Collage artist and animator Martin O’Neill met Holocaust survivor Bettine Le Beau at her north London home. Bettine survived the Holocaust in France as a child, and went on to become a Bond girl and movie star. Martin and Bettine had a wide-ranging discussion on happiness, education and working with young people – and how hope can overcome hatred.
Martin O’Neill meets Bettine Le Beau
This is Martin’s visual and animated response to Bettine’s story.
Bettine was born in 1932 in Antwerp, to Polish Jewish parents. When Germany invaded Belgium in May 1940, Bettine’s father, a fur-trader, was away at a convention in London.
He advised Bettine’s mother to head for Paris to stay with a friend and apply for a visa at the British consulate. At the beginning of her journey Bettine was excited to be going to see her father in London, unaware of what would transpire. Bettine’s mother cashed in all her money at the bank and travelled with Bettine and her older brother to Paris. She tried every day to secure a visa from the British Embassy, but Germany invaded France before she could do so.
The family was displaced and forcibly moved to Bordeaux.
Their first internment was at a castle in the south-west, near Audaux. Despite a shortage of food and uncomfortable conditions, this period was relatively bearable for Bettine, as she was surrounded by other children and together with her mother and brother. The family were required to register daily at the town hall. Bettine found it strange that grown men would cry at the castle. She didn’t understand the situation but felt anguish for the adults.
From Audaux, Bettine remembers big lorries arriving – this was the first time she felt very frightened. The family was later transferred to the internment and refugee camp at Gurs, formerly a holding location for political prisoners during the Spanish Civil War. The camp was now used to intern Jews and people perceived to be ‘dangerous’ by the government. At the camp Bettine and her brother were separated from their mother. Disease, starvation and overcrowding were rife here, and conditions worsened considerably as winter approached. In 1940, Ouevre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE) – a Jewish humanitarian organisation for children – offered to smuggle children out of the camps. Their parents would have to be left behind.
A Jewish humanitarian organisation resolved to smuggle children out of the camps.
Bettine’s mother agreed that Bettine and her brother should be smuggled out and taken to an OSE home for rescued children near Limoges. Bettine recalls being very lonely at the children’s home – she was lice-ridden from the camp and wet the bed because she was frightened and alone. She longed to go back to Gurs where she had friends and was near to her mother, in spite of the awful conditions there.
In 1941, the hope of escape was awakened by the possibility of boarding a boat from Marseilles to America, where Bettine had family who had already fled. On the day they were scheduled to embark, America entered the war on the side of the Allies, scuppering their chances of escaping from France.
Bettine credits OSE with saving her life.
When the Final Solution started being implemented in 1942, the OSE shut down the home and began placing children with families in remote areas. Bettine credits the organisation with saving her life – the following year, Vichy officials turned over 3,900 Jewish prisoners from Gurs to the Germans. The majority of these were transported east to extermination camps.
The OSE was then smuggling children across the border from France to Switzerland over the Alps. Bettine and her brother were chosen to go behind the other children; they had French accents and could be more easily assimilated into a French family if they needed to be. Before they were due to go the guide, who was responsible for smuggling the children, he was caught, arrested and murdered by the SS.
Under a false name, with a cover story, and with strict instructions not to reveal her Jewish identity, Bettine was placed with a farming family in a remote rural area with another girl named Henny. Bettine was given a French name, and was told to say that her father was a prisoner of war and her mother was dead.
While Bettine was at her foster home, her brother was sent to be a shepherd in the mountains and was treated badly by the farming family who hosted him. Bettine, however, recalls that she was cared for with great kindness, and lived out the rest of the war in relative safety from 1943–45, when her brother arrived to collect her.
Bettine was reunited with her family when France was liberated by the Allies in 1945, and went on to have a successful acting career. She has starred in The Benny Hill Show, The Prisoner and played Professor Dent’s secretary in the first James Bond film Dr No.
London-born, Irish-bred Martin O’Neill is an illustrator and collage artist who creates hand-made collages for a wide range of international clients encompassing publishing, advertising and design. His work can frequently be seen in the UK and US press. He also exhibits his personal collages, sketchbooks and prints, and is a visiting lecturer across the UK. Martin works largely by hand, developing his images from a subtle alchemy of collage, silkscreen, paint and photocopies. He works from a large archive of found and self-generated material housed in his studio.
Martin will be collaborating with Andrew Griffin, a Hastings-based designer and director of animation and live action whose clients include McLaren, British Airways, Channel 4 and Her Majesty The Queen. As a collage artist, Martin is used to creating static images with a visual narrative. By collaborating with film maker Andrew Griffin, the pair intend to add time and motion to that narrative, giving greater scope for nuance, abstraction and depth in order to do justice to Bettine’s life experiences and to echo her journey.