The dancer who survived the Second World War to bring her passion to Northern Ireland
Published 24/01/2010 | 05:00
Helen Lewis, who has died aged 93, survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, and owed her life to her talent as a dancer. After the war she became an award-winning choreographer and pioneer of modern dance in Northern Ireland. A diminutive, gentle and graceful woman who stood scarcely 5ft tall, she found the inner strength to endure Terezin, Auschwitz and Stutthof camps, as well as a deadly march across Europe at the end of the war.
When asked how she survived when so many had not, Helen Lewis refused to talk of miracles. At Stutthof, near the Baltic Sea, extreme cold, disease and hunger had brought her close to death; but the commandant of the camp became aware of her pre-war career as a dancer.
Put on special rations, Lewis was ordered to direct and perform a series of Christmas shows at the camp. She was nursed back to rudimentary health, and despite frostbitten feet she directed and performed a Valse from Coppelia for her SS captors and fellow prisoners. She later remarked: "People say God protected me. Does that mean He didn't protect those who died? I am totally unable to answer that question.
"It was often a matter of timing: a fortnight later, I would not have been alive."
She was born Helen Katz on June 22, 1916 in the town of Trutnov. Her childhood was steeped in European high culture, and her family's Jewishness seemed much less important than the German and Czech literature, music and drama she absorbed at school, the theatre and at the town's concert hall.
She was educated at the grammar school in Trutnov, where she became conscious of her multifaceted identity: Jewish by religion (but not as Jewish in terms of her religious observance as many of her Jewish friends); German by culture (but not of the fervent nationalist type); and a proud citizen of democratic Czechoslovakia.
From the age of six she had wanted to be a dancer. Despite the misgivings of her parents, who wanted her to go to university, she entered dance school in Prague.
When Czechoslovakia was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1939, Helen Katz was in Prague, a recent graduate from Milca Mayerova's celebrated school of dance, and she was soon to be engulfed in the anti-Semitic regulations of the occupying power. As a Jew, Helen Katz was not allowed to dance in public.
Her mother and cousins were to perish in the camps. She enjoyed only a few months of carefree marriage with her first husband, Paul Hermann, before the Nazis entered Prague and the couple too was deported -- first, in 1942, to Terezin, and then to Auschwitz, where they were separated, never to see each other again.
At Auschwitz Helen Hermann, as she had become, survived a so-called "selection" by Dr Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death", by stepping out of a line heading for Mengele's table into a queue coming back for their clothes.
When Auschwitz was liberated in 1945 Helen Hermann, by then seriously ill with typhoid, was saved by a stroke of fate when a Russian major provided safe passage in the form of a scribbled note which acted as a passport that got her to her native Prague.
As the war came to a close she was saved by acts of kindness by both German and Russian soldiers as she failed to keep up with the forced march from Stutthof which claimed the lives of hundreds.
Harry Lewis, a former friend from Prague, who had fled to Belfast before the war, spotted her name on a list of survivors published by the Red Cross. It was another happy accident that led to Helen Hermann making a new life for herself in what she described as "a faraway city in a foreign land".
She married Harry Lewis in Prague in 1947. They made their home in Belfast, where dance would once again shape her life.
Belfast had a strong classical dancing tradition, but Helen Lewis introduced modern choreography, and was to teach generations of dancers, before eventually founding and directing the Belfast Modern Dance Group. She was for many years connected with the Lyric Theatre and countless opera productions in Belfast, where she was acclaimed for the energy, creativity and passion which she brought to her teaching.
She contributed to an unexpectedly cosmopolitan artistic world in the province during the Troubles, and was appointed MBE in 2001 for services to contemporary dance.
In later life she became concerned about relating her experiences of Nazi persecution -- not least to her sons, who wondered at the number crudely tattooed on her arm. She was adamant that survivors should not try to shield their children from their past.
The lesson of where intolerance and hatred ultimately leads, however, was too important, in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s, to be confined within her family. She was coaxed by friends to communicate with larger groups -- once, memorably, at a Belfast synagogue where she spoke to a packed audience of Christians and Jews.
Her understated style and characteristic determination to tell things as they were, without speculation or moralising, ensured that her memoir, A Time to Speak, published in 1992, became a bestseller.
The book was hailed as one of the most important to be published in Northern Ireland in recent years.
A month before her death, a one-woman show based on her life story, was performed at the Belfast festival.
Helen Lewis, who died on New Year's Eve, is survived by her two sons.