A Prisoner of Circumstance

Rachel Better never worried about her stateless status until the INS locked her up. Then it was too late.

Bernard and Antonia fell in love and married. In 1948 they decided to move to Palestine. While still in Germany, they joined the Haganah, the clandestine Jewish group that was the foundation for the Israeli army. They arrived in Israel as part of Aliyah Bet, the underground effort to smuggle Jews into Palestine in defiance of the British blockade. The British mandate to govern Palestine had just expired when Rachel's parents landed in the the newly declared state of Israel, then in the thick of the first Arab-Israeli war. Bernard was immediately drafted and served in an anti-tank unit on the Egyptian front until January 1949, when a cease-fire was declared.

He later worked as a police officer at the airport and the port of Jaffa. Rachel's mother says the family would have remained in Israel were it not for her crippling arthritis, a disease Antonia contracted in her early teens. The humid Mediterranean climate made life unbearable for her, and she returned with Rachel to Straubing in November 1949. Bernard followed soon after.

Rachel's two brothers and four sisters were born in Straubing, where Rachel grew up. She had spent almost her entire life in Germany by the time she met Bertram Mies at a party in August 1988. He was 38, tall, muscular, and good-looking. He appeared to be prosperous. She was 39 and single. They moved in together after a whirlwind courtship of only two weeks.

The relationship was unstable from the start. Rachel describes Bertram as alternating between extreme displays of affection and abuse. Statements from friends, relatives, and colleagues in Germany recount numerous instances in which Bertram is alleged to have physically or emotionally abused Rachel in the presence of other people. He purportedly pushed her through a glass door, severing her Achilles tendon. Later, while she was hobbling about on crutches, a friend claims he saw Bertram strike her to the ground. He also heard him threaten to throw her out a window.

Rachel's sister Andrea says Bertram threw flower pots at her and Rachel from the balcony of his office. An electrician remembers seeing Bertram kick Rachel as she lay sprawled on the floor, where she had fallen after a fight. "Ms. Better's nose was bleeding and her lips were split open," states Harald Kaufhold. "She had marks from blows on her face, her neck, and her arms. I noticed that she had older bruises here as well.... She could apparently only move in pain and had difficulty breathing. Her eyes and face were beginning to swell up. I wanted to fetch a doctor and the police, but Ms. Rachel Better would not let me. She asked me merely to call her sister."

In late 1989 the stock brokerage business Bertram owned declared bankruptcy. In April 1990 he told Rachel he had decided to move to Punta Gorda, Florida. His reasons were unclear. (After his death Rachel learned that Bertram was wanted by the international police organization Interpol for embezzling clients' money. She says his business partner is currently in jail in Germany.) That spring Rachel found out she was pregnant. She miscarried, and while in the hospital she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The pastor who attended to Rachel during that time reports that Bertram was not at all supportive. Bertram told Rachel she should be pleased with the miscarriage because he didn't want a child. He also made it clear that he wanted "a whole woman."

"At that moment, Ms. Better's world collapsed around her," states the Reverend Ms. Ulrike Johanns-Stoodt. "She had been delighted by the pregnancy, and had hoped that their child would strengthen their relationship."

Bertram repeatedly called Rachel after he moved to Florida, asking her to come visit. When she relented and arrived for a three-week vacation, he promised to marry her if she would stay. Rachel returned to Germany for further cancer treatments and began helping Bertram financially with checks for $200 a week. She moved out of her apartment, sold her furniture, and gave $10,000 she borrowed from her father to Bertram so he could purchase a fruit and vegetable stand in Punta Gorda.

In 1991 Rachel traveled to Florida twice. She kept hoping that her relationship with Bertram would improve, but being in Punta Gorda made her feel only more isolated and alone. "Bert would quarrel with her for no apparent reason," the psychological report included in the court record notes. "He blackened her eye, cut her face by breaking her eyeglasses, and was again extremely abusive both physically and emotionally. She was constantly under pressure. She had no one to talk to.... By this time, she considered her life was ruined and she did not wish to live any longer."

When Rachel returned to Germany at the end of the year, she was so traumatized that she sought professional help. At first she could barely function and spent only an hour a day working at the construction company her brothers owned in Mannheim. But by the spring of 1992, she was working a full eight hours, and she decided to go back to Florida to get personal possessions she had left behind. She promised herself she would leave if things got bad.

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