Today brought the first snowfall to Vienna.
I cannot help but still associate everything around me with my little boys. Even the elements conspire to help revive and refresh my beautiful memories, keeping alive the sense that my boys are still close by, even though physically we are far apart.
Every season inevitably brings its own bitter sweet memories of happy days spent together; the scorching Summers we enjoyed swimming outside, picnics in the park, flying the kite on windy Spring days, feeding the ducks on Autumnal afternoons, riding their bikes and exploring the playgrounds all over town – in every season -dashing wildly for the swings, slides, climbing frames and roundabouts just like any other happy care-free child.
Until they were robbed of their pure children’s innocence, an entitlement that every child should be able to take for granted, Sammy and Benji loved the outdoors. They thrived on adventure.
One particular magical day is imprinted onto my memory forever:
Sammy and Benji’s first experience playing in the snow.
January 2011. They were 20 months old. I will never forget the look on their curious little faces as we put on their snow suits for the very first time. Sammy was sitting playing with a pop-up book on the sofa while I dressed Benji. As I finally managed to maneouvre him into it, struggling to direct wriggling little legs and unruly arms into rightful position and zipped him up into a stiff little bundle, he suddenly stopped moving, stood stock still, arms outstretched stiffly, legs spread apart in wonder. He looked down at himself in his padded suit while Sammy looked on flabbergasted at this remarkable new and inexplicable wardrobe addition. A second later, Benji glanced up to gauge Sammy’s reaction. Sammy started to giggle mischievously. Benji joined in. The two of them then erupted into squeals of hearty laughter and bemusement while Benji started dancing round in circles proudly parading his funny new suit, the object of such hilarity.
It was a delightful double act. The more Benji danced, the more Sammy laughed, by which time he had leapt off the settee, desperate to share the fun, he couldn’t wait to be donned in his matching outfit. He practically jumped into it, all the while looking at Benji for approval, hoping to make him laugh with his own equally funny appearance!
Benji waited patiently for his brother, eyes twinkling, cheeks flushed in eager anticipation. He reached out to him and the two of them waddled towards the door, desperate to try out walking in their cumbersome new coats!
It was comical to watch. I had barely put my own boots on when they had already run to to the lift, rushing to get outside, squealing and hopping about happily at the prospect of the latest adventure! That was before they even saw the snow.
What an exciting experience it was! We went to the nearby park (so close to my apartment it was practically my garden). They were in their element! Every few steps they stopped to bend down and scoop up a handful of snow, touching, testing, relishing every moment of this latest novelty. Each tentative touch triggered renewed squeals of laughter and delight.
We jumped and ran, threw snowballs and made a snowman! They were fascinated by the imprints of their little footsteps in the perfect white carpet. Such simple pleasures yet some of the happiest I have; stored away in my abundant treasury of memories of innocent care-free, joy-filled days, there to share with them one day in the future, a day when they will hopefully long have put all their current pain and suffering behind them.
As the snowflakes fall today, I smile nostalgically, reflecting on that wondrous day exactly 2 years ago. Watching the other children happily playing outside just as mine once did, makes me realise that whatever they can take away from me, nobody has the power to remove my memories of the amazing times we shared. The snow will slowly melt and trickle away but my hopes and dreams for a better future for my boys will materialise, as concrete and lasting as eternal truth.
There can’t be many JT readers who haven’t heard about the plight of Beth Alexander by now. For those who need a reminder; Beth is a young mum, originally from Manchester, now living in Vienna. She is fighting to regain custody of her twin toddler boys who were taken from her, apparently on the basis of a psychologist report, after her ex-husband claimed she suffered post-natal depression.
I don’t know Beth personally and can’t claim to know any more about this tragic affair than any other casual observer, but I do think that the case raises concerning issues for all. For a start, Beth’s cases challenges the assumption that a child is usually better off with its mum. Correct me if I’m wrong, but most people (and I am one), think that unless there is something seriously amiss, a child should not be taken away from its mother. Even in today’s supposed egalitarian world, most people take the view that, where possible, a mum should have primary care of her child.
This assumption has caused some angry contention among some observers who argue that fathers should have just as much right to custody as mothers. No one, this minority point out, gets so het up when dads are denied custody. Why is it always assumed that mum is the best primary carer for the children?
Well, in my opinion, this is because mums are generally superior at the everyday aspects of the job. Of course, dads can be, and often are, brilliant parents too, but generally, they do it differently to mums. The fact is that mums (generally) start caring for their child a whopping nine months earlier than the father. These nine months are crucial and start the woman on her mothering journey which normally only ends when her life does. When a pregnant mum stops drinking Palwin No 5 and eating chopped liver (whilst dad carries on tucking in cheerfully) she is beginning a lifetime of care and worry about her child. When she then spend at least six months with sole responsibility for the infant (except, perhaps for bath time when daddy gets home), she quickly learns to take on that unique 360 degree caring role that means she is forever the one woken at night by the slightest childish snuffle, the one who sets the school uniform out at the end of the bed ready for the next morning; she is the one who hangs around doctor’s surgery for immunisations and reassurance about fevers, who organises the dentist appointments and play dates, who kisses scraped knees and trapped fingers, who tells them to ‘be careful!’ as much as she tells them she loves them and who worries constantly about everything from their progress at school to whether their shoes might be pinching their toes.
Dads are great for lots and lots of stuff, but they don’t generally take on this all-encompassing burden (and joy) of care and worry that seeps into and out of every one of mummy’s pores. The evidence? Daddy might switch his phone off during an important meeting; mummy probably won’t (in case school rings). Mummy never, ever switches off.
Which, all makes it so much more startling when we hear of kids being removed from their mum. Ah, we think, the mum must be a danger to her kids. She must be ‘unfit’ – in which case, few would deny that a loving, competent Dad should take over. Is this the case with Beth Alexander? Were her toddlers at risk?
Shockingly, there seems to be no proof at all of this. ‘Evidence’ of Beth’s ‘ineptitude’ as a mum apparently includes her taking her twins to an ‘age-inappropriate’ puppet show (Punch and Judy), being unable to use paracetamol suppositories on them after their Brit (circumcision), and taking them to a play area too often. The rest of the ‘evidence’ appears to consist of unfounded claims from her ex (a doctor) or his friends (prominent professionals within the Jewish community) that she apparently suffers from paranoia/schizophrenia – despite having no history of mental illness and several subsequent assessments refuting this.
According to recent news reports on Austrian TV, following the accusations about Beth’s alleged mental illnesses, Beth was condemned to lose her kids largely on the basis of one psychologist’s report. As a psychologist myself, I find this apparent over-reliance on a report of a one of my fellow professionals, worrying. Analytical reports should only be used in conjunction with other evidence; for example, I conduct personality analyses for employment purposes but always with the disclaimer that they should not be used in isolation to make hiring/firing decisions. Over-confidence in ‘experts’ is a human failing and one has only to think of Professor Meadows, whose flawed evidence led to the wrong convictions of murder for mothers Sally Clarke and Angela Cannings (amongst others) to appreciate the immense damage it can cause.
I can’t testify as to Beth Alexander’s competence as a mum; I’ve never even met her. Clearly, her vast army of supporters in Manchester (plus the 6500 supporters on her Facebook campaign page) who have watched her grow up have seen no evidence of emotional imbalance, never mind any sufficient enough to present a danger to her kids Indeed, the ‘evidence’ against her seems extremely flimsy to say the least. From what I have read (including material that I can’t report here but is available on her Facebook page), there seems to be more evidence supporting her superior competence as a parent than refuting it.
Should we care? Should we not leave Beth’s fate (and that of her babies) to the Austrian courts to decide?
Beth is a northern lass; she’s one of our own and she and her children may well be the victims of a grave miscarriage of justice. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that if it were our own children in such an unfortunate position, that their home towns would be behind them all the way?
My dear little angels, Sammy and Benji,
You do not yet have voices of your own but take comfort that there are now so many wonderful people around the world that have lent their voices to speak out on your behalves.
And even if you were able to talk, how could you possibly begin to understand what has happened to you, innocent children, in this cruel and confusing adult world? How could you ever find the words to express your fears and anguish at being robbed of your mother’s tender love, warmth and security, the comfort that every other child takes for granted?
Don’t we teach you that adults protect their children, look after their best interests and care for their needs? Don’t we teach you to respect your leaders and look up to them as role models to aspire to? That justice and morality are the highest of virtues?
My dearest baby boys, you, like I, have witnessed the ugliest, darkest side of humanity. It is a sad, disappointing lesson that in this world, there are people fuelled by hatred and anger, spite and bitterness. But please don’t become dispirited. Remember, that even in the midst of evil, there will always be those who are loving and decent. For every corrupt person, there is another who is straight and just. For every person who lies and steals, there is another who is honest and giving. For every person seeking destruction, there is another who seeks to nurture and cherish. For every person filled with rage, there is another whose heart is brimming with love and compassion. And for every person motivated by greed and power, there is another striving to help and share.
My darling boys: Never abandon your pursuit for truth and goodness even when deceit and wickedness reign around you. Always know the difference between right and wrong even when others have no conscience. Always show love and generosity, even when others hate and are bent on revenge. Always be compassionate, even when others are devoid of emotions.
Even in the darkest of times, never give up hope in humanity.
My little angels, Sammy and Benji, although I am no longer there to hold you in my arms when you wake up in the morning or give you kisses and tuck you in at night, snuggling for a story like we always did, know that even when you cannot see me, I am always there. You are forever in my heart, my thoughts, my prayers.
The special bond between a mother and her children can never be broken.
There is not only me. You now have an army of supporters behind you.
Justice will prevail and the truth will come out one day soon.
I love you always and forever.
This mother has agonised for 531 days over her children
Since 25th July 2011, Beth S. (28) has feared for her twins Benjamin and Samuel (3 years old). A judge in the 2nd District Court of Vienna withdrew custody from her on account of a controversial psychologist report.
Every evening Beth straightens the covers on her children’s beds, folds their pyjamas – but the beds of her sons remain empty. The sad story: A judge based her ruling on a dubious psychologist report which alleges that she is mentally ill, took her children away from her – the father, a junior doctor, brought the police to collect them.
This newspaper can now reveal the findings of our research: For months a high court judge (name known) has intervened on the side of the father (the high court judge is a good friend of the ex-husband).
Although in the meantime two further reports have concluded that the mother is perfectly healthy, custody remains with the father. In response to questions why the judge has still not set any court hearing dates for custody despite new evidence with the latest reports in the mother’s favour, the court spokeswoman, Ingrid Weigl replied: “We are waiting for a new report from the Social Services.”
This takes time. Time that the children do not have. Mother Beth says: “ My children are suffering, they are doing very badly with the father. They are traumatised and do not speak.”
Despite continued attempts to get a statement from him, the father of the twins was not available for comment.
Beth with her twins Samuel & Benjamin: The Cambridge graduate only has visitation rights.
Some time later, the Heute published this piece in their newspaper
Analysis: The “Heute” was ordered to pay costs to Dr Schlesinger on the basis that their coverage was an invasion of his privacy. There is no suggestion that anything printed in the original article was not factually accurate.
Today, however, they got to play policemen themselves! And firemen. And builders, carpenters, plumbers, racing drivers and rubbish collectors! They played bakers, pharmacists, pushed trolleys round a supermarket and tried their hands as chefs! Today’s visit was magical. We went to an indoor miniature city for children. Designed just like a real city with cobbled streets, shops, a bank, emergency services, radio and tv stations, building sites and road works, it was the most imaginative, creative and fun children’s activity centre I have ever seen!
Sammy and Benji had the chance to dress up and learn through hands-on experiences how the real world works and feels. From dressing up as firemen and riding in a fire engine, joining the other children to put out a blazing fire in a realistic looking building with a real hose and water, to sitting in a crane working on a mock building site, the boys had the time of their lives! They built houses with play bricks, shovelled make-believe debris, ‘fixed’ pipes, drilled, screwed and hammered! They baked their own bread, got a ‘driving license’ and went ‘shopping’.The children were given play money at the entrance and were able to go around spending it in the various shops and work stations.
It was an absolute delight to see them so ecstatically happy and enraptured by it all. They enjoyed every second of this amazing day. It’s hard to believe that Austria is such a child-friendly place with so many wonderful provisions for children and young families when this idyllic picture jars so mind-bogglingly with my own children’s traumatic experiences here.
I was so incredibly excited for today’s visit. I hadn’t seen my boys for almost 2 weeks (last Tuesday the visiting centre was closed because of New Year). Today, like the beginning of every visit, they ran into my arms, with happy cries of ‘Mama!’ the finest music to my ears. Hearing them say ‘Mama’ when they say so few other words is the best reassurance I can get that our love has survived. Our inseparable ties and unbreakable bond have remained intact, having been tested and pushed so cruelly to the limit. Even now, 18 months later, just one look at them is still enough to gauge exactly what they want and need. Verbal communication is superfluous with a mother’s instinct.
We sang, we danced, we cuddled and laughed together. My children lying in my arms feels like the most natural thing in the world. The ease, the comfort and security of being together, so carefree and relaxed, is something so intangible yet a feeling so right and undeniable. Being with these two little boys, my own flesh and blood, brings me an indescribable joy and completes me in a way nothing else on earth possibly could. After all the cruel unforgivable things that have been said about myself and the boys in this ugly battle, hearing their squeals of laughter and seeing their affectionate interaction with me makes me the proudest mum alive.
Returning home and reflecting on today, I am torn with conflicting emotions; the strength I’ve drawn from the happy precious hours we spent together, weighed down by a heavy heart at the depressing silence now pervading my flat and the abandoned toys I need to clear up and put away until the next visit.
I hope and pray that the impending custody decision finally recognises the pivotal role a mother plays in her children’s development and well-being. Sammy and Benji need me as much as I need them. My heart bleeds and every fibre of my body aches to be re-united with them once and for all.
The intensity of my love will never diminish. I only wish that they will be allowed to receive that love and security every day and every night. That they may grow up safe in the knowledge that their mother will always be there for them, not just in spirit as I am now, but a concrete reality; embraced in my arms and enjoined in my heart forever.
Nasty Jewish divorce spirals into an international incident
A custody battle in Vienna has split a family, pitted British and Austrian rabbis against one another and looks set to continue well into next year
LONDON — Beth Schlesinger was at a Vienna play center with her 2-year-old twins, Samuel and Benjamin, when the phone rang. Her husband, Michael, had won custody of the children, social services said, and she needed to hand them over immediately.
Because her lawyer was away, Schlesinger phoned the only friendly face she could think of, a local rabbi, and headed home. The scene, she says 18 months later, was “barbaric.” Four policemen turned up with her husband as she fed her sons supper, and the children were taken without any of their belongings. She was crying, she says, and so was the rabbi.
Because she had not been awarded visitation rights, it was eight weeks until she saw the children again.
Since then, the couple — who had a Jewish divorce, but are still civilly married — have conducted a bitter custody battle that is beginning to draw media attention in Austria, and in the Jewish press in the UK, where Beth Schlesinger grew up. Her supporters, some of whom launched a public campaign on her behalf last month, claim that removing the children was highly irregular, and that they should be returned.
“There are many concerns about how this case has been handled, how outside parties have interfered and how the judge has acted in a most partisan manner,” says Rabbi James Kennard, a British rabbi who taught Beth in high school and is now principal of one of the world’s largest Jewish day schools, Mount Scopus Memorial College in Melbourne, Australia. He has been in close contact with Schlesinger and calls the case “tragic.”
Michael Schlesinger, a trainee doctor, did not return phone calls, and his lawyer did not respond to an email.
Beth, 28, and her Austrian husband separated in February 2010, after three years of marriage. Schlesinger claims she fled to a women’s shelter, and that the marriage dissolved after the police were called to their apartment the following day. The custody dispute originates in Michael’s claims that his wife was mentally ill and suffered from post-partum depression. A court in Vienna commissioned an 80-page psychologist’s assessment, which concluded that Beth was indeed mentally unwell, delusional in her claims about how her husband treated her, and that she was not capable of raising children.
She now sees her sons every second Sunday and once during the week, with no overnight visits.
A gynecologist has told the court that there was no post-partum depression, and two privately commissioned psychological assessments have found that Schlesinger does not suffer from mental illness. A court-commissioned report, issued in mid-November, has said the same, with Dr. Werner Leixnering concluding that she had “neither at the time of examination nor at any time in the past, any form of mental illness.”
But Schlesinger — a Cambridge graduate — is not getting too confident.
The latest report, she says in a phone interview, “makes me feel positive, but I’ve been positive so many times in the past… Every minor victory, there’s a counterattack.”
She says four civil divorce hearings are scheduled before June, but no custody hearings.
While she will not comment on why she thinks the original report came out so resolutely against her, she notes that the same doctor issued a very similar evaluation of another mother, nicknamed “Alexandra L” in the Austrian press, whose 4-year-old twin sons were taken from her as a result. That assessment was also disputed by two subsequent reports, which found no evidence of mental illness.
Her own “sweet, gentle” children were well cared for in her home, she says, citing a social services report issued in May 2011 after nine home visits, which concludes that “the children are well-developed for their age. They are alert and responsive… They are in no way at-risk children.”
In her husband’s custody, she says, her sons are being taken care of by two au pairs.
She alleges that the women, from the Philippines, do not speak German, and only basic English, and that partially as a result, her children are not speaking properly yet. At age 3 and a half, they are also still in diapers.
“It’s such a mockery,” she says. “I was scrutinized within an inch of my life. Then two complete strangers are brought in to look after the children, whom the court knows nothing about.
How did she get into a marriage that ended this way?
Growing up in Manchester, in northern England, in a modern Orthodox family, Beth Alexander attended a local Jewish school and then earned a degree in Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Cambridge University. She also spent a gap year at Yeshiva University’s Stern College in New York.
She met her husband in 2006, when Beth was 22 and Michael was 26, at a weekend retreat run by the European Center for Jewish Students in Paris.
Her first impression, says Beth, was of a “sweet Jewish boy.”
“He seemed to share my values, seemed to be at my religious level, seemed very caring and loving.”
They were engaged within three months. In hindsight, she says, she was “wrong” and “naive” to tie herself to someone so quickly.
“I hardly knew him,” she says. “We had met three or four times, including a week in Vienna and many phone calls, but in my religious circles, it was assumed that if someone presents themselves as a religious person, if you want the same things out of life… I took him at face value.”
Her parents, she says, were concerned that the couple did not know each other well enough, and tried to persuade her to pursue the relationship in Vienna before marrying him. But the couple wed anyway.
“He told them he doesn’t want me to go [to Vienna] as a single girl, and that he would look after me,” she recalls.
She quickly realized she’d made a mistake, she now says, but “I always made excuses for him — maybe he was just nervous about the wedding, maybe he was overwhelmed. The whole marriage was like that. I didn’t want to believe it was happening.”
As the relationship broke down, she says, she found it hard to extricate herself.
“I stayed because I didn’t want to accept it. I didn’t want to be divorced, especially after my parents had begged me not to marry him,” she says. “Eventually, I did tell my parents, but they were far away. It was hard for them to understand what was really happening.”
Living in a foreign country also put her in a relatively weak position. Her German was basic, her husband controlled the finances and she was a stranger to the community, although she says she did have many friends.
Had the police not intervened, she admits, “I would never have had the courage” to end the marriage.
“Eventually I would have had to leave, but I was frightened,” she says. “It was really hard.”
Once the couple separated, says Schlesinger, her priority was a civil divorce.
“I immediately knew I wouldn’t get a get — I just assumed,” says Schlesinger, referring to the religious divorce that can only be issued by a man to a woman. “I didn’t even raise it. I just assumed I’d be an agunah [a ‘chained wife,’ still married] forever more.”
She changed her mind in August 2011, after Kennard convinced her to fight for a religious divorce. According to Schlesinger, her husband refused to cooperate, and she was told by a local rabbi that she would receive a get only if she dropped her custody suit. She refused, however, and soon rabbis in the UK were taking her side, including the former head of the London Beth Din, or religious court, Chanoch Ehrentreu, who eventually issued the get. London’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper began covering the battle.
Schlesinger claims not to know why her husband relented on the religious separation, granting her a divorce in late March, but by then he had custody of the children, which from her point of view was a completely unexpected development.
“It came as a total shock,” she says. “I thought the [psychiatric] report was just a formality. I had been told there was no question that the children would stay with me, that Austria is very pro-mothers. Until then, their father had mostly had supervised access, and had never even had an overnight visit.”
On this issue as well, she says her main support came from outside Vienna, at least at first. Schlesinger says she had stopped going to synagogue.
“After my children were taken, it was just too painful to bear going there alone, without my boys. I went on Yom Kippur 2011, but felt very uncomfortable. My good name and reputation had been destroyed,” she says. “People were confused. They didn’t know what to think.”
It took a year until she decided to return to synagogue, after a rabbi from home “encouraged me to face going again. The first few weeks were very difficult… Now they welcome me, support me and want to help. I even look forward to going.”
Getting support from Viennese rabbis, however, has proven more complicated. After publicly criticizing the local Chabad for allegedly supporting her husband, she was attacked during the summer by British Chabad rabbis for “maligning” the movement.
According to Kennard, “Beth’s friends and supporters are astonished at how some of the rabbis in Vienna have refused to involve themselves in reaching a resolution for the sake of the children, or have even acted in support of one party against the other. Fortunately, Beth is now finding more support amongst the Viennese community, and from some of the rabbis.”
A rabbi from Manchester, Jonathan Guttentag of Whitefield Synagogue, was moved this summer to write to three of his Viennese colleagues to implore them to offer Beth more help.
“From our perspective, we can see a young lady living far away from her parents and family, having gone to get married in a foreign country and community, with that marriage broken down, now deprived of custody of and access to her children,” he wrote.
“She finds herself now set against a former spouse who has the advantage of local family support, natural community affinity, and knowledge of the civic law situation… There are always two sides in any situation, and one would expect a [religious community] and its leadership to ensure that reasonably fair play is being maintained.”
Today, Schlesinger claims, she counts Austria’s chief rabbi, Paul Chaim Eisenberg, as a supporter.
But she has never felt alone. Her parents visit regularly, and her two brothers helped start the publicity campaign on her behalf. In mid-November, they staged a demonstration outside a London synagogue the Austrian ambassador was scheduled to visit, although he did not, in the end, turn up. About 40 people did, however, and Schlesinger says that additional, larger events will follow. Almost 7,000 people belong to a Facebook support group, and she has launched a blog about the situation.
Meanwhile, her apartment remains exactly as it was when the children lived there, with their toys, clothes and beds still in place.
“The reminders of the children are everywhere. It’s bittersweet because I am reminded of them the whole time, but it keeps me hopeful they are coming back,” she says.
Her initial fears that the boys would forget her have so far been unfounded.
“I’m amazed — it’s so reassuring,” she says.
“I know that justice will prevail,” she goes on, “and that we will win in the end. I just know it.”