When I was tootling about an arts centre recently, I came across a dance studio named after Helen Lewis. Something stirred in the back of my mind. Wasn’t she the one who survived a concentration camp?
Helen Lewis was born in 1916 in central Europe and grew up becoming aware 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. She’d been dancing as a child and moved to dance school in Prague, marrying there, but by that time not being allowed to dance in public.
She and her husband were deported to Auschwitz. Neither he, nor the rest of her family, survived. In 1944, she was put on special rations and nursed to limited health in order to perform a series of Christmas concerts for her captors. She was returned to labour subsequently. Helen survived the camps and a long march across Europe. She met up with Harry Lewis, who had fled from Prague before the war; they married and settled in Belfast.
Helen brought modern dance to Belfast, working as a choreographer for theatre and opera performances and teacher to generations of dancers.
In 1992, her memoir A Time To Speak was published and translated into many languages. Helen Lewis died in December 2009.
Wasn’t she the one? The one who survived concentration camps, danced for her life, lived, raised a family, taught many, choreographed for shows? Yes, that was her. I’m off to read a memoir.