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Obituary: Judit Beach

Hidden on a chicken farm, she escaped the Nazis to act and dance in Hungary

    My grandmother Judit Beach, who has died aged 94, was an accomplished dancer and actress. She encountered antisemitism in pre-war Hungary, was forced into hiding during the German occupation of the country, and when the opportunity arose, left communist-ruled Hungary with her family, to settle in the UK in 1969.

    Born into an observant Jewish family in Szeged in southern Hungary, Judit was the second of three daughters of Andor Schwartz, a tailor, and Rózsi (nee Weisz), a homemaker. She attended the local Jewish primary school, where the subjects she studied included Hebrew and religion.

    Her good looks made Judit popular as a teenager: on one occasion, when she was barely 14, she was serenaded by a group of boys. Her mother showed the family’s appreciation of the performance by placing a lit candle in the window. Her subsequent romance with one of the boys was short-lived; by the late 1930s, with antisemitism on the rise, it was risky for her non-Jewish suitor to be courting a Jewish girl. After Hungary’s pro-German government enacted anti-Jewish laws in 1938, Judit’s parents made plans to emigrate to the US, but changed their minds as they did not want to leave her grandparents behind.

    After joining a gymnastics class, Judit decided to train as a dancer. Her plan to study in the UK was thwarted by the outbreak of  the Second World War in 1939. In Budapest, she went on to study classical ballet. It was during preparations for a show that she was introduced to a young actor, Géza Partos — who would become a prominent theatre director — and they married in 1943.

    Following the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, Judit’s family were deported, along with hundreds of thousands of other Jews: her father was murdered in Auschwitz. The rest of the family survived the war as forced labourers at Strasshof concentration camp in Austria. Judit, who had obtained false identity papers, went into hiding on a chicken farm near Lake Balaton and then joined Géza and a dozen other anti-fascists in the wine cellars of a farm on the outskirts of Budapest.

    After the war she performed at the National Theatre and then joined the army’s dance ensemble, touring the country and frequently sleeping in barracks. She later returned to acting and joined a touring company, before the birth of a daughter and a son required her to stay in Budapest, working in radio drama and as a programme presenter for Hungarian Radio.

    A chance encounter led to the offer of a job as a translator and administrator at the Israeli embassy, where she rebuffed attempts by Hungarian officials to make her spy on Israeli diplomats. But her job lasted only a few months because following the Six-Day War in June, 1967, Hungary — along with other Soviet-bloc countries—broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. Judit and the ambassador were the last people to leave the embassy.

    Frustrated with life under communist rule, Judit and her family left Hungary in 1969 on what was presented to the authorities as a three-week holiday, and settled in London. After they had overstayed their Hungarian exit permits, she and other members of the family were sentenced in absentia for failing to return to their homeland, which was considered a crime under communist rule.

    Life in Britain was harsh to start with: Judit initially worked as a cleaner to make ends meet. Later, she held administrative jobs at British Gas, before finding her true vocation when she secured part-time work with the Hungarian section of the BBC World Service.

    In 1982 she met and later married Michael Beach, an inventor and aircraft-builder, and they lived together in Twickenham until his death in 2012.

    She is survived by her children, Eszter and Gabriel, from her first marriage, which ended in divorce, and her grandchildren, Hannah and me.

    Rebecca Partos

    Judit Beach: born June 21, 1923.

    Died October 7, 2017