Dancer, choreographer, teacher and writer Helen Lewis has died peacefully in her adopted home city of Belfast at the age of 93.
She was, arguably, best defined in the public consciousness as the author of the remarkable Holocaust memoir A Time to Speak, but she always considered herself, first and foremost, to be a dancer, whose life was saved, during the worst of times, by dance.
She was born in the town of Trutnov in the German-speaking Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia on June 22, 1916. The only child of a cultured, middle-class family, she grew up surrounded by music and poetry. She took her first dance class at the age of six and slowly dance became an ever more vital part of her life.
She confounded expectations by choosing not to go to university, but instead to take up a place at Milca Mayerova’s prestigious School of Dance in Prague.
She was acutely aware of her mixed identity – her home was the democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia, her mother tongue German, her religion Jewish. But never could she have anticipated the unimaginable horrors awaiting her in the camps of Terezin, Auschwitz and Stutthof, nor the agonies of the death march ordered by the Nazis after the Russian invasion. Miraculously, she survived, while her beloved mother and her husband Paul perished.
Immediately after the war, she was contacted by an old friend Harry Lewis, who had moved to Belfast in the late thirties. They married in Prague in 1947 and she began a new life in Northern Ireland, a place very far removed from home.
An invitation to choreograph a school production of The Bartered Bride led to her being admitted to the glittering circle that was the Lyric Players, set up by the legendary Mary O’Malley and the first incarnation of what is today Northern Ireland’s flagship theatre. Among that group of kindred spirits, her distinctive Eastern European artistic vision and vibrant personality found true expression. She founded the Belfast Modern Dance Group and many of her pupils went on to carve out distinguished careers as performers and dance teachers.
The publication of A Time to Speak in 1992 transformed her into a highly acclaimed author and national treasure, to her enduring bemusement. Honours flooded in from home and abroad and she became much sought-after as a public speaker. She rarely turned down these invitations, believing it her duty to draw attention to what had happened – and could happen again – and to speak up for those who could not. She deeply regretted that Harry died in the year before the book’s publication and did not share in the success that it brought.
An inspirational force, Helen is both mourned and celebrated by the cosmopolitan family of which she was so proud and by a vast network of devoted friends and admirers, on whose lives she had such a profound effect.
She died on December 31 and is survived by her sons Michael and Robin, her daughters-in-law Petra and Sarah and her grandsons Daniel and Benjamin.