Helen Lewis was born in 1916 in Trutnov in Czechoslovakia. She completed her grammar school education, then successfully auditioned for a place at Milča Mayerovà’s School of Dance in Prague. While studying for her diploma, she also began a course in Philosophy at the German University. She married in 1938, and in 1942, together with her husband Paul, she was deported to Terezín, the Jewish ghetto sixty kilometres north of Prague, and then in May 1944 to Auschwitz, where they were separated. After the liberation she returned to Prague to learn that her husband had not survived.
In 1947 she married Harry Lewis, an old friend who had escaped to Belfast just before the start of the war, and settled there with him the same year. After the birth of their two sons, she became involved in dance again, choreographing for theatre and opera. Her teaching eventually led to the foundation of the Belfast Modern Dance Group, which introduced modern contemporary dance to Northern Ireland.
A Time to Speak was first published in 1992 and brought Helen wider recognition as a writer, broadcaster and speaker. She often spoke about her experiences to community groups and in schools, a responsibility she took particularly seriously. Her contribution to the life of Northern Ireland was recognised by the award of honorary doctorates by the University of Ulster (1993) and Queen’s University, Belfast (1996) and by her appointment as MBE in 2000. She died on 31 December 2009.