BOOK REVIEW / Dance from the death march: 'A Time To Speak' - Helen Lewis: Blackstaff Press, 6.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
HELEN LEWIS is an Auschwitz survivor who came to Belfast after the war, and hers is a remarkable book - remarkable above all in its dispassionate approach to unimaginable experiences. There's some reason for feeling that, 50-odd years on, the last word has been said in the literature of the Holocaust, but A Time to Speak - written without undertones of bitterness or anger - shows that the subject is inexhaustible. The full horror of the events from 1939 on isn't shirked; indeed, every detail and every step in the catalogue of inhumanity is given its place - but temperately, without fuss. The style is plain and elegant, and sometimes you are brought up short by a comment especially pungent and unexpected ('I spent my first morning in Terezn dancing on the ramparts') or by an incident like the confiscation of the canary belonging to Helen Lewis's father-in-law in Prague, during one of the scourges inflicted on Jews in the run-up to deportation.

Helen Lewis was a dancer, and it was this - along with courage, integrity and soundness of mind - that enabled her to survive. If she hadn't been co-opted, in 1944, to help with a Christmas performance, the next stage would have been a lorry to Stutthof (one of the extermination camps). As it was, each successive episode in the saga of endurance marked an advance in suffering over its predecessor. The ghetto of Terezn, with its hunger, oppression, illness, idiotic tasks, work, cold, and the frequent deaths of inmates, would start to look bearable, in comparison with the afflictions to come.

Terezn was the first place of confinement for the young dancer and philosophy graduate and her then husband Paul (who didn't survive), followed by Auschwitz, Kochstadt, and then the 'death march' - the terrible trek before the advance of the Russian Army in January 1945. Only once, during this last ordeal, with liberation in sight, did Helen Lewis lose the will to live - 'I pulled the blanket over my face and gave up' - but, somehow, she kept going. All of this makes inspiriting, searing and enthralling reading. It is a book to cherish.