A special ‘Memory Makers’ project launched on Monday by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust pairs seven British artists with genocide survivors living in the UK.
The aim of the project, in which the survivors’ stories will be interpreted and retold in poetry, sculpture, ceramics, illustration and collage – is to shed fresh light through art on all the horrors and consequences of the atrocities they faced.
Fiona Leckerman joined a planning meeting between Holocaust survivor Bettine le Beau, artist Martin O’Neill and filmmaker Andrew Griffin
Bettine Le Beau’s incandescent smile radiates with happiness as she sits at her dining table with 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, who is a 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.
O’Neill and Griffin plan to create their piece as a free-form response to this meeting with Le Beau.
The way O’Neill works is to collect information, explaining that “I’m really interested in possessions, mementos and objects that can be metaphors for other stories,” he says.
Pointing at the scrapbook that rests on the table, he 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 to 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, Le Beau was taken at the age of eight with her mother and brother to a concentration camp in France. One night an undercover agent from the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE) entered Camp de Gurs and declared in the women’s barracks, “I can save 10 children tonight.”
Le Beau 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 her escape, Le Beau found herself sleeping on fresh crispy white sheets, a sharp contrast to the concentration camp sack bed made of straw. It is 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 France where her name was subsequently changed to Betty Frickler.
She was told: “Never never, not even if someone is really nice, say you are Jewish.” She adds: “So now, I tell all my friends I don’t want to have any secrets. These things stay.”
After five and a half years, she was reunited with her mother and joined her father in London.
She says: “When my brother took me to my mother, it was like I never left.” When asked if she feels her traumatic childhood has impacted her life, she says not: “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 would.”
She tells how her mother told her she was a lucky girl and it was this self-belief that gave her strength. Of her Jewish Identity, Le Beau says: “I’m more Jewish. I feel so Jewish.”
She attributes this to her continued use of Yiddish, which she speaks at a weekly group meeting where she trawls through Jewish News and picks out stories to discuss with her friends.
The meetings affirm for her that she no longer has to change her personality, as she did on the farm in Switzerland, but she can be free to be her luminous happy self. It is no doubt this, along with her zeal, that O’Neill and Griffin will seek to evoke in their collective project. The finished pieces of art will be publicly unveiled online at www.keepthememoryalive.hmd.org.uk in January.