Next month Europe's first refuge for Jewish women opens its doors in Britain. But for Melanie Stein, it is far too late.
Melanie Stein carries all the airs and graces of a middle-aged Jewish princess. She seems calm and confident, but hidden behind her uncomfortable smile and smart black dress is a woman who has endured a life of systematic violence and abuse while an entire community denied it was happening.

When Melanie speaks there is an uneasy worldliness in her voice. She says one of the fundamental problems within Jewish culture is an unwillingness for people to accept that men are capable of battering their wives.

She had no one to turn to. The only organisation that tries to deal with the problem, Jewish Women's Aid, was set up four years ago. Next month it opens the first refuge for battered Jewish women in Europe - all of which proved too late for Melanie.

Her upbringing was not dissimilar to thousands of Jews world-wide. At an early age she was taught the importance of the family and the vital role a wife plays in maintaining its stability.

"I had a very normal Jewish upbringing," she says. "We had a good home and that's what I wanted to have. I did not want to be a woman on my own, and that comes from a long tradition."

Jewish suburban Essex reflects all of these qualities of the idyllic family, where those at the pinnacle of the social scene mix ascetic values with a life of champagne, David Lloyd sports centres and expensive trips abroad. Melanie had a son, born during an earlier relationship, and when she struck up a relationship with Daniel, an old friend and a partner in a law firm, she thought this was to be her life, too.

"Daniel was very keen on us being together and wanted to make our lives wonderful. I saw him as someone I could make a home with. A real home, with a proper family," she says. "All my friends told me how lucky I was."

Melanie describes him as the stereotypical Jewish success story. "He was terribly polite, and public-school educated. Quite simply, a very straight nine to five man."

But within a year of their wedding Melanie suffered the first of a series of beatings. "We were away on holiday with friends, and I was not feeling very well. We were meant to be going out for the day, but I was just too weak. There was a blazing argument, but my husband insisted I went with him. The argument carried on in our room, and then he hit me. I had a black eye but Daniel still insisted I leave with him."

Melanie says she tried to carry on as normal so her son did not find out. "I told people I had slipped on the floor, and the whole time I was saying this, Dan was sweetness and light - absolutely calm."

Melanie believes that was her first mistake - denial became a way of life. She says angrily: "I did not want my son to know that my new husband, his stepfather, was beating me up. I decided to block it off.

"Things would be fine unless he had a bad day. If something had not gone his way at work he would become nasty."

In the early years of marriage Melanie says she became very comfortable financially, but that only enhanced the problem when she tried to tell people she was being abused.

"That charming beautifully spoken person, who picked up the tab and bought the champagne, was gone by the time we left our friends at the end of the night. Sometimes he would push me out of the car on the way up the drive. There was never even the excuse of drink - we were typical Jewish drinkers, two glasses of wine and that's it.

"We became the wealthiest in our crowd, and Dan was extremely generous and seen as such a nice fella, that no one wanted to believe otherwise.

"I realised afterwards there was a lot of jealousy from other women, because of the money. When I tried to talk to them, they just turned their heads away and said, 'I do not want to hear this.' People would actually have the nerve to tell me I had no right to complain because of the lifestyle I was leading."

But Melanie claims she paid the highest price for all her luxuries. "We would go out to the ballet and have a wonderful evening, but back in the house there was just anger - I was told to spread my legs to pay for the nice dinner. It was as if I owed him in some way."

During her 15-year torment Melanie says she was raped at least twice, but in the early Eighties the police were not interested in that type of domestic violence. One of her main problems was there was absolutely nowhere for her to go within the Jewish community for help. "Maybe if just one person had been around to say, 'I will be there for you' things might have been different."

Her son, Charles, was also deeply affected as he became ensnared in the cycle of beatings. His performance faltered at school, and he had a nervous breakdown. Yet even when he was badly beaten, Melanie would maintain the status quo, and leave with her husband to go out with friends for dinner. She says she could shoot herself now for the way she behaved, but at the time knew no differently. "I didn't know what else to do. Nobody wanted to listen. If I tried to talk to any of my friends they just turned their heads away."

The worst incident Melanie describes is when she and Charles were beaten to an inch of their lives over the smell caused by some chip fat in the kitchen. "Any normal person would have shouted if it was that important," she says, "but he attacked Charles in his bedroom. I did not realise what was going on until it was too late. I heard the screams and saw Charles on the floor covered in blood, with Daniel kicking him in the head.

"I tried to get between them, but then he started on me. I was beaten up, and five of my teeth were broken. My face was covered in blood, but that was nothing compared to my son. I grabbed him and we escaped to my local doctor. One of our closest friends was outside in the garden opposite when we turned up. He saw us covered in blood, and I think I must have screamed, 'look what Dan has done - this is your friend.'

"Charles pleaded with me to phone his grandparents, but I could not. My father was a very sick man, and I was afraid he would have a heart attack. "

Once again Melanie was confronted with a wall of silence, which left her with no option but to bottle-up the problem and suffer alone. "The friend who saw us in that state did nothing. I had known him since childhood, but he did not even go round to see Daniel. They never even phoned us to see how we were. We spent years socialising together, but the facade continued. It was always 'hello darling, how are you?' and everything else was swept under the carpet."

Melanie eventually served her husband with an application for a non-molestation order, and says Daniel was so shocked that he was not able to respond with violence. Instead he resorted to blackmail.

"He said that a summons would be a terrible indictment and could affect his career. He would say 'who do you think the police and the courts will believe, a solicitor or a stupid woman like you?' He was a total bully."

But because of the reign of terror Daniel installed, and Melanie's belief that a Jewish woman could not survive on her own with a child, she did not take him to court.

"Through that I instantly gave him all the power back, because that's what he thrived on. My husband preyed on my fear of being alone. He would say, 'everything you have belongs to me, and if you ever leave me you will live in the gutter.'"

The constant strain and stress caused by the abuse eventually affected Melanie's health.

Finally, a religious doctor persuaded her to act. "He said my body was just slowly giving up, and I would not survive if I did not get out of the marriage. Knowing my life was not worth having any more made me finally realise I had a choice."

That was the turning point for Melanie, but to this day Daniel still punishes her for daring to get a divorce. "As a solicitor he breaks every court order I obtain. He plays the system - it's his game," she says.

Melanie's friends also brush off the whole incident: "They just said, 'never mind, it is all over now.'"

She says Jewish Women's Aid has become a beacon for herself and other women, who no longer have to suffer in isolation. "Now they will know that not only are there people who can give them guidance, but - and I think this is more important than anything - people who will believe them."

Melanie is slowly rebuilding her life, but she still lives in fear of men. She no longer keeps in contact with any of her old friends, who she says have found it all terribly embarrassing. "Daniel is their solicitor and financial adviser, and they could not possibly do or say anything to upset him"

All the names in this piece have been changed. For further information contact London's Women Aid, 0171-392 2092; Jewish Women's Aid, 0800 591203