Helen Lewis, born Katz, a young Jewish woman from a small town in the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia, trained as a choreographer, dancer and teacher at the renowned dance school in Prague run by Milča Mayerová, where, with little previous experience, she excelled and taught classes of her own. Helen still attended the school for a brief while after the Nazis occupied Prague in March 1939 and began to restrict movement on Jews, but Helen was unable to continue to dance in public.
Helen was first deported in August 1942 to the Czech town of Terezin (also known by its German name Theresienstadt) a garrison town north of Prague, established by the Germans in 1941 as a Jewish Ghetto. From there she was deported in May 1944 to Auschwitz where she and her husband Paul Hermann were separated and never saw one another again. Helen was deported in August 1944 to Stutthof Concentration Camp near Danzig, Gdansk in Polish, on the Baltic Sea and then sent to a sub-camp for heavy labour camp.
In her memoir A Time To Speak Helen talks of the Christmas show that she and her fellow prisoners were forced to perform at the guards’ will. Dancing the valse from Coppelia, and directing the Christmas show, Helen was able to rehearse indoors for a short time rather than taking part in the heavy manual labour in the Polish winter. Participants in the show were given additional rations which assisted in their survival. She tells us of the effect dancing had on her in the concentration camp: ‘I danced. Where was the hunger, the fear, the exhaustion? How could I dance with my frostbitten feet? I didn’t care or try to understand, I danced and that was enough.’
Helen survived the Holocaust and went on to marry her childhood friend, Harry Lewis, who had left Czechoslovakia before the war. He had seen her name on a list of survivors published by the Red Cross. Helen and Harry went on to live in Northern Ireland, and Helen taught, choreographed for theatre and opera and ran a modern dance school until her retirement. She was awarded the MBE in 2001 for her services to contemporary dance. Helen died on 31 December 2009 at the age of 93.
The English National Ballet explain the story behind Coppelia ‘Dr Coppélius, the toymaker, has created the lifelike Coppélia doll and wishes for nothing more than to bring her to life. He imagines that his dream has finally come true, but he has merely been caught up in a lovers’ tiff. Love triumphs over all in this comedy of mistaken identity and the finale is a breathtaking celebration of the lovers’ marriage.’
Dance groups may wish to perform or take inspiration from this story, alongside Helen’s experiences as part of their Holocaust Memorial Day activities.
You can read about Helen in A Time to Speak by Helen Lewis.