A Belfast-based author and choreographer who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp has been remembered as remarkable, inspirational and brave.
Helen Lewis, who settled in south Belfast after World War II, died on New Year’s Eve at the age of 93.
The Czech-born mother-of-two spent three months in the Nazi concentration camp and survived two so-called “selections” by the notorious ‘Angel of Death’, Dr Josef Mengele. During one such selection Mrs Lewis, whose first husband Paul was killed in the camp, cheated death by stepping out of a line heading for Mengele’s table into a line coming back for their clothes.
When Auschwitz was liberated in 1942 Helen, who was seriously ill with typhoid, was saved by her very own ‘Schindler’ — a Russian major who provided safe passage in the form of a scribbled note which acted as a passport that got her to her native Prague.
In 1947 she moved to Northern Ireland and married an old friend Harry Lewis, who had made contact after reading her name on the Red Cross survivors’ list.
Having made a new life in Belfast she became involved in dance teaching, choreography and enjoyed a long association with the Lyric Theatre.
Friend and neighbour, South Belfast MLA Carmel Hanna, led the tributes.
“I am deeply saddened at the death of my neighbour and constituent, the remarkable and indomitable Helen Lewis. In latter years I got to know her quite well, though I could never say that I was an intimate friend. She was a familiar sight at the shops on the Lisburn Road for many years, though she had become increasingly frail
“My proudest moment in my political life came in 1998 when I called at her house, told her I was standing for election and asked her for her vote. I had to speak in a loud voice because she was quite deaf. Helen, who was tiny, drew herself up to her full height and in her heavily-accented English said ‘My dear, who else could I vote for but a social democrat?’”
Helen Lewis’ book ‘A Time To Speak’, which was published in 1992 to document her experience in the death camps, was hailed by literary critics as a tribute to unquenchable human spirit of a most remarkable lady who endured the unendurable.
Junior Minister Robin Newton said: “I was sad to learn that Helen Lewis had passed away.
“She was a very brave lady who survived the barbarity of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, and when she settled in Northern Ireland after the war contributed so much to the community positively as a dance teacher and choreographer.
“She was able to tell first-hand the horrors and devastation caused by fascism, experiences she was able to pass on to school children and lessons that we all would do well to be heed today.”