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Belfast pays Holocaust Day tribute to dance teacher Helen Lewis who survived Nazi death camp

By Rebecca Black

A survivor of a Nazi death camp who went on to inspire generations of dancers in Belfast is to be honoured.

Helen Lewis was forced to live in a Jewish ghetto in her native Czechoslovakia before being deported to Auschwitz during the Second World War.

She managed to survive the horrors of the camp, and after the war she came to Belfast where she started a new life. A noted ballerina and choreographer, Helen taught and inspired dancers in her adopted city.

She told her remarkable story in her book, A Time To Speak, before her death at the age of 93 in Belfast in 2009.

Her son Michael previously told the Belfast Telegraph that it took until the 1990s for his mother to feel like she had "something to say", but he revealed if his mother could have predicted the impact her words were to have she may never have penned them.

"She didn't write it for the public, she didn't write it with the idea that it would be a book. I suspect that if she had known the impact it would have she would never have begun," he said.

An Ulster History Circle blue plaque commemorating Helen Lewis's impact on the creative arts here will be unveiled on Friday, Holocaust Memorial Day, at the Crescent Arts Centre in south Belfast.

Chris Spurr, chairman of the Ulster History Circle, said the centre was chosen as a location for the plaque because Helen had taught dance classes at the venue.

"The Ulster History Circle is delighted to honour this exceptional person, whose life and work is an inspiration to all," he said. "It is fitting that the plaque to Helen Lewis is at the Crescent Arts Centre, where she taught dance for many years. We would like to thank the Crescent, and we would also like to thank Belfast City Council for their financial support towards the plaque."

The plaque is to be officially unveiled by Belfast Lord Mayor Brian Kingston.

Helen was born in Trutnov in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1916, and later studied dance in Prague. But her life changed forever when the Nazis invaded in 1939 and Helen, like thousands of other Jewish people, was forced to wear a yellow star and subjected to increasingly punitive laws. She was sent to the Terezin ghetto in 1942 before being moved to Auschwitz in 1944.

She has written poignantly about how she survived two "selections" by the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele before being sent to Stutthof concentration camp in occupied Poland where, despite being starved and frostbitten, she was forced to dance for her captors.

Liberation was bittersweet for Helen, who returned to a devastated Prague to learn of the deaths of both her husband and mother. Later she reconnected with an old school friend, Harry Lewis, after he spotted her name on the Red Cross survivors' list. The pair married in Prague in 1947 before moving to Belfast in October of that year to start a new life. Helen made her mark on Belfast, creating the first modern dance work in Northern Ireland for the Belfast Ballet Club in 1956. She subsequently founded the Belfast Modern Dance Group, whose first performance was in 1962.

She is credited with having brought a European dimension to dance in the theatre, and was honoured with an MBE in 2001 and honorary doctorates from both the Ulster University and Queen's University, Belfast.

As Northern Ireland remembers Helen Lewis, Northern Ireland teenagers are to be given the opportunity to visit the inotorious camp where she was imprisoned.

Education Minister Peter Weir, and Communities Minister Paul Givan, have announced a £180,000 fund to enable the Holocaust Educational Trust to deliver its 'Lessons from Auschwitz' Project to Northern Ireland's schools and colleges.

The announcement was made during a visit to Ards and North Down Museum where the ministers saw a Holocaust exhibition exploring the history of the Kindertransport - the rescue effort that took place to bring Jewish children to the UK during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Holocaust Educational Trust's project for post-16 students and teachers is now in its 17th year and has taken over 31,000 students and teachers from across the UK to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The four-part course, which is open to two students from every school and college in England, Scotland and Wales, will be offered to Northern Ireland students for the first time since 2008.

Events across NI set to mark a dark chapter in the history of Europe

Northern Ireland will mark Holocaust memorial day this week with events taking place across the province.

The day of remembrance takes place each year on January 27 to honour the millions who lost their lives during the Holocaust as well as victims of later genocides.

In Belfast, the Lyric Theatre has a reading of Mirad, A Boy from Bosnia, set during the Bosnian Civil War.

The Northern Ireland War Memorial museum  on Talbot Street will have a display of Holocaust-

inspired paintings by local artist Leslie Nicholl.

The Braid Arts Centre in Ballymena will host guest speakers, including the international documentary photographer James Hughes.

In Antrim, a screening of the wartime drama Sophie’s Choice, starring Meryl Streep, takes place in the Old Courthouse from 7.30pm.

For further details of all events visit www.hmd.org.uk

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