23 October 2020

Helen Lewis, Holocaust
survivor from Prague who
taught dance in Belfast

A suitcase packed for Theresienstadt … an exhibition in Prague … Helen Lewis was deported there from Prague in 1941 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

As I was writing earlier this week about Lily Comerford (1900-1965), a key figure in creating what we now regard as traditional Irish dancing, I was disturbed by the story of her meeting Hitler in Germany in the 1930s and by my own perceptions of the role Irish dancing has sometimes played in perpetuating myths about Irish nationalism and identity.

Her story, in many ways, is in sharp contrast with the story of another dance teacher and choreopgrapher who was her near contemporary: Helen Lewis (1916-2009) was a Holocaust survivor who made her name in Belfast as a dance teacher and choreographer, and who was known too for her memoir of her Holocaust experiences.

Helen Lewis was born Helena Katz on 22 June 1916 into a German-speaking Jewish family in Trutnov in Bohemia, 160 km north-east of Prague. It was then part of the Austrian empire, became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918, and is now in the Czech Republic, close to the border with Poland.

She was an only child in a comfortable though not especially religiously observant, Jewish home in Trutnov. Her father died in 1934, and when Helena completed her studies at the Realgymnasium or local grammar school in Trutnov in 1935, she and her mother Elsa moved to Prague.

In Prague, she studied dance with the dancer and choreographer Milca Mayerová, a pupil of Rudolf Laban. She also studied philosophy at the German University of Prague and took lessons in French.

She married Paul Hermann, from a Czech Jewish family, in Prague in June 1938. She continued to teach at Mayerová's dance school, and experimented with choreography.

Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia on 16 March 1939 and absorbed Bohemia into a Nazi ‘protectorate.’ From August 1941, many thousands of Jews were deported. Helena’s mother, Elsa Katz, was deported in early 1942, and the Hermanns were sent to Terezín (Theresianstadt), 70 km north of Prague, in August 1942.

Terezín or Theresienstadt was both a waystation to the extermination camps, and a ‘retirement settlement’ for elderly and prominent Jews to mislead their communities about the Nazis’ plan for genocide. The conditions there were created deliberately to hasten the death of the prisoners, and the ghetto also served a propaganda role, most notably during Red Cross visits and in making propaganda films.

Helena worked in the children’s homes, where she and colleagues managed to give children some education. After untreated appendicitis, she spent months in the camp hospital.

Helena and Paul stayed in contact while they were in Terezín. But they were separated in May 1944 when they were moved to Auschwitz and they never met again. Paul died on a forced march in April 1945.

Theresienstadt heads the list of concentration camps inscribed on the wall around the Aron haKodesh in the Pinkas Synagogue, Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Auschwitz, Helena expected Josef Mengele would send her to the gas chambers because of her evident ill health and extensive scarring, but she twice avoided selection. She was transferred to Stutthof, a forced-labour camp in north Poland, where more than 85,000 detainees were killed.

A chance remark led to Helena’s selection for a bizarre Christmas entertainment, when she was compelled to dance the valse from Leo Delibes’s comic opera Coppélia for the SS guards in December 1944.

As Soviet troops approached Stutthof, the German guards forced the remaining prisoners to leave the camp on 27 January 1945 and march for weeks through the Polish winter. With little food and brutal ill treatment, thousands died on the forced march.

Helena was seriously ill with typhoid fever, and when she fell in the snow she was abandoned. She took shelter in a house where German soldiers gave her food. Later, a Russian army major gave her a handwritten note that allowed her to pass through Russian territory to a Red Cross hospital.

When she reached her uncle’s house in Prague, she weighed only 30 kg, and recovery was slow. Back in Prague, she learnt of her husband’s death; her mother, who had been deported early in 1942, had died at Sobibór extermination camp.

A postcard arrived from Harry Lewis in October 1945. The two had briefly been sweethearts, but he left Prague for Britain in the pre-war wars. Now he had seen her name on a Red Cross list of survivors.

They married in Prague in June 1947, just months before the Communist take-over of Czechoslovakia. They left Prague to begin new lives in Belfast, where he set up a handkerchief-making business. She had frequent nightmares until her first son Michael was born in 1949; giving birth to him seemed somehow to cancel out the worst of the memories of despair and terror.

After her second son Robin was born in 1954, Helen returned to teaching dance. In 1956, she helped the pupils of Grosvenor High School (now Grosvenor Grammar School) to stage The Bartered Bride, a comic opera by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana.

She also worked on a production of Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel at the Belfast Ballet Club, and Macbeth at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. She went on to choreograph many works with the director Sam McCready, who noted that she ‘brought a whole European dimension to dance in the theatre.’

She worked with amateur opera in Belfast and with Mary O’Malley on many productions in the Lyric Theatre. Helen Lewis is credited with the introduction of modern dance to Belfast audiences, founding and directing the Belfast Modern Dance Group from 1962.

In the 1970s, she choreographed specially written short ballets, some performed in Dublin and Cork. One was based on Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘A Lough Neagh sequence.’

As ‘the Troubles’ unfolded from the late 1960s, she felt a pressing need to tell her story. She took part in community events and discussions throughout the 1970s and 1980s, speaking out against bigotry, genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Encouraged by the writers Michael Longley and Jennifer Johnson, Helen Lewis started writing her memoir, A Time to Speak. It became a bestseller, was translated into many languages, including Czech, and was serialised several times by RTÉ and the BBC.

She spoke frequently in interviews about the Holocaust. She was made MBE (2001) for services to dance and received honorary doctorates from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster.

A month before her death, a one-woman show based on her life and adapted by Sam McCready was performed at the Lyric Theatre during the Belfast Festival in 2009.

Harry died in 1991 and Helen died at her home in Belfast on 31 December 2009, aged 93. They were survived by the sons, Michael and Robin. A dance studio at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast is named after her.

She trained and influenced scores of dancers over three decades.She believed that ‘dance by its very nature has the special power of drawing people together.’ Her gifts as a teacher are remembered by generations of dancers who continue to teach her work throughout the world.

Years after the Holocaust, she acknowledged that survival was almost as traumatic as seeing others die, and she found it difficult to try accept that she had lived while others perished. She eventually concluded that there was no way to understand or explain, it was simply her fate.

Inside the Spanish Synagogue in Prague … Helen and Harry Lewis were married in Prague in 1947 before leaving for Belfast (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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