The Importance of Helen Lewis’s Testimony of Survival
By Katrina Goldstone
‘My survival still remains to me both a mystery and a miracle. That is because so many who were stronger, physically, and emotionally, did not survive. When I came back from the camps and realized how many had not survived, I saw it had no logical explanation.’ Helen Lewis
I once took part in a radio programme in Belfast with Helen Lewis, author of A Time To Speak. Her every gesture showed a dancer’s training. She spoke like one of my great aunts, in a heavily inflected accent, a poignant marker of the lost world of Mitteleuropa. Her expressive eyes were made up as if ready to step out onto the stage, to flirt coquettishly, eyelids fluttering over a fan, in a Viennese operetta, perhaps. It was almost impossible to imagine that the tiny, elegant, voluble woman across the table had been witness to some of the worst depravities of the twentieth century. Bizarre chance had brought her to Northern Ireland in 1947. Harry Lewis, a former beau from her teen years in Czechoslovakia, saw her name on a survivors list issued by the Red Cross. Harry tracked her down; they married, and Helen called Belfast her home till her death in 2009. Helen Lewis lived in Belfast for over 70 years, revolutionising choreography and performance in a place where European modern dance drawing on the expressive freedom of Rudolf Laban was almost entirely unknown.
In 1992, encouraged by family and friends, she published A Time To Speak, an account of her life before the war and incarceration in a series of Nazi camps. She was 76 years of age at the time of publication. The slim little book was reprinted in 2010, and Lewis’s life and artistry has since inspired both stage plays and art projects. Her spare, lucid prose account, championed by such Irish literary heavyweights as novelist Jennifer Johnston and poet Michael Longley, was significant not just because it added to the growing volume of testimony by women but also in relation to the context of where and when she was writing – Northern Ireland in the 1990s. Still six years away from the ceasefire of the Good Friday agreement, the region was scarred by violence and sectarianism, and yet for her it was home, a place of refuge. She recalled how difficult it was to even try to bring up her wartime experience: ‘Here, [in Ireland] after the war, there was total ignorance and not only that, there was a certain reluctance in people to hear talk about it, and so of course I never talked about it, as I felt it was an imposition. However, this has changed completely since my book came out in 1992. Here in Northern Ireland certainly, there is a willingness to learn and even a certain embarrassment about past ignorance.’
Born 1916 into a middle-class Jewish family in Trutnov, Czech Bohemia, Helena Katz was an adored only child, and her life was full of blessings. At six, she fell in love with dance. The idyll was disrupted in March 1939 with the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Germany and the imposition of its ‘Race Laws’. Lewis vividly delineates this cruel accrual of civic exclusions and their pernicious effects on Jews and non-Jews alike. Infinitely worse was to come. Lewis and her husband Paul were deported to the concentration camp of Terezín, then separated at Auschwitz. He died in Schwarzheide concentration camp; her mother in the hellhole of the Sobibór extermination camp. Lewis herself was an inmate in three very different camps during the course of the war – Theresienstadt, the ‘model camp’ used as propaganda by the Nazis to fool the world, then Auschwitz and finally a work camp by the Baltic, where a gruelling regime of brutal physical labour was enacted. As she learnt, life in Nazi captivity was not only dominated by immense cruelties, but survival itself was dependent on random chance, Primo Levi’s ‘a yes or a no’. On not one but two occasions, extraordinary coincidences meant that she evaded selection for death by Dr Mengele, even though her scarred body would surely have condemned her.
Lewis’s account was, at the time it first appeared, relatively unusual for its female perspective, for she described not only the very particular perils for women as camp inmates but also the role of women as camp guards. It still jars to read about the random brutality of a camp guard, and it to be framed with the pronoun ‘she’. Lewis would not label her book feminist, but her memoir came out at a time when new feminist scholarship shone a light on the gendered aspects of genocide. As academic Myrna Goldenberg noted, it was Nazi practice to disproportionately target Jewish women and children, treating women as ‘cell bearers’ of the ‘inferior race.’ The naked parades, intrusive medical examinations and the shaving of heads degraded women in fiendishly visceral ways. Lewis’s group of inmates were subject to resentment and envy when they arrived at a new camp, because they still had hair – matted and unkempt, but intact, nonetheless. Scholars identified the phenomenon of ‘camp sisters’ – bonding amongst unrelated groups of women for survival. Lewis vividly emphasizes this in her frontline report from hell. But she places solidarity and betrayal side by side in her story. An ally might save your life or crack in the disorientating world of the concentration camp. Lewis’s best friend, Mitzi, voted to abandon her on a forced march at the end of the war. Ultimately, Lewis hews to the belief that random chance had more to do with her survival than any spurious notion about ‘strength of character’. Lewis does not go in much for condemnation– she simply recounts. Except of course, the deceptively simple approach is informed by a writerly, observant eye. From the vast cumulative array of daily cruelties, she can distil the significance of a specific barbarity or act of kindness. New templates of heroism were created at Auschwitz, as well as new templates of cruelty.
Lewis, and this is the quality I most admire in her, is too clear-eyed to set much store by romanticising bravery in the surreal world of the camps, or making any ‘moral evaluation’ of human behaviour there. She steadfastly refuses to fall prey to redemptive interpretations. She can home in on bizarre anomalies – the existence of a kind SS guard, for instance – or write of the pain of betrayal in camp sisterhood. She is honest enough not to spin her own refusal to die in a snowy ditch as a moment of transcendent epiphany. She did not understand what persuaded her to rise from the shadowland of the dead and return to the living, to comrades who had previously decided she was doomed – and therefore a danger to them. It signified nothing noble. It happened, that is all. But she can contemplate the enigma of creativity within the universe of the camps, like that infinitesimal moment of happiness she savoured when she was recruited to a performance for the camp guards. Despite her exhaustion, performing cast some kind of weird spell, a fleeting infusion of energy. ‘Where was the hunger, the fear, the exhaustion?’ she asked. ‘How could I dance with my frostbitten feet? I didn’t care or try to understand, I danced and that was enough.’
Returning to read to Lewis after an interval of 30 years, I appreciate more than ever her quiet wisdom, and her refusal to fashion a morality lesson from the inventory of atrocities. It is many years since I last read a Holocaust survivor ‘s text. It is not edifying. One is struck only by the endless ingenuity of man, to devise ever more fiendish torments for their fellow man, rather than using the imagination to create transcendent symphonies, or luminous prose. Holocaust literature constitutes an aide memoire for the capacity for evil of the ordinary man – and as Lewis’s book reminds us – the ordinary woman. Lewis slips in one last grimly macabre tale, towards the end of the book, describing those limbo days between liberation and physical recovery, as she lay in a hospital bed recuperating. She recalled a day when sheer panic tore through the wards. ‘The woman “doctor” “with the sympathetic smile” had been recognised by patients as an SS guard from one of the camps, “a very vicious and brutal one at that”’. A former tormentor, now masquerading as a good angel, tended those bodies nearly destroyed by the regime in which she had operated as an overlord, as a purveyor of life or death. The inverse logic of the concentration camps had invaded even the healing domain. After the army major in charge confronted the ‘doctor’, the impostor confessed. ‘Two hours later a notice went up in every room that justice had been done and the woman had been shot. Lewis’s mode of bearing witness is neither to horrify nor to console, nor does it add heft to the deceit that there can somehow be a redemptive element in a Holocaust survivor’s narrative. Rather, Helen Lewis produced her slim volume whilst living in a society riven by sectarianism and violence, in which she was determined to describe racism and bigotry, and to map a cartography of all the crooked paths that lead to genocide.
Helen Lewis, A Time to Speak (Blackstaff Press, 2010) is still in print.
Katrina Goldstone’s study on Irish anti-fascist writers and the Thirties is available in the Routledge Studies in Cultural History series.