Helena Katz (1916 – 2009)

Helena Katz was born on June 22nd. 1916 in Trutnov, Bohemia and after her Father died in 1934, Helena and her Mother Elsa moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia the following year, 1935. In 1936 Helena met her future Husband Paul Hermann, and after her Education had finished and she had qualified in Dance, Helena Katz became Helena Katz Hermann in June 1938. WhenHitler invaded Czechoslovakia and, on March 15th. 1939, the Nazi’s entered Prague, the Jews of Czechoslovakia came under constant pressure to live as the Nazi’s immediately enacted countless anti-Jewish measures.

Although deportations from Czechoslovakia were still some time away, and Jewish Families had only begun deportations around August 1941, life for the Czech Jewish population grew more and more difficult. On October 15th. 1941, some 1,000 Jews from Prague were transported to the Lodz Ghetto to already add to the debilitating conditions for Jews awaiting extermination in the Chelmno Death Camp, Poland. The following year, in 1942, both Helena and Paul and Helena’s Mother were detained within the Transit and so called model Camp at Theresienstadt, which Helena refers to as Terezin.

While Helena’s Mother Elsa was Murdered at the Death Camp Sobibor, most likely from amongst a Transport of those 1,000 Jews transported there from Theresienstadt on April 15th. 1942, Helena and Paul remained behind. Later on though, in May 1944, they were both transported away from Theresienstadt and toward their intended destruction at Birkenau. Here, Helena became separated from Paul in the tangle of Nazi diktats and demands issued to them as they arrived and they were Never to see each other again. Here, we learn partially of Helena’s experiences from that transport from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz and these evidences are seared into her memory.

Words are never enough to explain the terror nor the devasating effects such isolation, harassment, intolerance and human brutality towards oneself can ever relate, but they are recounted her in part. There was always the expectation of this though, of an arrival at a destination those like Helena undertook as Jews, and which No Jew was ever assured of the outcome as many 10’s of 1,000’s of those Jews brutally succumbed to the inhumane way they were mistreated. Here, these resettlement transports, which constitute an integal part of The Holocaust, and of all those 6,000,000 Slaughtered Jews.

“..If we had ever thought that 2 years in Terezin had left us sufficiently tough to bear any hardship ..first few minutes on ..train taught us otherwise. We travelled in conditions designed to inflict ..greatest possible suffering. Old and young ..invalids ..babies ..all crammed together so tightly it was impossible to move. There was no air ..no light ..no water ..one bucket. When ..train moved out of Terezin Station ..many panicked ..others wept ..a few prayed ..most sank into silent despair. At night ..train arrived in Prague and stopped there for a while ..a long line of sealed cattle wagons ..each with a tiny window behind a grille. ..must have been people on ..station platform ..people who saw and heard. What did they think ..what did they know ..how much did they care. Another day and another night and there were few left in ..wagons ..in full possession of their physical and mental capacities. ..dead were everywhere. Could one really pity them.” Helena Katz.

While we seek to recall, all we can find of these 6,000,000 Jews, those who were dead upon arriving at places such as Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka and here at Auschwitz and Birkenau, have mostly escaped the scrutiny of the time to which we search to find them. I am here though to remind us all Always to Remember, Never to Forget and also with an answer for Helena, one I suspect she knew for herself. For me, and it is a truth that those people not treated as the Jews were, thought they were fortunate not to be the Jews, knew every grizzly detail of the Jewish plight and did not care enough to be concerned.

This must have been a very difficult position for Helena to live with as it is a very sad indictment of what humanity had stooped to. But, and it is indeed remarkable that those like Helena came out of this hell to deliver back to Culture what was almost extinguished by the savagery. It is clear, that with the longer detained Jews in Auschwitz, and indeed within Birkenau, there were a milieu of Jews from the more recognisably religious and less assimilated Jews still living. These Jews, who would have made no similar sense of the reactions from most of Europe to the plight of the assimilated Jews as opposed to the very best of the Hassidim, were on an equal footing as Jews destined for annihilation. Within the Death Camp system, these differing Jews, and not necessarily on a national basis, and though they would have been separated by Culture’s more established over the 1,000 or 2,000 year presence of their Religious adherences. 

All Jews were equally Jewish under hate filled Hitler ideologies and the fact that these Jewish People were clearly set apart from the newer arrivals, by their customs and their long established traditions, altered nothing. This might have been wholly aligned to their religious education and upbringing, and this is telling, but this did not allow any opportunity for any Jew to escape the sentence which had been imposed upon all Jews. This is well recognised by Helena and as we look in on what this diversity within Judaism means, we accept that nothing other than the fact of their Birth decided their fate under Hitler’s resolve to exterminate them all. This position, which condemned all Jews, no matter their Religious conviction was to a certain death. As we become witness to Helena somehow avoiding 2 selctions conducted by Josef Mengele in Birkenau, we know All Jews Were Victims.

“..There were 300 of us ..who had ..been in Theresienstadt and ..Family Camp Birkenau. ..we shared a similar background and outlook. 500 prisoners ..arrived ..weeks earlier ..from Poland ..Baltics ..Hungary ..Romania. Most ..from a strict religious upbringing ..gave them a strong sense of identity. ..preferred to talk to each other in Yiddish ..which I ..didn’t understand.” Helena Katz.

Prior to her liberation, many Jews of Auschwitz and Birkenau like Helena, were forced to leave this facility of destruction and were routinely headed for places away from close detection and toward another false dawn. Helena landed at the Stutthof Concentration Camp, ostensibly a work camp for those still too many, of these very debillitated Jews unable for Labour. Helena could audibly hear the approaching Russian Army on January 27th. 1945 as she was perhaps fortunate to escape from the next detail. While being ejected toward another destination, Helena managed to escape and was afforded some assistance by the Russians in getting her home. Helena’s Husband Paul, who died at some time in 1945, having been forced to leave Auschwitz on a march to and from the Schwarzheide Concentration Camp, succumbed to the forced march which eventually killed him.

Following on from this and her eventual liberation, Helena returned to Czechoslovakia where a fellow Czech, Harry Lewis, whom she had known from her school days, reached out to her. Alone, and with the knowledge that both Elsa and Paul had become a part of the litany of The Holocaust atrocity, Harry returned to marry Helena in Prague, in June 1947. Harry had left Prague for Britain, prior to all that happened to Helena and during that October of 1947, both Helena and Harry left Prague, Czechoslovakia and the place of such trauma and moved to Belfast. As Harry had a dual citizenship with Britain, this facilitated their speedy emigration.

“..Survival was almost as traumatic as witnessing so many others die. It was very difficult even to try and see why I survived and others perished. It remains too difficult to understand or explain ..it was simply fate.” Helena Katz.

As a Survivor of The Holocaust, Helena chose to settle in the North of Ireland, where she became a renowned Dance Choreographer, a pioneer of modern dance and a Teacher of Contemporary Dance. Helena formed the Belfast Modern Dance Group in 1962 and is a Lady who lived to fulfill perhaps not all her dreams, but the promotion of tolerance and the exertation of her testimony was delivered so that more of us should learn from what she is a witness to. In 2001 Helena was awarded her MBE for services to contemporary dance and received honorary Doctorates from the University’s of Belfast, Queen’s and Ulster.

Helena wrote of her experiences in The Holocaust, and her Survival are detailed in A Time to Speak, which was published in 1992 and has been translated into varying languages. It is somewhat fitting that it was stage adapted for the Theatre and performed in Theatres and Synagogues, in 2009 and 2010. Sadly, Helena Katz Hermann Lewis (Helen Lewis MBE ) was taken from us on December 31st. 2009, at rest in her own home while she was only 93 years young. She is survived by her 2 Children.