Why we mustn't forget the girl who danced for her life
As Holocaust Memorial Day approaches, Steven Jaffe pays tribute to Auschwitz survivor the late Helen Lewis
Published 07/01/2010 | 08:00
It was one of those bizarre occurrences when the Nazis combined high culture with their brutal killing.
On New Year's Eve 1944, 65 years to the day that she died here in Belfast, Helen Lewis was forced to dance for her captors and fellow prisoners at Stutthof concentration camp near the Baltic Sea.
Wracked by starvation, disease, extreme cold and the rigours of slave labour, she was only a week or so from death when the camp commandant, by chance, became aware of her pre-war career as a dancer.
With frost-bitten feet Helen was forced to dance the tango in front of the oberaufseherin (the head of the women's camp) and audition - quite literally - for her life.
A cold-blooded psychopath, whom Helen had witnessed shooting prisoners, the oberaufseherin ordered her to be put on special rations and nursed back to rudimentary health.
Why? So she could choreograph and dance in a series of Christmas shows culminating in Helen dancing Valse from Coppelia to SS guards and half-starved prisoners - all in the shadow of a nearby gas chamber and incinerator.
Once the shows were over Helen was returned to slave labour.
It was only one of many incidents, also dramatic, where Helen defied death. In the last days of the war during one of the infamous death marches across Europe she owed her survival to the individual acts of kindness of both German and Russian soldiers.
Not many people have described Belfast in almost fairytale terms as "that faraway city in foreign lands", but for Helen Lewis Belfast signalled a new life away from the horrors of Hitler's Third Reich and the encroaching communism of post-war Czechoslovakia.
She had enjoyed only a week or two of carefree marriage with husband Paul before the Nazis came to Prague and soon the newly-qualified dancer would be forbidden to perform in public because she was a Jew.
Much worse persecution was to follow and then deportations, first to Terezin and then to Auschwitz, where she was separated from her husband (whom she later discovered was murdered in April 1945) and where she survived a selection by the notorious Doctor Mengele.
For generations of Belfast dance students, when Helen rolled up her sleeves to demonstrate a routine they saw a number crudely tattoed on her arm. Many must have known what it signalled, but their teacher did not open a conversation on the subject and few felt it proper to ask. It was not that Helen was averse to talking about her experiences. She recognised the need to answer the questions of her two sons lest they grow up with ignorance and doubt.
But it was through friends, including the writers Jennifer Johnston and Michael Longley, that she was encouraged to talk to wider audiences.
Whether it was at Belfast synagogue or a cultural centre on the Falls Road, you could hear the proverbial pin drop as this tiny, increasingly frail and hard-of-hearing woman could command a packed audience of several hundred with her story - told with no self-pity and with very little hindsight or moralising, very simply, exactly as it happened to her.
Helen's life story remains enshrined in her book A Time To Speak, which has been translated into many languages including Czech and read by hundreds of thousands across the world.
There was also a one-woman show produced and performed by her friends Sam and Joan McCready only weeks before she died, at the Belfast Festival.
As Holocaust Memorial Day at the end of this month approaches there will be further tributes paid to her, but as one of the last Holocaust survivors living in Northern Ireland has now gone the question remains more pressing than ever: how will the lessons of where hatred and bigotry ultimately lie, the lessons of the Holocaust, be transmitted to a new generation?