real life

Conceived in a police cell and raised by a billionaire: Betty Klimenko's incredible story.

Betty Klimenko is an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary story – and now, after a year of soaring highs and the lowest of lows, she has shared how things have been going for her.

Betty is not only a savvy businesswoman, owner of Erebus Motorsport, and champion of females in racing, but also someone who does not conform to society's rules. She laughs loudly. She is honest to a fault. She loves deeply.

And this week, Betty's team won pole position ahead of the final day of racing in the Bathurst 1000 – a world-renowned annual 1,000-kilometre touring car race that, this year, saw its 60th anniversary.

Betty became the first female team owner to win Bathurst – aka 'the Great Race' – in 2017.

"When we won, I was outside talking to people," she told Sunrise of the 2017 win"I didn't even think we were close to winning and someone came out and said, 'Betty, there are five laps left... I think you better come in' and I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because you could win the race!'"

However, the pure elation she would have felt after watching her star driver Brodie Kostecki soar to pole position on the weekend was "bittersweet", she told V8 Sleuth, explaining that she is still reeling following the death of her brother.

"... It's only been 10 weeks since my brother passed away, so I'm balancing the good and the bad and then one will trigger the other off," she shared. 

She also told Sunrise it's been a tough couple of years.


"I haven't really said anything about it but I haven't been at the rounds," she said. "He was a special boy, he was intellectually handicapped and we went through everything together even though he was intellectually handicapped."

Betty Klimenko and her family. Image: Sunrise.

Betty's biological mother, Anne Niel, was born in Lithuania; the family had a Russian background and moved to Lithuania after the Revolution. From there, Anne's family migrated to Australia, where Anne turned to drugs and prostitution.


Betty's biological father, a police officer, and Anne conceived Betty in a police cell in King's Cross in Sydney after Anne was arrested for solicitation.

Initially, Anne decided to keep Betty. She had placed three of her older children in foster care, and was trying to "change her way of life". She even had Betty baptised in a Catholic church.

"And then after seven weeks, she said, 'I can't do this anymore,'" Betty told No Filter host Mia Freedman. "And they drove from Queanbeyan up to Sydney and left me at the Women's Hospital."

Listen to Mia Freedman's full interview with Betty Klimenko on the No Filter podcast below. Story continues after audio.

Due to Anne being on drugs when she was pregnant, Betty was born dependent on drugs too. Strangely, this was what led to her being adopted by billionaire business owner John Saunders, co-founder of the immensely successful organisation Westfield Group. John and his wife Eta couldn't have children of their own.

"Back then, you went into a room. And there were there like 20 kids in there in cots. And you picked a child and said, 'This is what this is the child I want'," Betty explains. "And [John] walked in the room and they'd picked a child for him, a male. And he was dark, had dark eyes, looked more on the Mediterranean European side than me.


"And my father said, 'Just one second'. And he just walked up and down the rows of the children. And I was in the last cot at the very back. And I was laughing. But what he didn't know that the laughing was part of withdrawal. And he said, 'Oh, this one's got a sense of humour. I'll take this one'.

"I'm a big believer in balance. And I think that I was meant to be with him. And that's how it happened."

Betty never met her biological parents, who both died when she was young. She knows very little about either of them.

"The first person I met that was biologically related to me was a cousin. And he was the person who was telling me, 'Well, you know, your mother was the black sheep of the family. But she had been Miss West Australia [a beauty pageant] or something. And then she went down and down'," Betty says.

"She was just on six foot. Apparently, my biological father was about six foot four. I've met two of my biological sisters and they're tall. They're very tall. But with me, she was on heavy drugs. So I ended up stinted from elbow down to knee down. So from my knee to my elbow, I'm a big, tall woman. But my from knee down, I'm not."

Like Betty, her parents John and Eta were also extraordinary people. Both were Hungarian-Jewish Holocaust survivors. Eta didn't go to the concentration camps but spent three or four years living in a big sewerage pipe with her family and some other people from her village. She developed bowel cancer after a hip injury never healed.


Betty's father John was sent to a camp at age 18 after he was caught listening to the BBC. "He was put in as a political prisoner. And so he was in there way before they actually called it a concentration camp," she says.

"And he did escape once, but he got to a river, and like all good religious Jews, he had never been taught to swim. And there was no way for him to get over there. So he had to get back into the camp before [the guards noticed] because he knew that he'd be shot.

"He lost a mother, brother and family on the outside. But the closest were his brother and his mother. The brother was shot in a forest and the mother went to the gas chambers."

Watch the late and great Holocaust survivor Eddie Jaku's advice for a good life. Story continues below.

Video via Mamamia.

It wasn't until Betty was 10 years old that she found out she was adopted.

"We were at the Lowy's place [Frank Lowy and John Saunders are the founders of Westfield Group] and I had a fight with Peter [Lowy's son] because we spent a lot of time together. And I had a fight with him. And somehow he turned around and he goes, 'You know you're adopted, don't you?'" Betty recalls.


"And I just, I kind of looked at him and in my head as a 10-year-old... I'm very logical. And I just went, 'Huh', walked upstairs... And that's where [my father is] sitting. I walked up to him and I said, 'Am I adopted?' And he goes, 'Yep'. I went, 'Okay'. And I walked away. In my mind, it was quite logical. I'm blond, blue-eyed, no one else is."

Many people would have an existential crisis of some sort. 

Not Betty.

"After I would say, out loud, 'I could be a princess; you gotta treat me like a princess. Or if they're dead, I'm a queen'", she says with a laugh. "And this is like age 11 or 12. I'd say to him, 'Please refer to me as Queen Betty'. And he would go, 'You're nuts'."

The irony was, of course, that she was already living a princess-like life, having been adopted into a very wealthy family.

Betty admits she had no inclination to look any deeper into the lives of her biological parents. "My father is my father. John Saunders is my father. Eta Saunders is my mother. Clara Saunders was my stepmother. You know, if you add them all up, it's like three mothers, two fathers, 12 grandparents. I don't need that. I just got one father, one mother."

When Betty was 11, her mother Eta passed away. A week later, so did her best friend.

"My friend had leukaemia. And I went over there to stay with her. And she just died in her sleep. I was in the same bed. I had learned before this about death, so being a very logical person, I just went, 'Okay. This was her time'," she says.


"And it's funny that death has never scared me or worried me or, you know... That's why I don't go to funerals, because I can't have that emotion. I mean, I might shed a tear when I learn that someone dies, like, you know, Sean Connery or someone but it, it's a tear and then the tear goes. I cry more over animals, seeing the cruelty to animals, than I do [people].

"Because death is just a part of life. And you need to accept it, and you need to inhale it, and say, 'It's happened'. And look at it as something that is a joy in your heart, not a dagger that is ripping it apart."

Betty's quiet acceptance of the deaths around her led her father to send her to a psychiatrist. "I can be very emotional, and then I can just be blank. The blank means that I'm just not interested... And so they sent me to a psychiatrist. And I had like four sessions, and she was this well-known child psychiatrist, and she goes, 'She's totally sane'. That's all she said."

Betty rarely saw her father due to just how hard he worked. "I knew he was home because he had squeaky shoes, because he had to have special shoes made. And they squeaked. So I could hear it go past my door at night. And then in the morning, I'd see him for two minutes. And then he'd be gone," Betty tells No Filter.

She mostly took care of herself and her younger adopted brother, who has an intellectual disability. When her father remarried, it was hard for Betty. "I was 15. She was 25. He was 50. I think it was more, 'My children need a mother'. They suited each other. She was more religious in the Jewish way...," she says. "After my father died [when she was 38], my relationship with my stepmother is very intense."


For Betty, religion isn't a big part of her life.

"When my parents adopted me, they took me to the religious synagogue [for conversion]. And they said to my mother, will you keep a kosher home? And she said, 'No, I don't keep one now. And I won't keep one'. Because she didn't tell a lie. And they said, 'Well, I'm sorry, we're not going to convert your child'. So they went to Temple Emanuel, which is a liberal synagogue, and said, Will you do it? And they said, Yes. But I don't think they actually ever did it," she says.

"And I went to the synagogue and said, 'I want my conversion paper'. And they said they can't find one, they can find one for my brother, but not for me... it was this whole hoo-ha, in the end, it turns out that, that someone must have found the paper somewhere, but by then I had realised that life wasn't about religion, or a piece of paper. Religion is very good for some people. I believe in a higher power, but I just don't know if it's a man sitting on a throne."

Some may think that things came easy for Betty because she grew up in such a wealthy family. But she explains that she had to earn everything she had.

"My father was very much a person you work for what you get. So at 13, I started working as Santa's helper at the shopping centres, and I had the little red skirt and everything else. At 15, I started working at Grace Brothers, which is now Myer. I always worked. But you know, for my 18th birthday, my father said, 'Your present is up in the garage'. And I was like, 'Great'. You know, I was so excited, thinking it's a car.


"It was a push bike. Three months later, he bought me a third-hand Torana... That was his way of saying, 'What do you have to look forward to, if you get it now?' I always had to work for what I got."

The lessons she learned as a child have followed her into adult life. And she believes that, despite not being blood-related, her father is the person who has influenced her the most.

"I'd say 40 per cent of who I am is the blood that runs through my veins," Betty tells No Filter. "And the rest is my father. My father was a weird man. That's where I got my weirdness from."

Become a Mamamia Subscriber to listen to part two of Mia Freedman's chat with Betty Klimenko. 

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This article was published on August 26, 2022 and has since been updated with new information.

Feature image: Instagram/Sunrise.

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