A Time To Speak

One woman's remarkable story of surviving Auschwitz through friendship, determination, luck and dance

Dancing the valse from Coppelia saved Helen Lewis’s life. The Czech-Jewish dancer survived the deprivation of the ghettoes, then the hell of Auschwitz and a cruel life of hard labour at Strutthof. And just when she felt her spirit would break altogether, someone asked if she would dance in the camp’s Christmas show.

Though she was weak from starvation, her body remembered the movements from the long hours of rehearsal at dance school in Prague. She began to move her frostbitten feet, bringing amusement to the SS guard on duty, earning some goulash and extra time. The numbers selected for the worst continued to rise; Helen the dancer was spared.

In January 1945, as the Red Army closed in, she joined the crowds evacuated from the camps and forced on death marches. She fought for her life in history’s filthiest corner, and she won through, moving to Belfast in 1947 and marrying a friend from her Czech childhood who had come to Northern Ireland to work in the linen industry.

In A Time to Speak Lewis recounts the rise of anti-Semitic feeling on the continent, the gradual exclusion of Jews from civil life and the incremental victory of Nazi propaganda and ideology over reason and morality. She bears witness to the dehumanising conditions at Auschwitz and the casual allocation of life and death, her voice, as Michael Longley notes in the memoir’s introduction, never becoming shrill or rancorous.

Lewis’s recollections are calm and lucid, similar to Primo Levi’s tone in If This Is A Man. Hysteria is never allowed to break through the quiet catharsis of painful memory. Spare details suggest the extent of the maelstrom.

In Auschwitz 'nature had died, alongside the people. The birds had flown from the all-pervading black smoke of the crematoria and their departure had left a silence that was like a scream'. Life became a nightmare. The degradation of the inmates and the sadism of the SS, the absurd victories of Nazi ideology that insisted the Jewish people, as Untermenschen, be sent to the gas chambers with barely a second thought – Helen bears witness to it all.

And, incredibly, even in this manmade hell she finds small moments of humanity, little kindnesses that bring hope: one female SS officer weeps at the inmates’ treatment; another throws his sandwiches to them each morning, granting the lucky recipient a brief reprieve from crippling hunger.

When Lewis is asked to perform in the camp’s Christmas show, it displays how momentary transcendence of the most terrible suffering is possible, how human will and spirit can retain some of their indomitable power against all the odds. Art, in this case dance, is a fleeting redemption, a means of reclaiming dignity and control.

'I had forgotten the time and place and I had even forgotten myself,' writes Lewis, 'where there had been chaos there was now a dance... Where was the hunger, the fear, the exhaustion? How could I dance with my frostbitten feet? I didn’t care or try to understand, I danced and that was enough.' For that brief moment she is phoenix-like and nothing touches her.

There are few analogies or words extreme enough to describe the full horror of the Holocaust; its dark truths seem to lie beyond language, like death. As the critic Irving Howe put it, the gruesomeness of this period of history 'resists the usual capacities of the mind'. But the facts must be told, no matter how unpalatable or difficult, because it is only by remembering the nightmare that humanity reduces its chances of making the same mistakes.

A Time to Speak is one courageous Jewish woman’s testament, told with a poise and grace that is incredible for a narrative of trauma remembered. That Lewis can find faint glimmerings of light in all the darkness, moments lost in dance, signs of humanity surfacing through the cruelty and hate, is a measure of her mettle and magnanimity.

A Time To Speak by Helen Lewis, with an introduction by Michael Longley, is published by Blackstaff Press.