Helen Lewis, 1916-2009

Holocaust survivor and choreographer leaves behind an inspirational legacy

'There is no logical reason I can give why I survived the Holocaust. It has nothing to do with any qualities, physical or otherwise, that I possessed. Millions, who were stronger, wiser, better equipped, more courageous than I ever was, have not survived. We were all destined for the gas chambers. Whenever I go over the events of those years in my mind, I can make little sense of it except, perhaps ... I was a dancer.'

These are the closing words of Sam and Joan McCready’s stage adaptation of Helen Lewis’s Holocaust memoir, A Time to Speak. Helen, who died at age 93 on New Year’s Eve, came to be defined in the public consciousness as a Holocaust survivor. Her memoir was translated into many languages and widely hailed as a landmark work of candour and integrity. But in her own mind, she was, above all else, a dancer, whose life had been saved by the artform.

Helen had been urged to commit her story to print by her two sons, Michael and Robin, and encouraged to publish it by her friend, the poet Michael Longley. In Longley's review of the book in the Irish Times, he wrote: 'The world needs testimonies like Helen Lewis’s – a book of utmost distinction.'

Equally supportive was novelist Jennifer Johnston, who in her foreword to the book described it as 'the testimony of a woman who has survived the unsurvivable'.

Born in the German-speaking Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, Helen Lewis was the much-loved only child of an affluent family. She spoke often of her mother, an accomplished singer and pianist, who died in the Sobibor camp. In the society in which she grew up, intelligent young girls were expected to leave school and go to university. But, having taken her first dance class at the age of six, Helen had chosen another path. She and her mother moved to Prague, where she took up a place at the prestigious Milca Mayerova School of Dance and a new life began.

Soon, however, that new life took an unforeseen turn, pitching the promising young dancer into the unimaginable horrors of Terezin, Auschwitz, Stutthof and the notorious death marches ordered by the Nazis after the Russian invasion. Miraculously, Helen survived. Her husband, Paul, did not.

After liberation, an unexpected letter arrived from an old friend, who, at the onset of war, had settled in a faraway place called Belfast. Helen and Harry Lewis were married in Prague in June 1947 and, thereafter, she slowly settled into her new surroundings in Northern Ireland. Then, in 1956, Helen was invited to choreograph a school production of Bartok’s The Bartered Bride.

At her home in Belfast’s Derryvolgie Avenue, Mary O’Malley had formed the Lyric Players, who presented high quality productions of modern Irish and European classics. Within this gifted circle, Helen found a natural creative home. For years she juggled family life with work as a choreographer and teacher. She founded the Belfast Modern Dance Group, many of whose former pupils have carved out international careers as performers or teachers of the next generation of dancers. Among them are Philip Johnston, assistant professor of dance at the University of Illinois and Jane Mooney, a former chair of Dance UK.

Denis Smyth, previously a director of drama and dance for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, vividly recalls the impact that Helen’s arrival made on the Lyric group.

'From her Eastern European background, she brought a form and discipline of modern dance that had not been available in the North of Ireland until then. Dance here was mainly confined to Irish dancing and ballet. This distinctive means of expression found its natural home in the plays of Yeats, which were produced by Mary O’Malley and in which Helen memorably appeared. She introduced us to a concept of integrating movement and theatre, far removed from the traditional three-act plays we’d been used to seeing.'

US-based Sam and Joan McCready, too, have maintained the strong links of friendship forged during the Lyric years. Prior to the performance of A Time to Speak at the 2009 Belfast Festival at Queen’s, McCready welcomed the audience and answered the question everyone hesitated to ask.

'Helen is still alive,' he said. 'She is very frail and in poor health but completely aware of this production. Her indomitable will to live is still intact. She’s still a survivor.'

That was just three short months ago. Now the final curtain has come down on an inspirational figure, a life force, a dancer to the very core of her being.