One night two years ago, as Beth Alexander was feeding her young twin sons dinner in her apartment in Vienna, her estranged husband arrived with four armed Austrian policemen and, over the cries of the boys, forcibly removed them from the house. The husband, a physician with powerful friends in Vienna, had outmaneuvered Alexander in the courts to gain custody of the children.
The last two years have been a living hell for Alexander, a British woman who came to Austria in 2006 to be the doctor’s wife. She said she was promised family and security but instead found abuse, isolation and the worst fate imaginable — separation from her children.
Under a court order, Alexander, 29, is able to see her sons, now 4, only a few hours a day every Tuesday and every other Sunday. The handoff from mother to father is supervised at a state-designated contact center.
Frustrated by a court system that appears to favor the Viennese father, Alexander, a naturally demure and reserved Brit, has decided to fight back through journalism and social media. She has had nearly 100,000 hits on her blog, HelpBeth.org, and some 7,000 followers on Facebook. Her story has been told in newspapers in Austria, England, Australia and Israel. She has become something of a cause célèbre for British Jewry, which, from the office of the chief rabbi on down, has been fully supportive of Alexander. Over 100 people rallied for her in March in front of the Austrian Embassy in London. Until now her story has not been told in the American press, but it is a case that demands our attention.
“Cases like this are all too common,” said Phyllis Chesler, author of “Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody” (Chicago Review Press). “Mothers are automatically suspected of being ‘crazy,’ of lying, of hating the father of her children, of seeking revenge, of alleging battery falsely, out of revenge.”
Chesler added: “It does not help Beth that she is in a foreign country which will reflexively wish to keep the children where the father lives, and where the judge lives as well.”
I was first drawn to the case because Beth Alexander had been a student of mine 10 years ago when I was a visiting professor at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, my alma mater. Alexander was spending a year abroad in New York studying at Stern before beginning her studies at Cambridge University in England.
She was a star in my class, an intelligent young woman with an elegant writing style and a passion for journalism. Before returning to England, she did a summer internship at United Press International in Washington, D.C. A few years later, after she finished Cambridge, she asked me to write a recommendation for her to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where I teach. I happily complied. She was admitted, although she never enrolled.
“I think about Columbia all the time and have so many regrets,” she wrote to me in a recent e-mail. “I guess I just have to accept that my life has taken a different route and I must find the strength and courage to survive this one.”
She added: “It’s ironic that I am now using writing as one of my greatest weapons in this battle when I thought I’d sacrificed my dreams of journalism forever! My blog and articles have been highly effective (as well as cathartic) in exposing the scandal while also communicating to outsiders the terrible roller coaster of emotions we are experiencing. Through all the publicity I have seen first hand the power of the media.”
The summer of 2006, just before she was to start graduate school, Alexander went to Paris for an international student gathering sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch. There she met Michael Schlesinger, a recent medical school graduate, who pursued her vigorously and soon proposed.
“My parents said that I was crazy,” Alexander recalled. “‘You don’t know each other.’ ‘Get to know him better.’ ‘Get to know Vienna.’ But he said, ‘I want you to come as my wife.’
“I wasn’t suspicious. He was a frum [religiously observant] boy from an ostensibly good family. He came across as so caring. But once I got here [Vienna] I realized just how naive I had been. He wasn’t the man I had so admired; he wasn’t fit to be in a relationship.”
As in every story, there are two sides. I sent an e-mail to Schlesinger, 33, asking if he would either talk to me on the phone or answer questions by e-mail, but I didn’t hear back from him. His silence was consistent with his response to other press inquiries. According to Alexander, when reporters from London’s Mail appeared at Schlesinger’s doorstep to ask about the custody case, he closed the door, went inside his house and called the police.
Alexander says that physical violence and emotional abuse started soon after the wedding. Alone in a new city without family and friends, and having only limited German skills, she kept the problems to herself. She thought, foolishly, that having children would help the marriage. The boys, Samuel and Benjamin, were born in May 2009.
Less than a year later, Alexander filed for divorce in the Austrian courts. Schlesinger tried to have his wife committed to a mental institution with the help of a psychiatrist friend. His plan was thwarted by a suspicious hospital administrator who commissioned an independent police psychiatrist to assess her. The police psychiatrist concluded that the diagnosis had been fabricated and instead arranged to have Schlesinger evicted from the family home after deeming him a danger to the mother and children. For the next year and a half the children did not spend a single night away from their mother, while Schlesinger had limited and supervised visiting rights to the children. Meanwhile, the custody case slowly worked its way through the courts.
Alexander claims that Schlesinger is a family friend of a high court judge in Austria who influenced the trial judge in the custody case. The trial judge, Susanne Göttlicher, appointed a child psychologist who deemed Alexander unfit for parenting. “The mother has limited parenting abilities,” the psychologist found. “She inadequately interacts and bonds with her children.” The forcible seizure of the children followed on July 25, 2011. Alexander maintains that the court manipulated the 2011 report’s findings to get the desired result — awarding of custody to the father. The psychologist who tested her, she said, had no qualifications in adult psychiatry. After the children were taken, she had herself reassessed privately, leading to a second court-commissioned evaluation. Both reports contradicted the initial report and found that she was perfectly sane and a good mother. But Göttlicher has declined to accept these reports in evidence. Alexander, claiming bias, asked that the case be moved to another jurisdiction and that the judge be replaced, but her applications were denied by a lower court. She has appealed the decision and asked for an investigation of Göttlicher.
The worst part of this terrible story is that the boys are suffering. While they had been in the full-time care of the mother prior to the seizure, they are now largely cared for by two Filipino nurses, Alexander said. Although they just turned 4, they are still in diapers and appear disturbed and confused. They hardly speak and have trouble interacting with others, the mother said.
Alexander told me that the state of her children only increases her resolve. “I just want my boys back in my arms where they belong,” she said. “I miss them so much and feel so powerless watching their childhood slipping away.”