A major global campaign was launched this week to support the bid of the family lawyer Beth Alexander to be reunited with her twin sons, Samuel and Benjamin.
The two boys live in Vienna with Ms Alexander’s ex-husband, Dr Michael Schlesinger, whom she has been fighting in the Vienna courts after the breakdown of their short marriage.
Despite repeated attempts to gain regular and normalised access or visitation rights, Ms Alexander, a British citizen, has had minimal success in the Austrian courts. Last summer, she was able only to see her sons for one brief, supervised visit, for the first time in five years. Dr Schlesinger has successfully argued that she is mentally ill and unfit to take care of their sons, who are now 12 and approaching their barmitzvah in June this year.
Ms Alexander said she had an estimated 5,000 supporters who were “itching” to help her. She also has the backing from Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Hendon MP Matthew Offord and Jewish Women’s Aid.
The case has been in and out of the Vienna court system since shortly after the twins’ birth, with different rulings given which have severely affected Ms Alexander’s ability to see or bond with her children on a regular basis.
The latest blow came after she applied for improved access through the International Child Abduction and Contact Unit, but her application was kicked back to the courts. The same judge who originally ruled against Ms Alexander, Judge Susanne Gottlicher, now says it would “not be in the best interest” of the boys for there to be any contact at all with their mother — including phone calls.
Ms Alexander said that her ex-husband had even insisted, at last summer’s short meeting, that Samuel and Benjamin only spoke to her in German. “I speak to them in English but the boys reply in German — and they have said to me, ‘Mamma, English is forbidden’”.
She added: “It was a supervised meeting, so everything was censored and the children were very uncomfortable. It was really a form of abuse: whatever I said, the [supervisor] was listening and would say, oh, you’re not allowed to say that”.
She said that previously the limited access arrangements had worked well, culminating in a “wonderful” holiday that she had been able to have with her sons.
This, she thinks, was the final straw for Dr Schlesinger, who, she claims, “couldn’t bear” the fact that the relationship was working so well. “He went to social services and my access was reduced to just three hours a week.”
Ms Alexander eventually left Vienna in 2016 “because I couldn’t see a way forward”. She returned to Britain and qualified as a solicitor and reignited her campaign to improve her access to the twins — but now all contact has been denied.
Describing her ex-husband as “intimidating” and “a bully”, she said she believed her sons had been scared into telling the court that they did not want contact with her. “He was sitting outside the courtroom”, she said.
Now, as their barmitzvah approaches, Beth Alexander is desperately hoping to bring her sons back to the UK to celebrate here. She said: “The barmitzvah’s in June. Obviously, I’m not included in any of the arrangements and I don’t even know what date it is, or whether I am allowed to attend”. Her supporters, she said, were being asked to contact the president of the Vienna Jewish community, Oskar Deutsch, to protest against the draconian rulings.
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