Bettine Le Beau’s incandescent smile radiates with happiness, as she sits at her dining table surrounded by illustrator and collage artist Martin O’Neill and film maker Andrew Griffin. Underneath her youthful exuberance lies an astonishing story of escape. The dazzling 82 year old, former Bond Girl, artist, author and speaker is a Holocaust survivor. This is the first meeting between Bettine and the two artists, who will collaborate to create a piece of artwork inspired by her life. Brought together by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s ‘Memory Makers’ art project, where seven British artists have been paired with Holocaust and genocide survivors to retell their stories through the emotive medium of art.
O’Neill and Griffin plan to create their piece as a free form response to this meeting with Bettine. The way O’Neill works is to collect information; he says “I’m really interested in possessions, mementos and objects that can be metaphors for other stories.” He points at the scrapbook that rests on the table and describes how he has already taken photographs of its contents. He enthuses “This is an amazing opportunity because it’s so real. I haven’t got to meet and speak and understand anyone who I have made art about.” Griffin describes how it made sense to team up with O’Neill to produce “something that illuminates the energy and light and positivity that comes out of Bettine’s life story.” And it is this story that she begins to relay.
Born in Belgium, 8 year old Bettine was taken with her mother and brother to a concentration camp in France. One night an undercover agent of Oeuvre de Secours Aux Enfants (OSE) entered Camp DeGurs and declared in the women’s barracks, “I can save 10 children tonight.” Bettine remembers “Nearly all the mothers said ‘No. Where I go, my children go. I don’t want to be separated.’ But my mother was different, she said ‘Yes take them both but I want to be sure that if I ever get out of this hellhole, I should know how to get in touch with my kids.’ ”
Upon escape, she found herself sleeping on fresh crispy white sheets a harsh contrast to the concentration camp sack bed made of straw. A memory she carries to this day. She had lice, she wet the bed and she had no friends, she wished to rejoin her mother in the camp but the OSE moved her in to hiding on a farm in Switzerland where her name was subsequently changed to Betty Frickler and she was told to “never never, not even if someone is really nice, say she was Jewish.” She says “so now I tell all my friends, I don’t want to have any secrets, these things stay.”
After 5 and half years she was reunited with her mother and joined her father in London. “When my brother took me to my mother, it was like I never left.” When asked how she felt her traumatic childhood has impacted her life she disagrees, “I think it was because of my positive attitude I didn’t suffer as much as the others. When the other children were crying that they would never see their parents again, I said I will.” She talks about how her mother told her she was a lucky girl and it is this self belief that gave her strength.
Of her Jewish Identity, Bettine says “I’m more Jewish, I feel so Jewish.” She attributes this to her continued use of Yiddish which she speaks weekly at her Yiddish group where she trawls through the Jewish News and picks out stories to discuss with her friends, here it affirms for her that she no longer has to change her personality, like she did on the farm in Switzerland but she can be free to be her luminous happy self, which no doubt, along with her zeal O’Neill and Griffin will seek to evoke in their collective project.
The finished pieces will be unveiled to the public online at www.keepthememoryalive.hmd.org.uk in January 2015