impulsive 22 year old student. It all seemed very romantic, a big adventure. It was only after arriving there that I realised just how big a leap it had been.
BH : How old are you now?
BH : So it was 7 years ago that you got married and let’s just point out to listeners that you married a Jewish gentleman
BA: A religious boy from a good traditional Jewish home.
BH : What did you know of Austria and Austrian Jewry before you went to live there?
BA: Obviously everything you learn in history, but it seemed a very warm community. I went there a few times to visit and the community were very welcoming. They welcomed me with open arms.
BH : Did you speak German?
BA: No I didn’t, but I saw that as a good challenge. I always enjoy challenges.
BH : The marriage sadly failed and when it was failing, you managed to get pregnant
BA: Well, I was an eternal optimist I always kept believing things would get better. I held out hope and believed that perhaps having a child would change things perhaps it would bring us closer together, we would be a family at last. But, obviously I discovered that was a mistaken belief.
BH : You had twins in 2009 so those twins would now be around 4?
BA: That’s correct
BH : Are they boys?
BA: 2 little boys, Sammy and Benji.
BH : By then were you speaking German or were you bringing them up bilingually with your German speaking husband and yourself?
BA: Yes, I always delayed learning German because he promised we would come back to England one day so it wasn’t a priority for me to learn German. I was working in English all the time but I was picking up German.
BH : You were working in Vienna. Can I ask what you were working as?
BA: I did different jobs, I worked with refugees, I taught English over there, I taught at the University and I am now teaching again at the University.
BH : Teaching?
BH : If I listen very carefully I can hear a slight Austrian accent?
BA: I don’t know where that comes from!
BH : Let’s return to more serious and difficult issues. You told me earlier that you were suffering from domestic violence in your marriage, and that got pretty bad. Tell us what happened one particular night when you already had the children.
BA: After the birth things just escalated out of control. In February 2010 things were so bad I actually feared for my life. I fled the apartment and went to a women’s refuge overnight. I came back the next morning hoping and praying that things might have calmed down and we could discuss the situation, but when I got to the apartment my husband had called the police and paramedics. His mother and aunt were there and he was throwing me around. He said “I was going to have had you committed to a mental hospital, you’re a psychopath, you’re a terrible mother, you’re a terrible wife, you’ll never see your children again, nobody will know where you are. I’m not even going to tell anyone that you’re in this mental hospital.”
BH : Hold on, is he a psychiatrist?
BA: No he’s not, he’s a trainee doctor.
BH : A trainee doctor. Obviously, this is your side of the story we’re hearing, but, had you done anything to suggest that you might have any mental health problems?
BA: I’ve never been to a doctor thank gd, never had any mental health issues in my life. I’ve never been on any medication in my life. I have clean bills of health from psychiatrists since then that have said there’s never been anything wrong with me.
BH : So did you believe that your then husband was perhaps trying to set you up in some way?
BA: I couldn’t understand what was happening. First of all I was exhausted, I was overwhelmed, I was confused, I couldn’t even speak, I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was looking at him like he’s mad, “where has this even come from”. And then I realised afterwards, of course it was a set up. He wanted me out of the picture and it was the easiest way to do it.
BH : I think you told me that he set up a psychiatrist over the telephone who decided that you were mad (over the phone)…
BA: A colleague of his, a Jewish psychiatrist, the head of psychiatry at the same hospital where he worked who claimed that yes, this woman is mentally ill and he then came to my apartment and backed up my husband and said “yes, she needs locking away” and then when he was asked by the police doctor “have you ever met this girl, have you actually diagnosed her”, he had to admit that actually “I’m sorry, I’ve never met her in my life, I’ve never even spoken to her, I’ve just heard the allegations of the husband”.
BH : Now, if I can put it crudely, you won this stage of the battle because the police evicted your husband from the marital home and you stayed there with the children for about 18 months and he had supervised contact during that period.
BA: Because they deemed him a danger to those children. They said he had done an act of violence against his wife and the mother of his children and they said he must never be left alone with these children
BH : So I suppose if those were the circumstances in this country [United Kingdom], any family lawyer would tell you that’s more or less what would happen. But obviously they don’t want to deny the father seeing the children unless he’s a real danger to them. So he had supervised contact with them. And, of course, eventually you went to court to get a divorce and to sort out the children and money and things. And did you feel you needed a lawyer when you went to court to try and sort out the children, Beth?
BA: I felt it was an open and shut case. There was no question about the children staying with me, I would be awarded full custody. There was no reason why the children shouldn’t stay in my care. They were well cared for, well developed. I had reports from social workers, from doctors that I was a perfectly good mother, the children were in a safe environment and everyone told me you don’t even need a lawyer.
BH : And at those first court hearings, they were right, weren’t they? He wanted custody but he didn’t get it.
BA: No, there was no grounds for it.
BH : But he got unsupervised access and contact
BA: One year later
BH : One year later.
BA: Which was also a very suspicious ruling
BH : The boys were living with you, they were seeing their father. And you’ve got parents in this country and family who the boys also need to see
BA: My parents came out when they heard that he tried to commit me to a mental hospital
BH : They were supportive?
BA: They flew over on the next plane to be with me and they stayed with me so my parents were looking after the children aswell, there were three of us.
BH : But the reason you’re here tonight and wanting support is that in July 2011 you got a very very nasty huge shock when you went to a court hearing. Is that right?
BA: It was a week after the court hearing, yes.
BH : You got the result that the judge was awarding him full custody
BA: Out of the blue, the shocking decision.
BH : And you were only going to have contact with the boys once a week is it?
BA: Well at first I had no visiting rights, that was the biggest blow. The judge said that because he’s such a cooperative parent and such a caring person, she would leave it up to him to decide on my visitation rights. And of course the very first thing he said was “I’m sorry, the mother has to be punished and she’s not seeing the children anymore for at least 14 days. And then after that, only fully supervised”.
BH : But it’s not about punishing the mother, or father is it? It’s about what is in the best interests of the boys?
BA: I wish! And that’s been my only concern the whole time; the love for my children, what’s in their best interest, but unfortunately, the other side, and the courts, they don’t seem to be considering the welfare of the boys even though in every decision they always talk about the “Kindeswohl”, which in German means “the children’s welfare”. That’s been their last concern.
BH : It sounds like you’ve had to learn German pretty quickly
BA: Practically overnight. Suddenly I was faced with these 35 page German decisions and these documents, and I had to teach myself and stay up very late at night going through these with my dictionary going through these decisions which has been a nightmare.
BH : You’re listening to Jewish Hour, with me Basil Herwald, and I’m talking to Beth Alexander who’s a Mancunian living in Vienna, who’s been trying to get her children back, and you haven’t got them back have you?
BA: No. It’s just going worse and worse.
BH : It’s going worse and worse? Just tell us why that it is. Because you’re appealing to higher courts and you’re not getting anywhere?
BA: Well, in July 2011, as you said, the judge ruled, awarding the father full and immediate custody, and I appealed that decision with excellent grounds. My lawyer had very very strong arguments that the recommendation of the psychologist on which the decision was based, was totally flawed. She fabricated test results for tests I hadn’t even filled out for questions I hadn’t answered. Crazy unsubstantiated claims that the children at 2 years old should be speaking 200 words. I fought that decision and the higher court in Austria, they reduced his custody to temporary custody, and said further investigations need to take place. Over the past 2 years, there hasn’t been a single custody hearing, my witnesses were all called behind closed doors, there were secret courts, and I wasn’t allowed to present any evidence. And last week the judge made another final ruling giving him custody again.
BH : So this has been the same female judge all the time. So this is astonishing because in the family courts in this country of course, and I know this as a lawyer, the government wants greater access to the courts and wants the press to be there and for them to report it, and you’re telling us that there have been secret court hearing which you weren’t even aware of.
BA: Exactly, I found out afterwards, my witnesses have been called behind closed doors.
BH : So isn’t that straight to Strasbourg, Beth Alexander, isn’t that “oh gosh, this is so human rights deficient we have to go straight to Strasbourg”?
BA: Yes, everyone is saying that from a British point of view, but I first have to exhaust every level of the Austrian court system before I can do that so this appeal has to go through now to the appeal court and then I have one more level, to the supreme court. And if I lose at the supreme court level, then I can finally take that to the European Court of human rights. But the problem is it is a lengthy process and in the meantime the children are in a bad way and they’re suffering and there’s nothing I can do, I feel so helpless, and there’s no apparent way of speeding things up.
BH : But also you’re seeing the boys for 6 hours a week, which is no way to maintain the sort of relationship a mother should have with her children is it?
BA: Thank gd my bond is still there, that was my biggest fear, that they would forget me.
BH : Let me ask you this, Beth Alexander, it’s not a comfortable question but obviously, we’re hearing your story. If your estranged husband, or divorced husband, was sitting here, might he give a completely different story which would persuade us otherwise?
BA: I wish. I would love him to give his side of the story. The whole world wants to know why he’s behaving in this way. And I would love answers aswell, I wish he would only speak, but he’s turned down every opportunity to speak to the press, so we cannot know what he’s thinking or why he’s doing this to the children. I’ve tried myself to communicate with him, I’ve sent him friendly emails, I don’t want to fight, I’m not an aggressive, confrontational person and everybody that knows me knows that I’m a very peaceful person. And I wish he would stop this, I wish he would reason for the sake of the boys, but unfortunately, nobody can get through to him.
BH : So an obvious question which some of our listeners would ask is, apart from that this is a moving and worrying story, why come to Jewish hour and tell us about it now. What is the purpose, what’s behind that, Beth Alexander.
BA: Firstly, I want to just thank everybody for their absolutely overwhelming amount of support I’ve received in this country. I was so isolated and I felt very alone in Vienna because it seemed that the whole community sided with him, the local boy, and nobody wanted to listen to my side of the story, and nobody believed me. And yet, when I come to England or even on the facebook group, and the blog that I started, helpbeth.org, it’s generated so much support and so much love, I just feel everyone is rooting for those boys and praying for them and I really just want to thank everybody. They’ve written to their MPs, I know people have been talking to their Rabbis, people have been sending me messages “what can we do?” every day. They just want to help me and I’m so grateful.
BH : It occurs to me that the Rabbi of the Shrubberies Synagogue in Manchester, his father is actually Chief Rabbi of Austria. Any help on that front?
BA: I went to him at the beginning, crying and sobbing, begging to stop this even going through the courts. I never even wanted to enter the court room because I knew it would just be damaging to the children. But, it seemed that he’s very weak. He won’t mediate on the case, the line in Austria is that it has to go through the courts and the Rabbis don’t want to take it out of the courts.
BH : Can I ask, is there legal aid in Austria? Are you paying for all this yourself or is your family helping you pay?
BA: At the beginning, I did have a legal aid lawyer, but I won’t criticise her, she did the best she possibly could, but in the end she was overwhelmed and she wasn’t being paid, and it’s very hard to do this amount of work for free and now I have a private lawyer, thank gd, I’m very very fortunate to have the support of my family to help me.
BH : Well, Beth Alexander, we wish you well and thank you for talking so openly to us.