Lewis, Helen (1916–2009), Holocaust survivor, dance teacher, choreographer and memoirist, was born Helena Katz on 22 June 1916 into a well-off Jewish family in Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian empire (Bohemia became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia in 1918). She was an only child, brought up in a comfortable, not especially religiously observant, home in the small town of Trutnov, where she attended grammar school. Her parents wanted her to attend university, and after her father's death in 1934 she moved to Prague with her mother and studied philosophy in the German University, but her real interest was in music and dance, and she trained for three years to become a dancer. In June 1938 she married Paul Hermann, but their happiness in married life, and her professional career as a teacher and choreographer, were all too short. On 16 March 1939 German troops invaded Czechoslovakia and incorporated Bohemia into a Nazi protectorate. With ferocious speed, the persecution of Czechoslovakia's large Jewish population removed all semblance of previous normality from their lives. Bank accounts and desirable properties were confiscated, travel restricted, segregation was enforced, and neighbours could become aggressors and betrayers. Almost overnight, suffering and despair and loss swept away all hope. From 1941 many thousands of Jews were deported. Helena's mother, Elsa Katz, was deported in early 1942, and died in Sobibór extermination camp.
Paul and Helena Hermann were sent in August 1942 to Terezín (Theresianstadt), a camp and ghetto in northern Bohemia that Nazi propaganda tried to present more or less as a showplace 'Jewish settlement', with hospitals and children's homes and the semblance of cultural life, including music and theatre. In reality, Terezín had been constructed and was run using forced labour, and was a clearing station to which thousands of Jewish prisoners were sent en route to gas chambers in other camps. Helena Hermann worked in the children's homes, where she and colleagues managed to give children some education. After untreated appendicitis led to peritonitis, she developed septic abscesses and a fistula when the wound refused to heal. The tendons of her leg shortened after weeks of painful contraction. She spent months in the camp hospital, where doctors and nurses, fellow Jews, did what they could for her, though food and medicines were increasingly scarce.
The Hermanns were able to stay in contact while interned in Terezín, but in May 1944 they were moved to Auschwitz and separated, and never met again. Paul Hermann died on a forced march in April 1945, as the Schwarzenheide concentration camp was dispersed. In Auschwitz, Helena Hermann expected that the notorious Dr Josef Mengele would send her to the gas chambers because of her evident ill health and extensive scarring, but she twice avoided 'Selektion' (once by stepping out of line unobserved). She was transferred to Stutthof, a viciously cruel forced-labour camp in northern Poland, where more than 85,000 prisoners died of hunger, disease, ill treatment, and mass murder by gas, injection and shooting. A chance remark about dancing led to Hermann's selection by the female camp supervisor to participate in a bizarre Christmas entertainment in December 1944; special rations enabled her to regain enough strength to dance the valse from Delibes's Coppelia in front of SS guards, and the extra food and the momentary respite from manual labour almost certainly ensured her survival.
As the Red Army approached Stutthof, on 27 January 1945 the German guards forced the remaining prisoners to leave the camp and march for weeks through the Polish winter. There was little food and brutal ill treatment, and thousands died. Seriously ill with typhoid fever, Helena was abandoned when she fell in the snow. She survived by taking shelter overnight in a house where there were German soldiers who gave her food, and later a Russian army major gave her assistance, especially a handwritten note that permitted her to pass through Russian territory to get to a Red Cross hospital and eventually back to Prague.
When she got back to her uncle's house in Prague, she weighed only 30 kilos, and recovery was slow. In October 1945 a postcard miraculously reached her from Harry Lewis, who had left Prague before the war to go to the UK, and had seen her name on a Red Cross list of survivors. The two had briefly been sweethearts but had parted over her professed commitment to her chosen career. After marriage in Prague in June 1947 (only a few months before the Communist take-over in Czechoslovakia), Helen Lewis began her new life in Belfast, where her husband had established a handkerchief-making business. Years afterwards, she acknowledged that survival was almost as traumatic as seeing others die, and it was incredibly difficult for her to try to see why she had lived while others perished. She eventually concluded that there was no way to understand or explain, it was simply her fate. She had frequent nightmares until the first of her two sons was born in 1949; giving him life seemed somehow to cancel out the worst of the memories of despair and terror.
Helen Lewis made contact with the Belfast Ballet Club in 1953 and, after the birth of her second son in 1954, resumed her teaching of dance. In 1956 she helped the pupils of Grosvenor High School put on what was probably the first amateur production in Northern Ireland of 'The bartered bride' by the Czech composer Smetana. Her success in choreographing and training the young people was noted, and she soon made a considerable reputation in what was becoming a relatively vibrant arts scene in Belfast. She was especially associated with amateur opera, and worked on many productions with Mary O'Malley (qv) in the infant Lyric Theatre. Lewis is credited with the introduction of modern dance to Belfast audiences, founding and directing the Belfast Modern Dance Group from 1962. In the 1970s she choreographed specially written short ballets, some performed in Dublin and Cork; one was based on Seamus Heaney's poem 'A Lough Neagh sequence'. She trained and influenced scores of dancers over three decades; her love of teaching and of being with young people was some compensation for the loss of her career in performance.
When Lewis first came to Belfast, locals had little awareness of the wartime traumas suffered in middle Europe. As time passed, she increasingly felt the need to tell her story, especially when her adopted city descended into the darkness of 'the troubles' from the late 1960s. As well as participating in community events and discussions throughout the 1970s and 1980s, speaking out against bigotry, genocide and ethnic cleansing, she also wanted her sons to have a record of her experiences. Encouraged by her friends the writers Michael Longley and Jennifer Johnson, Lewis in the late 1980s started writing her memoir, A time to speak. Her husband Harry typed it up for her, but did not live to see it published in 1992. It was received with acclaim as one of the most important books to come from Northern Ireland in decades, and became a bestseller. Lewis's limpid, elegant language tells her story briefly and movingly, not dwelling on the extreme suffering, and equally refusing either to blame or to exonerate. She recognised that in extremis one can sometimes find strength and generosity, but her memoir recognises also the truth of what happens to both victors and victims when people are dehumanised.
A time to speak was translated into other languages, including Czech, and was serialised several times on RTÉ and BBC radio. In the years after the publication of her book, Lewis became one of the best-known Holocaust survivors in Ireland and further afield; she was frequently interviewed and filmed by researchers, historians, documentary makers and others who sought to preserve her testimony. She received an MBE (2001) for services to dance in Northern Ireland, and honorary doctorates from both QUB and the University of Ulster. A month before her death, a one-woman show based on her life was performed in the Belfast Festival at the Lyric Theatre. Helen Lewis died on 31 December 2009 in Belfast, sixty-five years exactly after she danced in the Oberaufseherin's grotesque Coppelia in Stutthof.