Belfast Telegraph

Holocaust exhibition inspired by Nazi survivor who made Belfast her home

By Claire McNeilly

An artist has turned the harrowing story of a Holocaust survivor into a triumph of humanity over inhumanity by producing artwork in her memory.

A series of paintings by Leslie Nicholl is being hosted by the Northern Ireland War Memorial museum (NIWM) in Belfast to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, which took place yesterday.

The exhibition - 'My Name Is Might Have Been - was inspired by the story of the late Helen Lewis, who survived the Second World War genocide and settled in Belfast.

Ms Lewis, a talented ballerina and choreographer, was forced to live in a Jewish ghetto in her native Czechoslovakia before being deported to Auschwitz, the largest Nazi death camp.

She survived its horrors, and when war ended she came to Belfast where she started a dance company and taught and inspired dancers.

Her book, A Time To Speak, which has been reprinted and published in many different languages, left an indelible impression on Leslie and was to change his life.

"It's a harrowing story with its humanity and, equally, its terrible inhumanity," the 63-year-old artist said.

"The book made a deep impression on me to the point that my wife Elaine and myself travelled to Prague and then to Auschwitz simply as an act of respect for Helen Lewis and her generation.

"I had no intention of painting pictures based on those dreadful times, but what shocked me was that for two years I was very upset and unsettled after the visit to Auschwitz.

"By chance I came across a box of cotton handkerchiefs lying about the house and one evening I laid a few of them on the wooden floor boards of my studio and started to paint and all of these ghosts of faces just came flooding from somewhere."

The former teacher, who lives in Bangor, said he painted 60 faces on 60 handkerchiefs in the studio of his three-storey Victorian seaside house, which he shares with his 62-year-old wife.

And he explained how he got the opportunity to actually meet Ms Lewis, for whom these artworks were painted, ahead of his first exhibition at The Engine Room Gallery in Belfast.

"The director Cliff Brookes asked me to visit the gallery as a lady wanted to talk to me about the exhibition," he recalled.

"I agreed to the meeting and, as I walked in, this tiny, gentle lady turned around to smile at me and I was utterly staggered. I was looking at Helen Lewis.

"She had already viewed the exhibition and asked me if she could open the launch - and that's exactly what she did."

He added: "I am, and always will be, deeply indebted to Helen Lewis, her kindness and generosity of spirit."

The work making up the new exhibition was originally titled 'Closely Observed Trains', and is now dedicated to her memory.

Six of the handkerchief paintings will be displayed - space is too limited to show all of them - but the rest of the work will be projected onto a screen.

The paintings show the faces of people who experienced the Holocaust, and have the names of various concentration and death camps printed on them using lead typeface.

One of the portraits is of Ms Lewis, and when the artist painted it he hadn't met her yet.

It is based on a photograph in her book taken when she was a child.

NIWM manager Jenny Haslett said: "The series of paintings My Name Is Might Have Been were donated to the museum in 2016 by the artist who felt NIWM was an ideal home for them.

"We hope the exhibition will be well attended by the public, who will be inspired to learn more about Helen's experience, which sadly she shared with millions of others.

"NIWM is delighted to have these paintings in its collection and is honoured to work with Leslie to exhibit them and highlight the life of Helen Lewis."

Ms Lewis died on New Year's Eve in 2009 at the age of 93.

My Name Is Might Have Been runs until March 29. Admission is free. For details visit the website, www.niwarmemorial.org

Belfast Telegraph

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