Helen Lewis to be Commemorated with Centenary Plaque

The Ulster History Circle will celebrate the life and work of the Holocaust survivor and choreographer who spent 60 years in Belfast

Czech-Jewish dancer and choreographer Helen Lewis, who settled in Belfast having survived Auschwitz in the late 1940s, is to be commemorated in the city a century after her birth.

The Ulster History Circle will unveil a blue plaque celebrating the life and work of Lewis at the Crescent Arts Centre on Holocaust Memorial Day this Friday, January 27. The unveiling will take place at 11.30am, followed by a reception including dance, poetry and music.

Lewis was born in 1916 in the German-speaking Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, and took on a new life in dance upon moving to Prague with her mother. She married in 1938 but by then the horrors of the Nazi regime had taken hold. After being deported to Terezín in 1942, and then to Auschwitz, Lewis and her husband were separated.

Through good fortune and her giftedness in movement she managed to avoid the fate millions of others met, but upon returning to Prague post-Liberation discovered that her husband had not.

In 1945 Helen received word from an old friend who had escaped the war and made a new home for himself in Belfast. Two years later she married Harry Lewis and later settled in the city, where her love of dance was renewed. She went on to have a prolific career choreographing for theatre and opera, in addition to teaching and juggling family life with the birth of two sons.

Having created the first modern dance work in Northern Ireland for the Belfast Ballet Club in 1956, Lewis subsequently founded the Belfast Modern Dance Group and helped foster the talents and career prospects of hundreds of other dance artists and performers.

Helen Lewis artwork by Leslie Nicholl

Artwork dedicated to Lewis by close friend Leslie Nicholl

She is recognised with introducing a discipline of dance to the country that hadn't previously been seen or experienced, moving beyond the confines of what audiences knew and proving to shape the work of many local dance and theatre companies in the ensuing years.

Lewis died in 2009 at the age of 93,  and the following year Blackstaff Press reissued her 1992 memoir A Time to Speak, described by Culture NI as 'one courageous Jewish woman’s testament, told with a poise and grace that is incredible for a narrative of trauma remembered.'

In our obituary, Jane Coyle called her 'an inspirational figure, a life force, a dancer to the very core of her being'. Coyle would later say that her own play The Suitcase  was infused with the spirit of Lewis.

In May the Lyric Theatre will restage Sam and Joan McCready's acclaimed adaptation of A Time to Speak, which was first performed as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival in 2009. Both Sam and Joan shared a friendship with Helen which spanned 50 years.

Chris Spurr, Chairman of the Ulster History Circle said: 'The Ulster History Circle is delighted to honour this exceptional person, whose life and work is an inspiration to all. It is fitting that the plaque to Helen Lewis is at the Crescent Arts Centre, where she taught dance for many years. We would like to thank the Crescent, and we would also like to thank Belfast City Council for their financial support towards the plaque.'

Since the organisation began in the 1980's, over 150 individuals have been recognised with blue plaques around the province, ranging from Samuel Beckett to Gerard Dillon. For more information on them visit this link.